U.S. commander warns of risks from Trump’s troop withdrawal

Votel’s testimony clashes with recent remarks by the president, who has celebrated the complete defeat of the Islamic State

Army Gen. Joseph Votel says the Islamic State remains a dangerous threat and that the president’s plan to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan could be risky. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The U.S. commander in the Middle East warned lawmakers Thursday about the risks of President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw American forces from Syria and Afghanistan.

The Islamic State terrorist group is down to less than one square mile of territory in Iraq and Syria, but the group has made a “calculated decision” to lay low and remains a dangerous threat, Army Gen. Joseph Votel told the House Armed Services Committee.

Votel also said Russia reacted “positively” to the president’s December announcement of a planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria, saying Moscow views it as “an opportunity to fill the void.”

“It makes Russia a bigger player in the area. It puts Russia in the driver’s seat” in Syria, Votel said. “It solidifies their presence in the Middle East.”

Votel’s testimony contrasts substantially with recent remarks by Trump, who has celebrated the complete defeat of the Islamic State with only slight acknowledgement of the group’s persistent peril.

Trump has ordered the withdrawal of most of the roughly 3,000 U.S. troops that had been deployed in Syria to fight ISIS. In December he said “all” of them would come home “now,” but recently agreed to retain a force of some 400 troops.

The president also plans to withdraw in the years ahead most of the roughly 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where American and allied military personnel have fought for more than 17 years.

To achieve that, American diplomats are negotiating with the Taliban, the group that governed Afghanistan until 2001.

Votel, however, said military and political conditions do not currently warrant a withdrawal.

Moreover, he said, Afghan forces remain “dependent” on coalition support.

Several Republicans on the panel — notably Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Jim Banks of Indiana, Don Bacon of Nebraska and Elise Stefanik of New York — expressed concerns about negotiating with the Taliban, whom the members said is untrustworthy and essentially inseparable from al-Qaida. They also opposed talks with the Taliban that exclude Afghan government officials.

Regarding ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Votel said that, despite the seizing of almost all of ISIS’s previously held territory spanning hundreds of miles, the fight against the group and associated organizations is “far from over.”

The situation is “not the surrender of ISIS as an organization — but in fact a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons, or going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time for a resurgence,” Votel told the panel.

ISIS personnel remain “unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized,” he said, and the fight against the group is a “serious generational problem that if not handled properly will sow the seeds of future violent extremism.”

“We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization that includes leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and toxic ideology,” he added. House Armed Services leaders acknowledged the progress against ISIS but worried about the group’s ability to resuscitate.

“As a matter of fact, in some ways they have spread out and are more difficult to locate,” said Mac Thornberry of Texas, the committee’s top Republican.

Republicans were more vocal than Democrats at Thursday’s hearing in voicing their concerns about the risks of U.S. withdrawal from the longstanding conflicts in the Mideast, Southwest Asia and Africa, underscoring the unusual political situation Trump finds himself in regarding operations overseas. Democrats have traditionally been more eager to wind down the long-running wars.

The United States is withdrawing 10 percent of its counterterrorism forces in Africa, said Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser.

Florida Republican Michael Waltz worried aloud that ISIS is in fact expanding its influence, “growing and metastasizing particularly across northern Africa.”

Michigan Republican Paul Mitchell worried that this cutback in Africa “puts more people at risk.”

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