Republican uproar over Afghanistan and Iraq withdrawals exposes divide that will last long after Trump is gone

Republicans have loudly protested outgoing administration’s decision to draw down US troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 apiece

Mitch McConnell rebukes Trump's planned Afghanistan troop withdrawal

Donald Trump’s move to withdraw more US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan once again exposed the wedge he has driven in the Republican party on US foreign policy in the Middle East over the last four years, with the GOP’s pro-intervention establishment on one side and its isolationist faction on the other.

And if the recent comments of House and Senate Republican leaders assailing the president’s latest troop drawdown are any indication, that rift isn’t healing anytime soon.

Recalling thousands of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to bring the US military presence there down to 2,500 personnel apiece would “hand a weakened and scattered al-Qaeda a big, big propaganda victory and a renewed safe haven for plotting attacks against America,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a grave speech on the chamber floor on Monday.

On Tuesday, several other traditional Republican leaders weighed in to oppose the president’s removal order, which comes as his administration insists the Taliban is following through on a host of peace-keeping promises it made in a deal struck with the US’ NATO allies earlier this year.

“I don’t know of any condition which justifies reducing further the troops that we have in Afghanistan,” Texas Congressman Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters at a Heritage Foundation event this week.

“As a matter of fact I think it undercuts the negotiations to say, ‘Well, whatever you do or don’t do, we are going to reduce our troops even further.’”

A recent report from Acting Defense Department Inspector General Sean O’Donnell concluded it was “unclear” whether the Taliban was actually meeting its obligations.

“While the Taliban has generally honored its obligation to cease attacks against U.S. forces and interests in Afghanistan, it is difficult to discern the extent to which it is meeting the requirement that Afghanistan not serve as a haven for terrorists who threaten the United States,” Mr O’Donnell wrote. “Furthermore, the Taliban has escalated its attacks on Afghan forces, which threatens to derail the peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government that began this quarter.”

But while Mr Trump’s latest moves in Afghanistan and Iraq have roused Capitol Hill Republicans from their slumber, the most aggressively anti-war voices in Washington are careful not to overstate the president’s achievements.

Even though Mr Trump talks endlessly about drawing wars in the Middle East to their conclusion, he hasn’t actually accomplished that. While he has withdrawn considerable numbers of troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria throughout his administration, there are more troops in the Middle East as a result of his hawkish stance towards Iran.

“There hasn't been a lot of action to go with the talk from the Trump administration,” said Benjamin H Friedman, the policy director of the anti-war conservative think tank Defense Priorities.

While Mr Friedman admits Mr Trump hasn’t inserted the US military in any new conflicts during his time in office and the administration’s progress towards ending the war in Afghanistan is “notable” and “laudable,” it has “continued all the wars” it inherited from Barack Obama’s administration, he said.

There is also the fact that Mr Trump has escalated bombing campaigns in several countries since taking office after relaxing the rules of engagement for the military to authorise strikes.

US forces dropped a record 7,423 bombs in Afghanistan last year, more than any other year since the conflict began. Civilian casualties also rose dramatically in Iraq and Syria in the fight against Isis. In Yemen, independent monitoring group Airwars said the US air campaign “significantly escalated under Trump, with dire consequences for civilian harm,” claiming that at least 86 civilians had been killed in the country during his presidency.   

But even if his actions have not matched his rhetoric in the minds of anti-interventionists, that rhetoric has still had a clear impact on the GOP landscape.

Mr Trump’s stated goals of drawing down operations in the Middle East — and his aversion to new invasions — have shifted the views of the Repulican electorate away from simply accepting the GOP’s interventionist foreign policy consensus in Washington.

There has always been a dissonance between the strong convictions of Republicans in Washington about US overseas intervention and how Republicans across the rest of the country have felt, Mr Friedman said. Republican voters just haven’t traditionally cared as much about foreign policy as those in power positions have.

“Foreign policy issues… tend not to be that salient in most elections. That's not why people vote one way or the other,” Mr Friedman said.

Mr Trump was not the first Republican to adopt anti-war positions as a key pitch in his platform. And he’s hardly the most fiercely anti-war conservative in Washington.

That would be Senator Rand Paul, the libertarian rabble-rouser who has crossed the aisle for years to work with some of the most ardently anti-war Democrats on Capitol Hill on measures to curtail executive authority over the US’ overseas military affairs.

The Kentucky Republican opposed several of the president’s most hawkish appointments to positions overseeing international affairs, including Mike Pompeo to be CIA Director in 2017, Gina Haspel to be his successor, and William Barr to be attorney general.

Mr Paul has joined hands with Senate Democrats, including Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, to oppose the Pentagon’s ongoing support for Saudi Arabia’s operations in the civil war in Yemen as well as the Trump administration’s escalation of tensions with Iran.

He has spent the last four years encouraging Mr Trump’s anti-war propensities for small victories like the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, even if the president has undermined his own goals in the Middle East by playing brinkmanship with Iran.

Mr Trump’s alignment with some of Mr Paul’s views have ushered anti-war conservatism into the mainstream.

“Trump sort of exploited it and I think probably made it likely that more Republicans will follow in his footsteps in a kind of limited support for getting out of wars,” Mr Friedman said.

That support for Paul-esque anti-interventionism is “limited” because it’s just one aspect of the broader Trumpian foreign policy that Mr Friedman describes as “kind of confusingly hawkish,” in that it “relies heavily on the shell of military power and threats to bomb people” but is “not enamored of continuing wars for a long time,” he said.

To be clear, Mr Trump’s anti-war sympathies haven’t irreversibly turned the tables on the GOP establishment’s position in the Middle East, even if he has won over a large swath of conservative voters.

The Trump Experiment hasn’t produced a “sharp lurch” towards the president’s views among Republicans in Washington, Mr Friedman said, and Mr McConnell will continue trying to wrestle back control of the post-Trump foreign policy debate.

The GOP’s foreign policy schism is here to stay.

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