Q&A

Senate Demands Answers on Afghanistan Pullout

Lawmakers want answers from the nation’s top spy about the impact of a hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Sen. Angus King (I-ME) speaks with reporters following the weekly policy luncheons at the U.S. Capitol June 26, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Angus King speaks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on June 26, 2018. Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

The news that President Donald Trump wants U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by Election Day might’ve been lost amid a flurry of pandemic- and protest-related headlines, but a quartet of national security-focused lawmakers, including Maine Sen. Angus King, haven’t forgotten the story.

This week, King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, joined a letter to freshly confirmed Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe—whose confirmation he opposed—demanding details on the intelligence community’s plans to deal with an early withdrawal, which the senators warned could put U.S. troops at risk in the way that Americans found themselves under fire in Syria last year.

“I think President [Barack] Obama made this mistake in Iraq,” King told Foreign Policy. “If you tell the other side you’re going to leave by Nov. 3, 2020, they’ll go to the beach for two or three months and come back on Nov. 4.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Foreign Policy: What do you think the future of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan should look like?

Sen. Angus King: What worries me is that a precipitous withdrawal would essentially compromise or eliminate the anti-terrorism mission, and we’d be exactly back where we started.

The Taliban doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for ISIS, but they’ve always been pretty close to al Qaeda, and of course, the Haqqani network is really a part of the Taliban. There’s a real irony here. I’ve been on both the intelligence and the armed services committee for almost eight years, and during the Obama administration, the mantra was conditions-based, not calendar-based. The agreement that was signed in February was supposed to be conditions-based, and it appears now the administration, from published reports, is looking for calendar-based. The date I’ve heard is Election Day. That gets back to the basic motto of the Taliban, which is “you’ve got the watches, we’ve got the time.” You give them a date, and they’re going to wait and they will move. The question is a) whether the existing Afghan government, which is not all that secure, can resist being taken over by the Taliban, and b) if that happens, will the Haqqanis and al Qaeda be free to roam again, which puts us back at risk.

It’s important to emphasize that we’re not talking about 100,000 troops. What we’re talking about is enough troops, and I think the number now is about 8,600, to provide the level of protection necessary to maintain the anti-terrorism activity that is important in that region. 

FP: The Trump administration has put in place a variety of conditions it would like to see from the Taliban before reducing the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan below 8,600. What confidence-building measures would you like to see in place before the United States begins taking out more troops?

AK: I’d be delighted to withdraw below that number to zero if we had some confidence that the risk which took us to Afghanistan in the first place has been all but eliminated. But I think it would be a mistake to in effect, say, this is over, we’re leaving, and leave the conditions in place that were there in 2001 that put this country at risk. I’m the last person that wants to maintain troops in Afghanistan. But there was a reason for having gone in the first place, and the reason was al Qaeda and now the Haqqanis, and they’re still there. 

We made an agreement in February, with conditions, and now the administration appears ready to effectively declare victory and go home, even though the conditions haven’t been met. 

FP: You and your colleagues wrote that you are “concerned” about a “hastily-announced” U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan like the Trump administration’s abrupt drawdown of troops in Syria last year. Are you worried about a scenario where the United States has a small number of troops retreating under fire if theres a snap decision made to withdraw?

AK: Yes. I raised that at Director Ratcliffe’s confirmation hearing: I said, “Can you tell me a time you’ve ever differed with the president?” And he paused for a minute, and then he said, “Yes, the withdrawal from Syria.” I think there is an analogy here where the withdrawal from Syria appeared to not be based upon conditions or circumstances on the ground but has something to do with a deal with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, and I think this is a similar case.

Now, if we want to say as a country we’re willing to trade the 8,600 troops and the risks to them and the cost for an increased risk of a terrorist attack in this country or other parts of the world, then that should be an explicit discussion, that should be admitted as a trade-off. But to suggest that we can just leave with no negative likely results is not being truthful with the American people. You’re making the decision that involves a risk. Maybe after a while you judge that the risk is that al Qaeda is paralyzed or broken or incapable of mounting an additional attack, and you say, “OK, it’s not worth the 8,600 troops.” My impression from what I know about what’s going on over there is that that’s not a risk that we should be willing to take right now.

FP: Do you have any concerns that administration officials who challenge Trump’s desire to withdraw will get fired or tuned out?

AK: Of course. That’s absolutely a concern. The worst thing a leader can do is eliminate voices of dissent within his or her circle of advisors. For this president or any president to eliminate or stifle voices of dissent, as long as they’re based upon good faith analysis, is a huge mistake. That was the reason for my line of questioning with Mr. Ratcliffe. That’s why I ultimately voted against Mr. Ratcliffe, because I don’t think, given his history, he’s likely to stand up to the president, if it’s in disagreement with a policy that the president wants to execute, and that’s the ultimate critical role of intelligence. 

If you go back, in recent American history, most of the foreign-policy disasters have been, at least, related to if not entirely based upon cooked intelligence, intelligence that was skewed to meet the policy desires of the president or the secretary of state or the secretary of defense. That’s how you make big mistakes. The truth, in my view, although it may be uncomfortable for the president, is the biggest favor you can do him or her, because it assists them in making good decisions. If you have bad data, you’re going to make bad decisions. That’s what worried me about Mr. Ratcliffe—that he won’t do that. 

If you go back through my all of my hearings in intelligence and armed services, there’s a theme where I ask the same questions whether it’s a chief of staff with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a secretary of defense, the director of national intelligence, the director of the CIA, the director of the National Security Agency—will you tell the president of uncomfortable truth based upon the intelligence that you have, even though it goes contrary to the president’s wishes? If I weren’t satisfied that they would do that, I don’t vote for them. That’s why I didn’t vote for Mr. Ratcliffe. Although he told me he would, his prior history just didn’t square with that representation.

FP: What action do you plan to take if you dont get an answer from the administration here? Is there an avenue through the National Defense Authorization Act or an authorizing bill, an appropriations bill, or something like that?

AK: Since we just had our markup on the national defense bill, and it’s not public yet, I can’t respond to that question. But my intention is to continue to make the point. It’s conceivable that the conditions will be met by November. It’s unlikely, but it’s conceivable. But again, the whole idea—and I learned this from my Republican colleagues—is you should never have a calendar-based decision in a situation like this. It should always be conditions-based. I think President [Barack] Obama made this mistake in Iraq: If you tell the other side you’re going to leave by Nov. 3, 2020, they’ll go to the beach for two or three months and come back on Nov. 4. That’s just common sense. It should be based upon whether they’re meeting the representations and agreements that were made in February and whether there’s a reasonable assessment by our intelligence community, both in defense intelligence and civilian intelligence, that the control of al Qaeda, which is one of the conditions, has been met or not. And if it hasn’t, at that point, you make an assessment whether the risk of a resurgent al Qaeda is less than the risks to America by maintaining a fairly small force contingent in that country. But it ought to be explicit, it ought to be discussed, it ought to be understood, and it ought to be explained to the American people. And that you’re taking this risk and why you’re taking this and why it’s a reasonable risk today. That’s sort of where I come out.

FP: You mentioned that youre worried about the risk of cooked intelligence. Do you think that risk has gone up given the reforms that Richard Grenell enacted in his brief tenure as acting director of national intelligence that members of Congress said they werent consulted on?

AK: I think the danger is the chilling effect that goes through the community that basically says, if you tell the truth, you’re going to be in trouble, and your career is not going to advance, or you’re going to be moved out. 

I don’t know what the practical effect is. But logically it would seem that [former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence] Sue Gordon was passed over, a loyalist to the president with no experience was put in as acting, and then a loyalist to the president with minimal experience was put in as a full-time director. That sort of sends a signal that if you want to advance in this organization, you better toe the line, even though it’s contrary to what you know to be the truth. 

I think it’s very dangerous. It’s dangerous for the president. It may be comforting in the short term to be told what you want to hear, but if it’s not true, and it’s going to lead you to make bad decisions that are going to be harmful to the country, then it’s dangerous to you. Listen, I’ve been a governor, I’ve been a senator, and it’s hard to have somebody on your staff say, “Boss, you know, you’re really going down the wrong road here.” It’s just something that you have to have, and if you don’t, you’re going to be making bad decisions. I consider this doing a favor for the president, even though he doesn’t seem to want to hear it.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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