President Donald Trump says the Soviet Union’s involvement in Afghanistan led to the regime’s collapse, but that wasn’t the only factor.
WASHINGTON – The Senate delivered a rare rebuke to President Donald Trump’s foreign policy Thursday, opposing his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and shrink American forces in Afghanistan.
In a bipartisan voteof 68-to-23, lawmakers advanced a measure sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warning against a “precipitous withdrawal” of American forces from Syria and Afghanistan. It was a particularly notable move coming from McConnell, who has been reluctant to criticize or cross Trump.Forty-three Republicans and 25 Democrats voted in favor of the resolution.
“The United States is engaged in Syria and Afghanistan for one simple reason: because our enemies are engaged there,” McConnell said from the Senate on Wednesday. “Dangers to us and to our allies still remain in both these nations, so we must continue to confront them there.”
McConnell’s resolution is nonbinding, but it showcased a public rift between hawkish congressional Republicans and Trump, who campaigned on a promise to bring American troops home from far-flung conflicts. Trump announced his decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria in December, declaring on Twitter that the Islamic State had been defeated.
GOP critics say Trump has minimized the ongoing threat from the Islamic State in Syria and is plotting a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan that could allow extremist elements to re-emerge in a country that once served as a base for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
“This policy directly undermines one of the two pillars of our strategy in this region, and that is counter-terrorism.” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said during the Senate debate Thursday. Rubio said it would also represent a “win” for Iran’s efforts to spread its influence across the Middle East, the second pillar and a top Trump administration priority.
In his speech Wednesday, McConnell invoked the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and suggested a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan could lead to more attacks on U.S. soil.
“It’s understandable that as we get farther from Sept. 11, many would grow tired of our military efforts a long way from home,” he said, but leaving “too abruptly carries its own grave risk.”
Several senators who opposed the measure, including a bevy of liberal Democrats, echoed Trump’s argument that the U.S. has been involved in these two conflicts for far too long.
“American troops have been in Afghanistan for nearly 18 years, the longest war in American history. Our troops have been in Syria since 2015 under what I believe are very questionable legal authorities,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent socialist from Vermont. “The American people do not want endless war.”
McConnell may have gotten fresh fuel for his proposal from a watchdog report on Afghanistan released Thursday. The U.S. inspector general overseeing Afghanistan reconstruction found insurgent forces increased their control over swaths of Afghanistan and the ranks of U.S.-backed government security forces have thinned to a new low.
McConnell’s provision is an amendment to a broader Middle East foreign policy bill. The legislation would authorize new sanctions against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and extend a security cooperation agreement between the United States and Jordan, among other things.
The Senate vote on Thursday comes amid increasing tensions among Republicans over the president’s foreign policy decisions.
In testimony before Congress earlier this week, Trump’s top intelligence officials contradicted the president on a broad range of issues. CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told lawmakers that the Islamic State remains a threat, that North Korea is unlikely to ever give up its nuclear weapons, and that the Iran nuclear deal is working. Republicans in Congress have also sharply split with Trump over his handling of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian operatives.
The Senate is expected to pass the underlying Middle East policy bill next week, although its fate in the House remains uncertain. The bill also includes a controversial provision, sponsored by Rubio, that would shield Israel from state and local boycotts that have pressured businesses to divest from Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.
Rubio’s bill would allow cities and states to penalize businesses or individuals who participate in such boycotts. The Florida lawmaker has said the boycotts amount to “economic warfare” against America’s closest ally.
But some Democrats strongly oppose the measure, saying it would infringe on free speech.
“The First Amendment protects the right of the people to participate in boycotts,” said Brian Hauss, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s speech, privacy, and technology project. “The government does not have a First Amendment right to boycott the boycotters,” he said.
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