Democrats to press Trump's pick for US ambassador to Afghanistan over vague strategy, troop increases

WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers plan to grill President Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan over the administration’s vague plans, including the possibility of deploying more troops there.

Trump’s selection for the post — John Bass, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey — would be the face of American diplomacy where the U.S. has been at war since shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Trump, after months of deliberation, in a speech Aug. 21, called for sending more U.S. and NATO forces to Afghanistan, more pressure on local and regional leaders to increase their responsibilities in the fight, and a conditions-based approach for withdrawing forces.

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and other Democrats have assailed Trump for his lack of specificity.

“It’s unclear the end-game on troop strength, and that for me has been a problem with the Trump administration; We don’t have a clear policy,” Cardin said. “I understand the desire to have additional troops to meet that mission. What I don’t know is whether that is part of a plan to increase our overall military strength in Afghanistan—which I am opposed to.”

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Tuesday’s hearing follows the Pentagon’s revelation last month there are 11,000 American troops in Afghanistan, 2,600 more than it previously acknowledged. It comes a week after senior administration officials, including Defense Secretary Mattis, held a classified briefing for members of Congress on Afghanistan that fleshed out Trump’s strategy.

Likely the hearing will be dominated by questions for Trump’s pick for undersecretary of state for management, top GOP budget aide Eric Ueland. While the administration has sought to shrink and reorganize the State Department, Democrats and Republicans have ripped the president’s diplomacy and development budget requests as grossly inadequate.

Cardin said he would questions what he has called a mismatch between the State Department and Defense Department budgets—which has reversed American leadership abroad and demoralized the diplomatic workforce. Plus, any efforts to manage post-conflict Iraq and Afghanistan appear underfunded, he said.

“They cut the budget on post-conflict, and you’re trying to end an open conflict where you don’t have the funds in there to provide the stability afterwards, you’re going to be right back in terrorist safe havens,” Cardin said.

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Another member of the committee, Sen. Patrick Murphy, D-Conn., shared Cardin’s concerns, saying it was unclear how the U.S. emerges from Afghanistan with a “gutted” State Department.

“I can understand how the increase in troop size can make difference, but not if you have no funds at the State Department to help continue the political transition,” Murphy said. “This is a military surge without a diplomatic or political surge.”

Conservatives, on the other hand, have praised the administration’s strategy for placing more pressure on Pakistan. Ties between Islamabad and Washington have grown tense since Trump accused it of sheltering militants who battle U.S. forces across the border in Afghanistan.

“It’s a few thousand troops, but it puts Pakistan on notice; If you’re supporting terrorists who kill Americans and go back to the Pakistan side, we’re going to hold you accountable,” said South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “You need an ambassador who can hold people’s feet to the fire.”

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Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has announced plans for a September hearing on the administration’s Afghanistan strategy. Though he voiced faith in Mattis, he wants the administration to provide more details about how it will accomplish its plans.

“Mattis had a pretty good outline, but there’s a lot of things we’ve got to do to implement that strategy,” McCain said of the recent briefing to lawmakers. “We’re going to have to increase troops, we‘re going to have to change the rules of engagement, training. There’s a whole lot of things besides just additional troops.”

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