WASHINGTON ― As U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to cut American boots on the ground in Afghanistan, he owes the American people a clearer explanation for U.S. military’s activities there, the House Armed Services Committee’s top Republican said Thursday.
Trump, like former President Barack Obama, has not provided a “high-level explanation” of the Afghanistan mission or its goals, which has helped erode public support, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said on a C-SPAN “Newsmakers” program set to air Friday night.
“If you don’t hear that month after month, year after year, that starts to affect the way the American people see the mission, so I think they are owed that," the HASC ranking member said.
The comments came days after a blockbuster Washington Post report that the U.S. government across three White House administrations misled the public about failures in the Afghanistan war, often suggesting success where it didn’t exist. That report, which details internal frustrations with America’s ever-changing strategy, has fed calls to end the 18-year-old war.
The report prompted HASC Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., to agree to hold hearings, and it prompted Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to demand the Senate take up his legislation with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
On the same day, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a closed hearing on Afghanistan with Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller, the 17th commander to oversee the American and NATO mission in Afghanistan, and Randall Schriver, the Defense Department’s departing Asia policy lead.
House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., announced Tuesday he would hold a hearing in the coming weeks with the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko.
“This week’s reporting confirms many of my concerns about the lack of a coherent and achievable strategy to ending the war in Afghanistan, and the committee will continue to seek answers about what went wrong in Afghanistan and how to bring the war to an end,” Engel said.
Trump, in an unannounced Thanksgiving visit to American troops in Afghanistan, said he had restarted peace talks with the Taliban and that he wanted to halve the American military presence, which stands at about 13,000.
The Pentagon is considering several options to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan, including one that would shift to a narrower counterterrorism mission, the top U.S. military officer told Congress on Wednesday. Gen. Mark Milley, who serves as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not disclose potential troop totals, but he agreed that leaving a minimal U.S. footprint in Afghanistan to battle terrorists is a potential move.
“We have multiple options, that’s one of them,” he said.
The U.S. has about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan. About 5,000 of them are executing counterterrorism missions. The remainder are part of a broader NATO mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who testified alongside Milley, said commanders have reported that the U.S. can reduce its presence in Afghanistan while still performing the counterterrorism mission.
“I’m interested in reducing our force presence,” Esper said, so that some portion of the troops now based in Afghanistan can be reallocated to other parts of the world to bolster U.S. preparedness for potential conflict with China or Russia. Esper has said he is reviewing U.S. military missions worldwide to determine how many can be reallocated in that manner.
In the interview, Thornberry allowed that U.S. troop numbers could be reduced, depending on conditions in Afghanistan and so long as there was “reciprocity” from the Taliban. He expressed confidence in U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan and negotiators, but was skeptical about the talks: “I trust the Taliban as far as I can throw them."
Still, Thornberry defended the idea of a retaining some American boots on the ground as a means to guard against future attacks on the U.S. homeland.
“While it’s not in the news a lot these days, I believe ― based on very good information ― that there is still a significant terrorist threat in Afghanistan that threatens our homeland,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.