Then, a few minutes later, McCarthy suggested he would have “checked and maintained the Bagram Air Force base,” north of Kabul, as a permanent outpost to “look over the horizon” to deter future terrorist activity, a move Pentagon officials said would have required thousands of new troops on the ground for protection.
Finally, on Tuesday, McCarthy said he would defer to whatever the Pentagon’s leadership suggested on having a long-term military presence in Afghanistan. “You’ve got to let the military make that decision,” he said in a brief interview.
While President Biden’s heavily criticized withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a grave challenge for Democrats and their plan to focus on domestic issues, it has also exposed the extent to which Republicans have failed to put forward a clear worldview when it comes to foreign policy and military intervention, beyond their united condemnation of Biden.
The “America First” vision of former president Donald Trump — who cut the deal with the Taliban for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as part of his pledge to end “forever wars” — remains strong in most corners of the party on Capitol Hill. But some influential voices continue to espouse a strong interventionist approach most closely associated with senior leaders in the George W. Bush administration and their “war on terror.”
Still others, especially a younger crop of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, are struggling to forge a new identity that is both forceful against enemies yet maintains some Trump-like focus on not using U.S. troops abroad.
Into that divide stands McCarthy, who is poised to deliver an address Wednesday that will try to articulate a Republican national security vision for Afghanistan and the future. The potential next House speaker, McCarthy entered office in 2007 as a strong supporter of Bush and maintained close ties with figures throughout Washington who touted the Bush interventionist vision of national security.
By the end of 2020, and throughout this year, McCarthy has become a Trump supplicant, seeking the former president’s political help in 2022 midterms, and has brought on a former Trump aide to serve as a top national security adviser. On Wednesday, at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, McCarthy will speak along with Robert C. O’Brien, who served as Trump’s national security adviser when he agreed to the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
With little foreign policy background, McCarthy is an unlikely figure to try to thread the needle between the competing visions of Bush and Trump.
Across the Capitol, Senate Republicans skew a bit more toward the traditional hawk approach that was embodied by the late John McCain, the GOP’s chairman of the Armed Services Committee until his death three years ago.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) leaned heavily on McCain (R-Ariz.), who clashed with Trump on his nativist vision, and McConnell continues to call for a more forceful role in foreign affairs and has been deeply critical of both Trump and Biden’s handling of Afghanistan.
“The plight of innocent Afghans and the threats to our American homeland and American interests are going to grow and grow. We are less safe as a result of this self-inflicted wound. And this fight will not end just because our politicians want to wish it away,” he said Tuesday in a statement.
Biden on Tuesday challenged the critics of his withdrawal to defend keeping a U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and the toll that would take on service members, in what could be a sign of how his administration will try to stoke the divisions among Republicans if the party continues to attack him over the handling of the withdrawal.
“So, when I hear that we could have, should have continued the so-called low-grade effort in Afghanistan at low risk to our service members, at low cost, I don’t think enough people understand how much we have asked of the 1 percent of this country who put that uniform on, willing to put their lives on the line in defense of our nation,” Biden said.
Three times in the past week, McCarthy has surrounded himself with about two dozen Republicans who serve on committees related to national security or have served in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
This war council has blasted Biden and his top advisers, often focusing on the decision to abandon the base in Bagram in early July without any warning to Afghan allies.
“We have to have a base in Afghanistan,” Rep. Mike D. Rogers (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday at McCarthy’s news conference.
“I’ve been saying that for multiple administrations,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a Green Beret whose served in Afghanistan. He later worked as an adviser to Donald H. Rumsfeld, who served as defense secretary when the Afghan war started, and Vice President Richard B. Cheney during the Bush administration.
But barely half of the 20 lawmakers with McCarthy raised their hands when asked if they agree with Rogers and Waltz on a permanent force at Bagram, signaling that many Republicans, like Trump, are leery of permanent wars.
“If anything, our recent failures in Afghanistan demonstrate the systemic failures of nation building,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a Trump backer, said in an interview. “We could have stayed in Afghanistan another five days, five weeks, five months or five years, and it wouldn’t have changed the ultimate result.”
Gaetz said Republicans who suggest Trump wanted anything other than complete withdrawal were not listening to the former president’s clear wishes. “The military industrial complex wants to keep our nation in a condition of long-term, low-yield conflict, and that’s not something I support and it’s not something President Trump supports,” he said.
McCarthy struggled Tuesday with the idea of a permanent force in Afghanistan. “We need to have eyes and ears,” he said, taking two minutes to go through his critique of the Biden administration’s handling of the issue. “The priority right now is, what is the plan to bring people home.”
Biden’s actions have prompted Republicans to remain unified in their calls for action against the president.
Shortly after McCarthy addressed reporters, members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus made even more sweeping criticisms of Biden as well as far-reaching demands that included the impeachment of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the resignations of Biden, Vice President Harris and the administration’s top national security aides. They also called for the removal of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — but only after she calls the chamber back into session to consider legislation on getting the remaining Americans out of Afghanistan.
The Freedom Caucus is composed of Trump’s most ardent House supporters, including some members who have been as critical of the nation’s foreign entanglements as the former president.
But on Tuesday, several of them adopted arguments that would fit comfortably into the Washington national security and foreign policy establishment view of the withdrawal.
“Around the world, Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, at this moment, imminently threaten our allies, and we need to be certain that something like Afghanistan doesn’t happen to one of our other allies,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who has co-authored a resolution calling for Blinken’s impeachment.
Another member, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), said the nation’s “reputation worldwide has been savaged by the actions of our own executive” and spoke of allies’ “failed trust in America.”
A third member, Rep. Mary E. Miller (R-Ill.), said the Biden administration had betrayed not only the hundreds of Americans left in Afghanistan but “the allies we abandoned, the Christians that are going to be tortured and murdered, and the women and girls.” She added that she considered the Biden administration “just as guilty as the terrorists” for any harm visited upon them.
In an interview afterward, Higgins made comments that fit squarely within the Bush White House’s view of trying to build a nation in America’s image through military force.
“We absolutely should never have abandoned our military airfield in Afghanistan. That was never part of President Trump’s plan,” he said, suggesting it would serve as a deterrent. “A visible hammer that the Taliban and terrorist forces within Afghanistan would recognize and respect and fear, whereby perhaps a civilian and democratically elected government within Afghanistan could prosper and grow root.”