The Afghan war in particular could become a key campaign issue in the upcoming presidential cycle after a decade on the sidelines, and liberal Democrats in the House may have more leeway to raise objections to U.S. military involvement under Democratic leadership.
In an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday night, Warren took issue with the president’s style but not his position that the United States should bow out of what she called endless wars.
“I think it is right to get our troops out of Syria — and, let me add, I think it’s right to get our troops out of Afghanistan,” Warren said.
The position is further than other potential 2020 candidates have gone so far, but could open the door for other Democrats calling for a reconsideration of the U.S. mandate in Afghanistan.
Potential 2020 candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called Afghanistan an “unwinnable war” in 2008 and as a presidential candidate in 2016 said he opposed continuation of the Afghan “occupation.”
Joe Biden, who has the most foreign policy experience among frequently mentioned potential 2020 Democrats, opposed the large-scale troop surge when he served as Barack Obama’s vice president. He favored a smaller counterterrorism force.
Warren, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told interviewer Rachel Maddow that after 17 years of war there remain “lots of different problems in Afghanistan, and what seems to be the answer from the foreign policy establishment? ‘Stay forever.’ That is not a policy. We can’t do that.”
Warren, like other Democrats and some Republicans, took issue with Trump’s abrupt announcement via Twitter last month that he would immediately close out the troop commitment in Syria. Roughly 2,000 U.S. forces are there under a limited mandate authorized by Obama in 2015.
The announcement, in which Trump declared that the Islamic State had been defeated, prompted the resignation of retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis as defense secretary and the resignation of the lead U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the militant group.
“You can talk about our generals. I gave our generals all the money they wanted. They didn’t do such a great job in Afghanistan,” Trump said during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday that was open to reporters. “They’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for 19 years.”
Obama had approved an enormous expansion of the Afghan war during his first term in office — a “surge” bringing military gains that have now been substantially reversed. Obama also was unable to end the Iraq War as he had hoped.
Trump, who visited troops in Iraq last month in his first trip to a war zone, has said he supports the continuation of that mission. But he has ordered the gradual departure of about half the approximately 14,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The merits of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were a back-burner issue during the 2016 presidential campaign, despite Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine’s long-running effort to force a reconsideration of the George W. Bush-era war authorization.
Kaine annoyed some in the Obama White House by pushing for Senate review of the 2001 military authorization, and he argues that congressional oversight is even more essential now. Like other Democrats, however, he takes issue with Trump’s seat-of-the-pants style.
“I don’t trust President Trump’s ability to keep us safe by himself, and I’m very concerned that he’s making decisions that go against military advice, without consulting Congress or our allies,” Kaine said in a statement to The Washington Post.
In the House, antiwar Democrat Rep. Barbara Lee of California will continue her efforts to repeal the 2001 military authorization she said has now been used or misused in more than two dozen instances far afield from the original invasion of Afghanistan that it covered. She was the lone member of Congress to vote against the authorization, days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I’ve always considered this a top-priority issue,” Lee said in an interview. “It’s a blank check to use force anywhere in the world.”
Lee would not on speculate whether a majority of her colleagues would support a renewal of that authorization now. But congressional leaders of both parties have long avoided the question in large part out of concern that a “no” vote would undermine the president and existing military missions.
“The public deserve to understand the costs and consequences” of war, Lee said. “Congress has been missing in action.”
Lee may get new support from liberal antiwar Democrats who took their seats on Thursday, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. During her campaign, Ocasio-Cortez said she probably would not have voted in favor of any of the troop commitments approved since the start of the Afghan war, although she voiced some support for Obama’s rationale that his troop increase was an attempt to “deal with this mess of going into Afghanistan in the first place.”
The Afghan war has not been a major focus for new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and it is not clear whether she has much appetite for a major debate on the U.S. commitment there.
Pelosi led a congressional delegation to Afghanistan in March last year. “Our meetings confirmed that Afghanistan has come a long way with the support of the U.S. and other international partners but formidable challenges remain,” she said at the time.
Dan Feldman, who served as Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, supports the current Trump administration efforts to foster peace talks with the Taliban and said Trump undercut that effort by demanding an arbitrary drawdown.
But Feldman is not surprised that some Democrats align with Trump’s larger point on ending conflicts.
“There is definitely increased energy on the left about thinking through our Afghan strategy and certainly a feeling that after 17 years it’s time to bring troops home to some degree,” said Feldman, now with the law firm Covington & Burling. “After many years of it not being a front-burner issue for any number of reasons, there will be much more scrutiny on Afghanistan over the next two years in the lead-up to 2020.”