WASHINGTON — Freshman Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton urged President Barack Obama and others to rethink the United States’ approach toward Afghanistan in a speech Thursday at the United States Institute of Peace.
“If we proceed on the president’s proposed withdrawal plan, we are apt to see the same kind of disaster replayed in Afghanistan as we are seeing today in Iraq and in Syria,” said Cotton, a former U.S. Army captain who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
He emphasized that many slow and steady gains have been made in areas like health care, corruption, and restoring hope and dignity to the people over the last 14 years, but that those improvements don’t typically get reported by the media.
The most important gain, however, is the eradication of al-Qaida.
“It still is the one place we have defeated al-Qaida and expelled it and it hasn’t returned.”
Cotton said we must not forget that Afghanistan is where al-Qaida was born, and would love to return. The terrorist group is the reason the U.S. started the now 14-year-old war in the first place — a war he said is just.
He pointed out that the political balance there remains delicate, and that withdrawing at this point would not only jeopardize the progress that has been made, but could also set off a tragic chain of events by weakening the Afghan national security forces, giving al-Qaida or ISIS a chance to regroup there.
“Bad guys like to say ‘Americans have the watches, but we have the time,'” said Cotton. “The American withdrawal plan may prove them right.”
“One need only look west to Iraq. Against the best military judgment of his commanders, President Obama withdrew all troops in 2011, he said. “Things looked good at the time. Thanks to the bravery of our troops and skill of our intelligence and diplomatic professionals the war in Iraq was all but won. Al-Qaida in Iraq was defeated. But we managed to snatch disaster from the jaws of certain victory … and al-Qaida and Iraq morphed into the Islamic State.”
While recognizing it is a difficult step for any elected leader to modify a previous decision, he said Obama could find bipartisan support in Congress for continuing military operations in Afghanistan. He argued that members of Congress, and the American public, understand that Afghanistan is crucial to U.S. national security.
According to Cotton, the public, though war-fatigued over last 14 years, have recently been reawakened to the dangers in the area, and may actually be ahead of the elites on this question.
“Indeed we may be reaching the same troop levels we would have had in Iraq, only under much worse conditions.”
Cotton professed faith in new President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who was elected last September in the first peaceful democratic transition of power in the country’s history, calling him a “reliable partner for the West.”
The United States Institute for Peace likewise sees the situation in Afghanistan as a critical time of opportunity, even though most of the media attention these days is focused elsewhere in the Middle East on Iran and ISIS.
“It’s the crisis du jour,” Andrew Polich, a member of USIP’s congressional relations team, told The Daily Caller.
“Due to a shortened attention span, we like to see explosions and the Hollywood element, but stabilizing Afghanistan requires a long-term commitment.”
There were 24,000 troops in Afghanistan as of September 2014, according to Brookings Institution’s Afghanistan index. The peak came in June 2011 when the number reached 101,000. Senator Cotton said troop levels are predicted to drop below 1,000 by January 2017.