Key lawmaker hunts paper trail of Pentagon, State Department resistance to Afghanistan troop cuts

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WASHINGTON ― Amid reports ousted defense secretary Mark Esper raised concerns about U.S. troop cuts in Afghanistan in a classified memo to the White House, the Democratic-led oversight panel has asked the Trump administration to turn over all internal documents relevant to the pullout decision.

Democrats are apparently seeking the paper trail behind military and civilian officials who advised President Donald Trump against an accelerated withdrawal and said the Taliban had not met pledges to reduce violence. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., was among lawmakers who have expressed fears the pullout might leave Afghanistan a haven for terrorists who want to attack the U.S. or allies.

In a letter Tuesday, Lynch, who chairs the House Oversight Committee’s subpanel on national security, asked acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to share documents concerning Taliban compliance with its peace deal with the U.S., and the administration’s internal communications on the decision, including classified documents like the Esper memo.

“The President’s decision to order the withdrawal of additional U.S. forces from Afghanistan was apparently made over the objections of former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who reportedly sent a classified memorandum to the White House cautioning against further troop reductions, citing ‘ongoing violence, possible dangers to the remaining troops in the event of a rapid pullout, potential damage to alliances and apprehension about undercutting [intra-Afghan] negotiations,’” Lynch’s letter reads, quoting a report in The Washington Post.

Trump’s order to cut the U.S. military presence to 2,500 troops from Iraq and Afghanistan by Jan. 15, seems to run counter to longstanding advice from U.S. Central Command leader Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie and others. CNN reported that the commander of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin Miller, stated that the necessary conditions had not been met, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley had agreed.

Democrats trawling for documents could illuminate a rare dustup between Milley and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien across several separate public appearances. When O’Brien said last month that U.S. troop levels would be down to 2,500, Milley ― who had pledged that a withdrawal would be “conditions-based” ― dismissed that as “speculation,” which in turn prompted O’Brien to fire back: “It’s not speculation. That’s the order of the commander in chief.”

After the administration announced plans to reduce troops to 4,000 and 5,000 troops by the end of November, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad told Congress Sept. 22 that the U.S. would have to evaluate further cuts based on the peace deal with the Taliban and “whether the conditions are such that further reduction will not undermine our ability to carry out the mission that the United States is committed to in Afghanistan.”

A month ago, Khalilzad warned that the continuing violence in Afghanistan was so bad that it might derail the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government.

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Amid the mixed reactions from Congress to the troop cuts, Lynch is not the only lawmaker who is probing the Pentagon and State Department.

On Wednesday, Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who co-chair the Congressional Iraq Caucus, wrote Miller and Pompeo to ask how the reductions would affect the threat of terror attacks linked to Iraq and Afghanistan ― among other questions. They expressed concern about Islamic State activity in Afghanistan and Iranian influence in Iraq.

“Intelligence shows that both issues are destabilizing factors in a critical region, and minimizing our military and diplomatic footprint allows malign forces to fill the vacuum we create,” they said, adding that there, “must be a well-structured transition of operational control to Iraqi and Afghani security forces.”

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