WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee expects the United States will have troops stationed in Afghanistan for another decade, potentially pushing the war there into its 26th year or beyond.
In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Republican Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker — who announced this week he plans to retire from Congress in 2018 — said Afghan security forces today are still dependent on the United States, and appear to remain that way for years to come.
“Are we likely to have troops in Afghanistan for the next decade? Sure,” he said.
Corker entered the Senate in 2007, with the Afghanistan war already in its fifth year. U.S. end strength totals in the country peaked above 100,000 in late 2010, but steadily drew down to less than 10,000 deployed servicemembers during President Barack Obama’s administration.
Critics — including Republicans in the Senate and President Donald Trump — have pushed for a reversal of that drawdown for years. In August, Trump announced a change in U.S. strategy in the region, to include a plus-up for forces back above 10,000 this fall.
Corker, who has been critical of Trump’s penchant for using social media and public comments on sensitive political topics, praised the president for showing the courage to “change long-held positions about Afghanistan.”
But he did not say those changes would result in quick or easy fixes for the war-torn region.
“The entire (gross domestic product) of Afghanistan cannot support even their security forces,” he said. “The likelihood of us having troops there, some level of troops … but what matters is what are they doing. What are those troops doing?”
Trump has repeatedly promised to loosen restrictions on rules of engagement for troops not just in Afghanistan but also in other regions of the world. But military officials said the U.S. role in Afghanistan remains primarily a training and assistance mission, with Afghan troops taking the lead on efforts to root out insurgent fighters.
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. are scheduled to testify before House and Senate defense panels on Tuesday to discuss progress in Afghanistan, and what the president’s recent changes mean for troops currently stationed there.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said at a defense hearing last week that lawmakers still have not gotten sufficient information on the new Afghanistan strategy, leaving them with “far more questions than answers” about long-term plans for military missions there.