By Karoun Demirjian,
Sen. John McCain on Thursday unveiled a plan to increase U.S. air and ground forces in Afghanistan that would likely bring some American soldiers closer into harm’s way — a move that in effect rebukes President Trump, who has not yet decided on his preferred way forward in the war.
McCain (R-Ariz.) promised to present his plan as an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill, which he intends to return to Washington, D.C. to shepherd through the Senate in September.
The senator is currently undergoing treatment for a recently diagnosed brain tumor, but congressional Democrats and Republicans alike have said they will change the Senate schedule to ensure that McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is able to steer the massive $700 billion measure.
McCain hasn’t shied away from crossing Trump on key policy issues. Last month, he voted against the president on the health-care overhaul bill, effectively ending the chances to pursue a “repeal and replace” measure in the Senate. And since last year, he has consistently excoriated Trump for not taking the threat of Russian meddling in U.S. elections more seriously.
But Afghanistan is a particularly troubling issue for McCain, who has long been impatient with the White House for not providing a cohesive strategy for its combat operations in the war-torn country. For eight years, McCain railed against the Obama administration for the lack of a satisfactory plan, and he has warned the Trump administration that if it failed to articulate something better than “a ‘don’t lose’ strategy,” he would attempt to force the president’s hand by demanding a vote on a plan as part of the defense bill.
On Thursday, McCain apparently lost his patience.
“Nearly seven months into President Trump’s administration, we’ve had no strategy at all as conditions on the ground have steadily worsened,” he said in a statement released along with the plan. “We must face facts: we are losing in Afghanistan and time is of the essence if we intend to turn the tide.”
Trump has also been frustrated with the protracted war in Afghanistan, but has been sitting on proposals from the Pentagon to increase troop levels as he wrestles with his two priorities: to win the war in Afghanistan to get U.S. troops out as quickly as possible.
In contrast, McCain’s plan outlines short- and long-term goals that envision a U.S. presence on the ground — an approach “to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a sanctuary for terrorists to plot and conduct attacks against America.”
McCain does not outline specific troop numbers. But among his plans is a proposal to integrate U.S. military training and advisory teams at the battalion level of the Afghan armed forces known as “kandaks” — each of which has about 600 troops in it. That commitment would by necessity raise the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan significantly, and put those troops — even in their advising and training roles — closer to combat.
McCain’s plan also envisions more U.S. air power and combat support for the Afghan military, and expects that “in the long term” the United States will provide “sustained support” for those troops, even as Afghan forces become more self-sufficient.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.