Questions Congress Now Must Ask and Answer

By Daniel DePetris

This Monday, President Donald Trump finally took the opportunity to explain to the American people why an expansion of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan was necessary to defend the country’s national security interests. Now that President Trump has become the third consecutive commander-in-chief to increase America’s commitment in Afghanistan, it’s time for lawmakers from both political parties and in both houses of Congress to press the administration for the details.

Trump’s address to the nation on the course of the Afghan campaign was long on aspiration and hopeful rhetoric but short on actual policy. The American people, —and most importantly the men and women of the armed forces who will be ordered into a combat environment, — deserve and require nothing less than a full, detailed, and comprehensive explanation of what the Trump administration defines as success, what an open-ended timetable will do that fifteen15-plus years haven't, what can be done with around 10,000 that 100,000 could not, and what the White House expects from the Afghan government.

Thankfully, Congress is perfectly capable of soliciting answers. Here are five questions that members should send to the administration in order to enhance their understanding of the president’s proposed course of action.

1.What does winning look like? President Trump used the word “winning,” “win,” and “victory” on a number of occasions throughout his speech, but he failed to articulate and clearly define what those words mean in the context of the war. This is the most essential question that Congress must ask. It is unsustainable and potentially dangerous for any country, let alone a superpower that has already sacrificed more than 2,400 of its soldiers and spent at least $700 billion, to engage itself further into an armed conflict without some idea of when the objectives have been met and when the mission can be declared over. 

2.How many troops will be sent? Trump refused to disclose publicly how small or large the troop surge will be, saying that “[w]e will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.” There may be some logic to keeping the enemy in the dark, but there is a responsibility for America’s elected officials to comprehend just how many of their constituents will be deployed to a war. As an independent and co-equal branch of government with primary oversight responsibility in the U.S. Constitution, it would be a dereliction if Congress failed to ask this most obvious of questions.

3.What conditions are placed on the Afghan government? Trump correctly identified that American military and financial assistance to the Afghan government will continue to fail without substantial reform. What he didn't explain, however, is what those reforms would look like or what conditions Washington expects Kabul to meet. Promoting a conditions-based approach to warfighting and attaching it to the host nation’s willingness to get its own house in order is smart, especially in a place like Afghanistan where corruption is embedded within the political system. But the conditions need to be spelled out both to the Afghan government and to American military and civilian personnel in country if the scheme has any chance of working. Otherwise, the Afghans could discover one day that what they managed to accomplish wasn't enough in the end to warrant more U.S. support.  With a war that is already the longest in America’s history, it is only fair for the country and the troops to be given some clear benchmarks for the Afghan government to meet.  Without them, it was be nearly impossible for the country to hold the administration accountable to its “no-blank check” promises.

4. How much will it cost? According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the U.S. has spent $714 billion in warfighting and reconstruction costs in Afghanistan since FY2002.  Congress appropriated more than $4 billion to the Afghan national security forces for FY2017 alone, a price tag that will presumably go up now that the administration’s has settled on a new strategy that will require more American trainers over a longer period of time. Americans ought to know how much more of their taxpayer dollars will be diverted to America’s longest war.

As the authorizers and appropriators of the people’s money, the Armed Services, Budget, and Appropriations committees must force the administration officials to come up with a number. This war is has been paid by credit card for far too long, with the bill contributing to an immoral $20 trillion national debt.

5. What will our NATO allies chip in? “We will ask our NATO allies and global partners to support our new strategy with additional troop and funding increases in line with our own,” Trump declared. How many troops NATO will send and how large a check it will cut, however, is a mystery. Operation Resolute Support is indeed a NATO mission, even if the U.S. is on the hook for most of the manpower. Yet if Washington is being asked to step up, America’s European allies operating alongside the U.S. also have a responsibility to step up. The plan that Trump outlined on Monday is as much NATO’s as it is America’s. The administration is confident that NATO will rise to the occasion; Congress should hold the administration to it.

Trump’s decision to prolong and expand the war in Afghanistan goes against the realistic foreign policies that got him elected. Members of Congress must do its and hold the administration accountable.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The National Review on August 27, 2017. Read more HERE.