WASHINGTON — Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., is upbeat about progress in both Iraq and Afghanistan after a recent trip to the region.
Bacon characterized the scene in Afghanistan as improving since President Donald Trump outlined an approach in August that includes additional troops and no calendar deadline for withdrawal.
Morale has improved among Afghan forces, and Taliban fighters have been losing ground even though they still control large swaths of territory, Bacon said.
“Can we sustain it? That remains to be seen,” Bacon told The World-Herald. But there have been gains since August, he said.
The war in Afghanistan is in the latter half of its second decade. Over the years, policymakers have talked often about increasing the independence of Afghan forces, Taliban losses and shifts in momentum.
But there’s little reason to think U.S. military operations there will be ending anytime soon.
Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said by email that he remains hopeful about Afghanistan and that the situation there is at least somewhat better than conventional wisdom would suggest — in part because conventional wisdom is so negative.
He described Trump’s strategy as more allied forces, less constraint on use of American airpower and more indefinite duration of the mission.
“I do think that President Trump’s strategy is an improvement,” O’Hanlon said.
But he also said that he would avoid heavy usage of the words “progress” or “optimism” and certainly “victory” or “winning.”
“I see the potential for progress, but over the last few years, in terms of security and politics and even economics, what one sees the most is slippage,” O’Hanlon said, adding that that may be hitting a plateau now. “For example, the fraction of the Afghan population living in areas controlled by the government is now only about 60 percent, having been more than 70 percent three or four years ago.”
Pressed on how long Americans should expect to be in Afghanistan, Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, noted that the United States still has a military presence in Japan and Germany more than 70 years after the end of World War II.
“It’s going to be a while,” Bacon said.
As part of its Afghanistan strategy, the Trump administration is sending thousands of additional troops, although the total number will remain a fraction of the force that was there at the height.
Bacon said he expects U.S. troops to play more of a background role. He applauded Trump for abandoning his campaign trail rhetoric about leaving Afghanistan and investing that money at home.
“I think he’s found the right balance in the strategy,” Bacon said.
Omaha’s congressman also hailed Trump’s talk of cutting aid to Pakistan in an effort to pressure them into helping more against the Taliban, which uses remote areas of Pakistan as strongholds from which to launch offensives into Afghanistan.
Bacon was among several members of the House Armed Services Committee who participated in the trip, which included some time aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier.
The weeklong journey included Christmas in Baghdad, where Bacon said the Islamic State militants have been decimated and Iraqi forces have found new cohesion.
“It’s really the first time we’ve seen since 2003 where you can sense some Iraqi pride and nationalism because they did most of the heavy lifting,” Bacon said.
Just like Afghanistan, Iraq faces its own challenges, however. Bacon noted the millions of internally displaced individuals, Iran’s continued meddling and questions about the future of the Kurds, who have pushed for independence.
But he said that overall the news in Iraq was good.
Bacon said he knows that some Americans, including a few at his town halls, are war-weary and wondering why the U.S. is still so involved in the Middle East.
America would pay a price if the Taliban were to control all of Afghanistan or Islamic State militants ruled Iraq, he said.
“If they did control all the territory they would export terror,” Bacon said. “So I think this is for us in the long run a more cost-effective way to protect the homeland.”
Three Midlands senators serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she also was encouraged by her own visit to Afghanistan and Iraq in November.
“For example, in Afghanistan, the implementation of the new South Asia policy is helping to strengthen the United States’ mission across Afghanistan by giving commanders the authorities they need, and in Iraq, we’ve seen all major urban areas cleared of ISIS,” she said in a statement. “These accomplishments are a significant step in the right direction, however we must continue to work with our partners in the region to build on this momentum and address the challenges that remain.”
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said in a statement that success in both theaters requires listening to commanders on the ground there.
“In Iraq, we must ensure the gains achieved by U.S. and Iraqi forces are preserved and guard against a premature withdrawal,” Fischer said. “Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, we are increasing our efforts to roll back the Taliban’s gains and bolster the unity government.”
A spokesman for Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., did not respond to a request for comment.
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