WASHINGTON — In a rebuke of President Donald Trump, Arizona Sen. John McCain declared Thursday that "America is adrift in Afghanistan" as he unveiled a war strategy of his own that includes more U.S. combat forces and greater counterterrorism efforts.
McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. needs to put strict conditions on continued assistance to Afghanistan requiring Kabul to demonstrate "measurable progress" in curbing corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and improving the government's financial transparency.
"Nearly seven months into President Trump's administration, we've had no strategy at all as conditions on the ground have steadily worsened," said McCain, a leading voice in Congress on national security matters. "The thousands of Americans putting their lives on the line in Afghanistan deserve better from their commander in chief."
McCain said he'll seek a vote on his "strategy for success" in Afghanistan when the Senate returns in September and takes up the annual defense policy bill. His plan doesn't say how many more U.S. forces should be sent to Afghanistan.
Frustrated by his options, Trump has withheld approval of a long-delayed Afghanistan war strategy as he searches for a plan that will allow American forces to pull out once and for all.
The United States has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan, and Trump has so far resisted the Pentagon's recommendations to send almost 4,000 more Americans to expand training of Afghan military forces and beef up U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida, a growing Islamic State affiliate and other extremist groups. But the troop deployment, which would augment an already existing U.S. force of at least 8,400 troops, has been held up amid broader strategy questions, including how to engage regional powers in an effort to stabilize the fractured nation.
These powers include U.S. friends and foes, from Pakistan and India to China, Russia and Iran. Pentagon plans aren't calling for a radical departure from the limited approach endorsed by former President Barack Obama, and several officials have credited Trump with rightly asking tough questions, such as how the prescribed approach might lead to success.
But McCain has grown increasingly impatient. During a committee hearing in June, he told Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that he had been confident the Trump administration would deliver a plan for Afghanistan within a month or two after taking office.
"So all I can tell you is that unless we get a strategy from you, you're going to get a strategy from us," McCain said at the time.
The amendment he plans to propose adding to the defense policy bill calls for a "long-term, open-ended" U.S.-Afghanistan partnership that includes an "enduring U.S. counterterrorism presence."
He also recommends expanding U.S. training assistance to the Afghan security forces so they can capably fight the Taliban and other militant groups. And McCain proposes longer-term support that will allow the Afghans to develop and expand their own intelligence, logistics, special forces and air lift operations.
McCain's approach envisions better harnessing U.S. military and civil strengths in order to "deny, disrupt, degrade and destroy" the ability of terrorist groups to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary and then seek a "negotiated peace process" that leads to Afghan political reconciliation.
He also wants to punish neighboring Pakistan with graduated diplomatic, military and economic costs "as long as it continues to provide support and sanctuary to terrorist and insurgent groups, including the Taliban and the Haqqani Network."