Inside The Lobbying Battle Over America's Longest War

President Joe Biden will soon announce whether he plans to keep the 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan deployed there beyond a May 1 deadline for their departure.

With one month until former President Donald Trump’s May 1 deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden faces one of the most intense lobbying campaigns of his two-month-old presidency.

Biden has already suggested he won’t meet the deadline. But in closed-door meetings and bold public declarations, parties on all sides ― former troops, lawmakers, generals and Afghans themselves ― are trying to shape his final decision on whether to bring the forces home or extend the deployment.

And while similar groups have been lobbying for years, as Trump and President Barack Obama promised and then failed to pull the U.S. out, the influence game is different under Biden ― and an end to America’s longest-running foreign intervention seems more likely. That’s due to a mix of factors. They include the new power of anti-war activists, particularly within the Democratic Party; Biden’s long-standing wariness of ambitious American plans for Afghanistan; and Trump’s decision to set an unprecedented, though controversial, timeline for withdrawal.

Many advocates make their case in powerful personal terms. On March 9, former Army intelligence analyst Esti Lamonaca attended a private meeting that included Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), one of the most influential Democrats working on national security.

For the first time ever, Lamonaca told a large group of people the story of their first night in Afghanistan: waking up to a surprise attack, holding a fellow soldier’s hand as he took his last breath and then noticing a target laser on their own body.

“I don’t know if the weapon jammed. I froze. I should have died,” Lamonaca, the lead organizer with the progressive veterans’ group Common Defense, told HuffPost. “I had this moment of realization that we weren’t supposed to be here.”

To Lamonaca ― who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder ― it’s clear that closure for the tens of thousands of troops who have been stationed in Afghanistan since 2001 depends on a withdrawal.

“Most of us haven’t dealt with it, and one partial reason for that is that we’re still there,” Lamonaca said. “For a lot of us, it would help knowing there’s not other people suffering.”

The following week, lawmakers in Afghanistan met virtually with some of their counterparts in Congress, notably Democratic Reps. Jason Crow (Colo.), Susan Wild (Pa.) and Andy Kim (N.J.). Participants in the meetings told HuffPost they understand America’s weariness with the war but worry the U.S. will withdraw under circumstances that would benefit the Taliban, the militant group the U.S. began fighting in 2001 over its ties to the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

And on March 29, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough used his high-profile “Morning Joe” show to suggest that pulling out would lead to Islamic State militants burning people in cages and the Taliban “cutting off the heads of young girls.”

Increasingly, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that the lack of a formal commitment to withdrawing within weeks suggests that Biden has already quietly settled on a delay.

The administration hopes to craft an accord between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government to prevent major clashes after the departure of American soldiers, and some Biden aides believe a six-month extension to the deadline will make that more likely. The president said last week that he does not believe there will be American forces in the country in 2022.

Still, even skeptics of a U.S. withdrawal are basing their arguments on the assumption that Biden is firm about bringing home the 3,500 troops currently in Afghanistan.

For advocates of a drawdown, that mood drives optimism ― and relief.

Peter Matlon, a Common Defense volunteer who also lobbied Reed in favor of a May 1 withdrawal, said he believes Biden is likely to “do the right thing” compared to past presidents.

“I was a strong supporter of Obama, I worked for him in the primaries … but I do believe that he was naive in putting too much faith in the advice he was receiving from his generals, and I think he was snookered,” said Matlon, who served in the Vietnam War. “I don’t think Biden suffers from the same lack of realpolitik.”

‘Political Cover’ For Withdrawal

Some notable proponents of a less aggressive U.S. foreign policy have urged Biden to stick to Trump’s plan. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) sent the president a March 18 letter, co-signed by Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), calling the May 1 withdrawal “vital.”

Common Defense and other groups want more legislators to join that chorus.

In its recent lobbying week, the veterans’ organization discussed Afghanistan with representatives for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and crucial centrists Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

They argued that the withdrawal would protect American troops who are badly hurting and that it does not mean the U.S. has to abandon diplomacy and aid to pursue goals like protecting Afghan women’s rights, which the Taliban severely curtailed when it ruled Afghanistan prior to the 2001 American invasion.

Common Defense volunteer Brian Garcia, a retired army captain and Queens, New York, resident, told Schumer’s representative he had two friends killed by U.S.-aligned Afghan forces and lost three others to suicide.

“Every few months, I rejoin social media just to see if anyone from my unit has taken his life,” Garcia said at the meeting in a statement he later shared with HuffPost. “In this particular case, supporting the troops means bringing them home.”

Proponents of a quick withdrawal are also presenting the decision as politically decisive for Biden’s young presidency.

On March 12, Common Defense staff told White House national security officials they are thrilled by Biden’s opposition to “forever wars” and want to publicly credit him with ending the U.S. military role in Afghanistan ― rather than risk a public spat over a broken campaign promise.

The Biden aides “appreciate the role our veterans played in electing the Biden-Harris ticket and they reflected back to us loud and clear that … a veterans’ movement like ours could either be, as we say in the Marine Corps, no better friend or no worse enemy,” Alex McCoy, the group’s political director, said.

“I have been pleasantly surprised by the productiveness, the candor and the desire for collaboration we have experienced with the administration,” McCoy added. “That needs to be backed up with tangible policy action.”

U.S. Army soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division arrive home from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan on Dec. 08, 2020, in Fort Drum, New York.
U.S. Army soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division arrive home from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan on Dec. 08, 2020, in Fort Drum, New York.
John Moore via Getty Images

Critics of the war believe that politicians know it’s time to pull out but need to be spurred to acknowledge that publicly ― and to feel confident that they will not look weak if they do so or be embarrassed if the withdrawal leads to consequences like a Taliban victory over America’s local partners.

Some in the pro-withdrawal coalition are trying to make it politically easier to embrace a quick end to the American deployment. The deep-pocketed Koch political network has invested millions in national advertisements promoting a withdrawal.

Dan Caldwell, a Marine veteran who helps direct the Koch effort, noted that there is no comparable push by supporters of a continued American presence.

His organization, Concerned Veterans for America, has conducted polls suggesting big majorities of veterans and military families want the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

“The main message Biden should take away from that is that if they make the right decision here, they’re not only going to be on the right side of polling, they’re going to get a lot of political cover for this,” Caldwell told HuffPost.

The Home Stretch?

Other lawmakers, administration officials and analysts believe abiding by Trump’s May 1 plan would have disastrous consequences for the U.S., and have been making that point with increasing fervor as the deadline draws nearer.

In February, the congressionally appointed Afghan Study Group recommended negotiations for an extension. Since then, two top Democratic voices on foreign affairs ― Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) ― have talked about using a longer American deployment to encourage the Taliban to move against extremists who have targeted the U.S., notably al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Now, Pentagon officials are citing an intelligence assessment suggesting an inevitable Taliban takeover after an American withdrawal to convince Biden that pulling out should depend not on a specific date but on reaching a deal between the militant group and the Afghan government, The New York Times reported.

In meetings with legislators earlier this month, Afghan parliamentarians associated with a group called the Afghanistan-U.S. Democratic Peace and Prosperity Council argued that the intra-Afghan talks need an overhaul and the U.S. withdrawal should depend on conditions within the country, like signs that the Taliban plans to seize territory.

One of the Afghan lawmakers, who requested anonymity over security concerns, told HuffPost he feels Afghan president Ashraf Ghani is too reluctant to give up some power as part of a possible bargain with the Taliban.

“If we make sure that the negotiation is not only in the hands of the administration, there is a chance of a better deal,” he said, noting that the country’s Parliament has only recently become more involved in the intra-Afghan talks. “If donors, especially the U.S., push for wrapping up a deal and quickly withdraw, this is not advisable.”

The lawmaker believes Biden could “have more patience” and pressure the Taliban to begin the process of power-sharing and integrating itself into the government.

“It’s a 40-year war ― there’s not a straightforward path,” the lawmaker told HuffPost.

An Afghan Air Force helicopter flies over ahead of the arrival of Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani for the introduction of ministerial nominees at the Parliament in Kabul on Oct. 21, 2020.
An Afghan Air Force helicopter flies over ahead of the arrival of Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani for the introduction of ministerial nominees at the Parliament in Kabul on Oct. 21, 2020.
WAKIL KOHSAR via Getty Images

By elevating younger figures like this lawmaker, the council hopes to change the “negative” narrative about Afghanistan stateside by showing that the U.S. involvement has produced a class of qualified and willing allies who should not be abandoned, said the council’s U.S.-based executive director Martin Rahmani.

That message will likely appeal to officials and members of Congress who want to feel that America’s billions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan produced some return.

But anti-withdrawal voices could face skepticism and limits to their influence under a Biden administration that promised a less militaristic U.S. policy and high ethical standards and is being closely monitored by progressives. Most members of the study group supporting an extension have ties to defense contractors like weapons producers, according to reporting by the Koch-backed outlet Responsible Statecraft, and many of the Afghans who gained power after the American invasion did so through corrupt means.

Martin Rahmani, meanwhile, works at a consulting firm that advises defense firms. His spokesman told HuffPost he does not work with the Pentagon.

A Clock That Keeps Ticking

Under Biden, the question on Afghanistan is clearly not whether the U.S. withdraws but when. Yet his plans for a potential extension remain opaque ― and hindered by confusion about what commentators on his policy are even talking about.

The anti-withdrawal Defense Department officials identified by the Times believe setting any particular date is a problem that allows the Taliban to strengthen and prepare to overwhelm pro-U.S. Afghans.

But many observers say the chief focus should be on possible Taliban attacks on Americans ― that the other aspect of the conflict, the power struggle over the country’s future, will carry on regardless and the U.S. should not be militarily entangled.

Laurel Miller, an expert and former top State Department official now with the International Crisis Group, tweeted that the likelihood of a violent Taliban backlash is greater if Washington does not negotiate a specific extension with the militants.

Biden must avoid that outcome if he decides to maintain a presence for a specific period beyond May 1, Will Ruger of the Koch network told HuffPost.

“If it’s something where it’s simply a delay and the Taliban does not accept it, that would be … an own goal,” said Ruger, who was Trump’s nominee for Afghanistan ambassador. “The longer the war goes on, the more the Biden team owns it and owns the consequences.”

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