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Politics & Government

Rand Paul tries hard to convince Donald Trump to cut Afghanistan loose

 

Sen. Rand Paul wants to convince President Trump to start ending the war in Afghanistan. Now.

So he's launched an all-out effort to make that happen. It began in earnest last month when the Kentucky Republican agreed to reverse himself and support Trump's choice of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State after multiple conversations convinced Paul that Trump shared his view.

Paul dispatched his Senate committee staff to the country to document what he says is "wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars" and "rampant corruption."

Wednesday, Paul chaired an often-lonely hearing — he was the only senator present for its second half — to dramatize the problem.

It was the latest move that Paul is making to convince Trump that the U.S. should wrap it up after nearly 17 years in the country.And though Paul and Trump share similar views on Afghanistan, Trump's foreign policy moves in office suggests he still needs selling on Paul's view.

"They clearly have a personal bond, so he's a messenger that finds a receptive audience," Andy Keiser, a former Trump transition national security official and former senior adviser to former House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said of Paul.

Keiser suggested that regardless of Paul, “Unfortunately, we probably only have so much time in Afghanistan anyhow, given Trump’s skepticism of that involvement.”

 

Paul goes further. He has a "strongly isolationist view of American foreign policy" that no Republican president in modern history has agreed with, "save perhaps President Trump, and then only on occasion," said Jamil Jaffer, a former associate counsel to President George W. Bush.

But Jaffer noted that Trump did send weapons to Ukraine and has been tough on North Korea. Jaffer said that's led to prodding North Korea to negotiate and that Trump may find himself like Bush, who ended up involved in more places than he originally envisioned.

"President Trump appears willing to use military force when necessary," Jaffer said. "I worry that Senator Paul doesn’t share that same flexibility. You get the sense that he’s one speed: no, no, no."

On Wednesday, Paul's deputy chief of staff and the Republican staff director for the Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management subcommittee that Paul chairs, testified before a Senate panel of one — Paul — asserting that projects in Afghanistan are hampered by waste and inefficiency.

They spoke after John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction efforts, testified that efforts in Afghanistan have proceeded slowly, hampered by a "persistent lack of accountability."

Sopko noted there have been improvements in health and education, but "to succeed our government must do a better job of imposing accountability."

Subcommittee Democrats who had listened and questioned Sopko, left as subcommittee staffers took the witness table.

"One of the things we saw, over and over again on this trip were good intentions gone bad," said Sergio Gor, Paul's deputy chief of staff. One of those projects was a yet-to-be-completed hotel that was to be built near the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The U.S. has spent nearly $90 million on the project that is only about 30 percent complete, Gor said.

A 2016 report by Sopko's Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found "troubling management practices and lax oversight" by the U.S. financing agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corp.

It also found, noted Gor, that the U.S. embassy is now forced to provide security for the site at an additional cost to U.S. taxpayers.

Paul said he's worried that the U.S. will find itself mired in an unending war.And he argued that the money spent rebuilding Afghanistan would be better spent on roads and bridges in the U.S.

"We are told our mission there is vital and that we are making a stable country in the region which will pay a peace dividend even if we have to spend 50 years," he said. "I've made it no secret that I think we should come home. I think we went in for the right reasons, but we've stayed too long."

When he announced last month that he'd vote for Pompeo for Secretary of State, Paul said he was assured that Trump wouldn't change his mind on leaving Afghanistan. Trump and Paul tangled during the 2016 Republican presidential primary, but found common ground in opposing overseas conflicts.

"What I hear from the president is that no one is changing his mind (that) many of these wars were ill-advised," Paul said at the time. "His goal is really to get us out of many of these wars. That's a goal I share. I want Trump to be Trump."

Paul said he's satisfied after their talks that Trump plans to end the war.

Long before he ran for election, Trump advocated for an end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but as president has found the situation infinitely more complicated.

“Afghanistan is a complete waste," he tweeted in 2012. "Time to come home!” In 2013, he tweeted “We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first.”

Yet Trump in August said he'd send more troops to the country, deepening American involvement.

He acknowledged at the time that the situation was different for a president than a presidential candidate.

"“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,” Trump said in an address. “But all my life, I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”

He said then that he was convinced that a "hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists."

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark
National Coverage. Local Perspectives.
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