Senior GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker are rejecting White House suggestions that the general in charge of American-led forces in Afghanistan is responsible for losing the war and needs to be replaced.
Instead, a lack of long-term American commitment, low number of troops, and U.S. rules of engagement are contributing to growing instability in Afghanistan and Islamic State and other terrorist groups’ growing presence there, the senators said.
Graham, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also took a shot at Trump strategist Steve Bannon, who many believe is behind Trump’s wariness of further committing troops to the war.
"I know that Gen. Biden and Gen. Obama and Gen. Graham aren’t very good generals," he said Thursday. "I don’t know that Gen. Bannon will be any better."
The comments come as Trump is mulling whether to move Nicholson out of his role of commanding U.S. forces in Afghanistan and possibly replace him with national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Such a decision has been under consideration for several weeks, according to an administration source and media reports, along with the possibility of replacing McMaster at the National Security Council with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Moving McMaster to command U.S. troops in Afghanistan would allow him to earn his fourth star and take him out of the role of refereeing internal White House national security divisions. Those fissures were on display this week after McMaster’s fired several top NSC aides, which critics of the firings viewed as a purge of Trump loyalists and pro-Bannon forces.
However, such a national security shake-up at the highest levels of the Trump administration also would force Pompeo to leave his coveted slot helming the CIA, a highly unusual switch.
Additionally, it would put McMaster in charge of a war after the general has tried and failed for months to sell other members of Trump’s national security team on his plan to modestly increase troops and make a four-year commitment. McMaster has spent months on a policy review of the state of the Afghanistan war, which is still technically ongoing.
Graham and Corker seemed open to the idea of McMaster replacing Nicholson in Afghanistan but only if Trump increases troops and changes the U.S. rules of engagement to allow U.S. soldiers broader flexibility in fighting the Taliban, as well as al Qaeda and ISIS fighters there.
"It’s up to the president—it’s Trump’s war, it’s not Obama’s war," Graham said Thursday. "If we do not listen to Gen. McMaster and people like him who have been fighting this war for 15 years, and adapt our policies, we’re going to fail in Afghanistan. We need more troops."
Nicholson has done a "fine job from my point of view, but President Trump will make a decision and he will own it," Graham said.
"It doesn’t matter what general is in charge if you don’t have the capacity to win," Graham added. "I’m just really upset to hear it’s a Gen. Nicholson problem when really it’s a force-structure problem and an attitude problem so I do hope the policies will change."
Graham predicted that the devastation and chaos ISIS brought to Iraq will "happen 10-fold" in Afghanistan if the United States pulls out troops. He said 3,000 to 4,000 troops with "some air capability we don’t have today" would "turn the tide of battle."
"Every soldier over there is an insurance policy against our homeland being attacked," he said. "My big fear is if you don’t listen to the generals and you try to make this up as you go, as Obama and Biden did, you’re going to wind up losing Afghanistan like we did Iraq, and the consequences to America are worse."
Corker, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, said he understands and appreciates Trump’s frustration with the lack of progress in the war but said whatever decision is reached it must be "sustainable."
"I have a lot of respect for Nicholson also … but whatever comes out of this, it has to be something we know to be sustainable and something that we know will change the trajectory."
"As long as we are six months away from stepping out and six months away from giving up, [the Taliban and others in Afghanistan opposed to the U.S. involvement] are going to continue to do all they can to play both sides, and playing both sides is what puts U.S. soldiers in harm’s way," he said.
Corker then recalled that President Obama had prevented U.S. troops from firing on al Qaeda fighters, and only in limited circumstances on the Taliban.
"Do you understand that? The policies we had in Afghanistan were ludicrous," he said.