WASHINGTON — Early last year, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, praised former President Donald Trump’s deal to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan as “a positive step.” As secretary of state, Mike Pompeo helped negotiate that agreement with the Taliban. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., pressed last November for a withdrawal as soon as possible.
Now, the three are among dozens of prominent Republicans who, with President Joe Biden seeing the pullout through, have sharply reversed themselves — assailing Biden even as he keeps a promise that Trump had made, and carries out a policy to which they had given their full-throated support.
The collective U-turn reflects Republicans’ eagerness to attack Biden and ensure that he pays a political price for the way he ended the war. With Trump reversing himself as the withdrawal grew chaotic and, in its endgame, deadly, it also offers new evidence of how allegiance to the former president has come to override compunctions about policy flip-flops or political hypocrisy.
“You can’t be going out there and saying, ‘This war was worthless and we need to bring the troops home’ in May, and now hitting Biden for doing just that,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who broke with Trump after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and has long favored maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan. “There’s no shame anymore.”
Trump came into office having reversed his party’s long-held position on foreign interventions and called for an immediate removal of U.S. troops stationed overseas. In February 2020, he announced a peace treaty with the Taliban, negotiated by Pompeo, that called for ending the U.S. presence by May 1, 2021.
After his defeat last November, Republicans clung to Trump’s “America First” line. They urged Biden to stick to the May 1 deadline and publicly groused when Biden extended the date for a withdrawal until Aug. 31. “That kind of thinking has kept us in Afghanistan nearly 20 years,” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., complained at the time.
But as the Americans’ final days in Afghanistan devolved last month into a frantic race to get more than 125,000 people out — during which 13 service members were killed in a bombing attack outside the Kabul airport — Republican lawmakers and candidates who had embraced Trump’s agreement with the Taliban abruptly changed their tune. They savaged Biden for negotiating with the Taliban and denounced his avowed eagerness to wind down the U.S. presence in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, calling it a sign of weakness.
“I would not allow the Taliban to dictate the date that Americans leave,” McCarthy said at a news conference Friday. “But this president did, and I don’t believe any other president would, Republican or Democrat, outside of Joe Biden.”
Once defined by its hawkishness, the GOP since Trump’s election has ruptured into camps of traditional interventionists like Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who never quite warmed to Trump’s inward-looking foreign policy, and backers of Trump’s “America First” approach, who shared his impatience in extricating the nation from intractable conflicts abroad.
Last year, McConnell, then the majority leader, took to the Senate floor to decry Trump’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, warning that a premature exit would be “reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon.”
But hitting Biden unites them all.
The Republican calls for Biden’s resignation, impeachment or removal from office under the 25th Amendment are also a reminder of how much more polarized the country’s politics have become since the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, when Democrats and Republicans alike united behind President George W. Bush.
No Republican has turned faster on the Afghanistan withdrawal than Trump himself, who after years of espousing a return to isolationism has spent the last two weeks attacking Biden for carrying out the very withdrawal he had demanded and then negotiated.
As late as April 18, Trump exhorted Biden to accelerate the timetable for withdrawal: “I planned to withdraw on May 1,” he said. “We should keep as close to that schedule as possible.”
Once things appeared to go haywire, however, the former president began to speak out against the withdrawal.
On Aug. 24, Trump accused Biden of forcing the military to “run off the battlefield,” leaving “thousands” of Americans as “hostages.” And he suggested that Biden should have kept at least some troop presence in Afghanistan.
“We had Afghanistan and Kabul in perfect control with just 2,500 soldiers and he destroyed it when it was demanded that they flee!” Trump said.
Other Republicans fell in behind Trump in attacking the president: McCarthy urged his lawmakers in a letter this week to make the case that Biden was single-handedly responsible for “the worst foreign policy disaster in a generation.”
Their efforts, however, have been complicated by Trump’s rhetorical reversal, leaving Republicans struggling to articulate a view that does not contradict either his previous support for leaving Afghanistan or his current stance in criticizing the pullout.
The results have left it difficult to discern exactly what Trump and his devotees now actually believe.
Last week, McCarthy asserted that the United States should not keep any troops in Afghanistan, but then suggested that it should have held onto Bagram Airfield. Asked if Trump had been wrong to negotiate with the Taliban, McCarthy responded instead by saying that the chaos of the withdrawal had occurred on Biden’s watch, not Trump’s.
Pressed again Tuesday to say whether the United States should maintain a military base in Afghanistan, McCarthy again demurred. “The priority right now is, what is the plan to bring people home?” he said.
To try to distinguish their support for the concept of withdrawal from their criticism of Biden’s handling of the actual withdrawal, some Republicans — including Pompeo, the former secretary of state — contend that Trump would have been tougher and would not have tolerated the Taliban’s advance on Kabul. They suggest that he would have stopped the withdrawal and declared that the Taliban had violated the conditions of the peace deal.
But the conditions negotiated by the Trump administration were largely vague, and nothing in the agreement mandated that the Taliban stop their military campaign, refrain from capturing Kabul or agree to a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government.
Republicans have yet to name specific conditions that they believe the Taliban have violated. And those who praised Trump’s plan but assailed Biden’s withdrawal have volunteered few substantive suggestions for what the president should have done differently.
“There was a plan in place last year that was turned over to the Biden administration that I supported and would have worked,” Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., said at a news conference Tuesday held by the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.
But he provided no specifics about the blueprint that he said Biden had disregarded.
Some of the loudest criticism of Biden has come from lawmakers who had urged him to accelerate the pullout from Afghanistan, reasoning that there never would be a good time to leave.
Hawley, the Missouri senator, wrote in November that “the time has come to end the war in Afghanistan” and asked Trump’s acting defense secretary to remove troops “as expeditiously as possible.” In April, he publicly lamented Biden’s extension of the deadline for withdrawal. But after last Thursday’s bombing, Hawley called for Biden’s resignation, arguing that the chaotic withdrawal was not inevitable, but rather the product of Biden’s failed leadership.
“We must reject the falsehood peddled by a feckless president that this was the only option for withdrawal,” Hawley said.
Those with smaller megaphones also demonstrated flexibility.
Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., was a cheerleader for Trump’s withdrawal plans. As the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s national security subcommittee, he credited the “Taliban peace treaty” for the months that followed in which no Americans were killed in Afghanistan. Again and again, he praised Trump for getting the troop drawdown underway.
Once chaos erupted in Kabul, however, Grothman became a loud and vocal critic of the pullout. “It does not surprise me” that the Afghan government fell quickly to the Taliban, he told WFDL, a local radio station in his district. He argued that U.S. troops should have stayed on.
“I don’t see how you can leave, because what’s going to happen if you don’t get people out, given what the Taliban are like?” Grothman told the radio station. “Are they going to be killing people?”
In an interview, Grothman argued that Trump had looked strong in negotiating the peace deal with the Taliban, while Biden’s failure to prevent last week’s violence made him look weak.
He said he did not recall praising Trump’s deal to withdraw from Afghanistan. Even so, he added: “We didn’t know how the deal was going to play out.”