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Trump’s Afghanistan buildup is revealing a rift among Democrats

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Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) called for an end to “endless war” after Trump’s announcement
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A handful of progressive Democrats in Congress are attacking President Donald Trump’s decision to escalate American military involvement in Afghanistan.

But many congressional Democrats are — for now, at least — either staying silent on the Afghanistan buildup or focusing their criticism of Trump on the fact that he hasn’t released more details of his new military plan. Meanwhile, with the exception of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), the party’s rumored 2020 presidential hopefuls have largely fallen silent on one of the biggest foreign policy announcements of Trump’s presidency. (Update Tuesday night: Sen. Elizabeth Warren has now also released a statement saying she is “deeply skeptical” of Trump’s additional military commitment.)

"The American public deserves more details from POTUS on Afghanistan," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said on Twitter. "Congress should ask for the specifics and then debate and vote on an [authorization for use of military force].”

The dueling reactions to Trump’s buildup hint at the Democratic Party’s bigger internal divisions on foreign policy. President Barack Obama also escalated American military involvement in Afghanistan, and center-left Democrats have trained their objections to Trump’s new announcement on strategic grounds. That puts them at odds with an ascendant dovish (or, to some, isolationist) progressive faction — particularly among left-wing House Democrats and advocacy organizations — that is demanding the party take a much stronger antiwar stance.

The dueling Democratic reactions to Trump’s Afghanistan announcement

For now, most congressional Democrats and center-left think tanks have criticized Trump for not coming up with a more comprehensive plan, bolstering the state department’s diplomatic efforts in the country, or seeking congressional approval. But in spite of those criticisms, most Democrats have largely stopped short of demanding that Trump bring the troops home from a 16-year war that’s now the longest in the country’s history.

Two top-ranking House Democrats — Whip Steny Hoyer (MD) and caucus chair Joe Crowley (NY) — released statements saying Trump needed to explain his strategy more thoroughly. Hoyer called for Trump to outline "specific strategies," and Crowley’s statement demanded the president flesh out his "vague plan."

Many Senate Democrats took similar approaches. Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly said Trump "laid out his vision for success in Afghanistan" and asked him to come to Congress "with a clear strategy." In a statement, New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan didn't criticize a greater American troop presence in Afghanistan and said she appreciated "that the president acknowledged the importance of strong diplomatic engagement in South Asia," but she also dinged Trump for his "plans to severely cut the state department."

"In order to stabilize Afghanistan, President Trump needs to focus more attention and resources on diplomatic efforts," said Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed in a statement. "... I know Americans are weary of the war in Afghanistan. President Trump has a duty to set a clear strategy for Afghanistan. Tonight's speech is a long overdue step, but more important will be the details and an accompanying commitment by this President going forward."

Progressive Democrats open fire against Trump

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Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR).
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But those on the party’s left wing have readily opened fire on Trump, leveling a much broader critique of the war in Afghanistan.

For instance, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley demanded “an end to American military involvement" in Afghanistan. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown — another rumored 2020 candidate — also released a statement harshly critical of the war and of Trump. Similarly, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Trump had "put thousands more Americans in harm's way" without a clear plan for withdrawal, mirroring comments made by dovish congressional Democrats like Reps. Barbara Lee (CA), Jim McGovern (MA), and Steve Cohen (TN).

“The Democrats should be clear and bold: We are for withdrawal,” California Rep. Ro Khanna told me. “We should not hedge by issuing jargon-filled statements that call for additional hearings, a better strategy, or more careful review. After 16 years of that kind of muddled thinking, people expect their elected leaders to take a firm stand. This isn't that complicated. Either you're for increasing troops, keeping the status quo indefinitely, or for getting out. We should be for getting out.”

Still, the other Senate Democrats rumored to have White House ambitions in 2020 have fallen silent. As of noon on Thursday, some of the senators widely seen as likely to run in the next presidential race — Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker — had not spoken out over reports that Trump would send 4,000 more troops into Afghanistan. (We’ll update this story if and when they do.) Sen. Gillibrand, another rumored contender, did criticize the buildup.

“I found the President’s speech tonight terribly lacking,” she said. “Lacking in details, lacking in substance and lacking in a vision of what success in Afghanistan looks like.”

Sen. Warren added her statement Tuesday afternoon. “After 16 years, I am deeply skeptical that a few thousand more troops will enable the Afghans to secure their own country,” Warren said. “We should not send more young Americans to risk their lives if we don’t understand exactly where we’re headed and what we’re asking of them.”

Left-wing advocacy organizations have come out strongly against the Afghanistan buildup. MoveOn.Org put out a statement on Monday night calling Trump’s decision a "military, economic, and humanitarian disaster," and the protest group Indivisible flayed Democrats preemptively for not doing more to speak out in opposition.

“This escalation is a dangerous and disastrous decision that will lead to more death and destruction with no end in sight,” said Angel Padilla, policy director of Indivisible. “It is critical that Congress reassert its authority in foreign affairs, repeal the original 2001 authorization of military force, and seek solutions rooted in diplomacy rather than repeating failed mistakes. Democrats who remain silent on this will be tacitly condoning Trump's warmongering.”

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