RALEIGH, N.C. — The U.S. military must remain in Afghanistan beyond President Obama's projected troop withdrawal in early 2017 to discourage prospects for the Islamic State militants to get a toehold here, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis said Friday following a visit there.
Tillis said he went on a weeklong fact-finding trip to five Middle East countries with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other first-term Republican senators like himself. They met with top political leaders there, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Afghan Prime President Ashraf Ghani and U.S. generals in Kabul, which Tillis said was their last stop.
Current counterterrorism efforts and advising Afghan forces also gives U.S. leaders on the ground information about potential threats, Tillis told The Associated Press by telephone from Britain.
"We've got a lot of insight into bad actors that are planning attacks outside of Afghanistan," Tillis told the AP. "I'm completely convinced after the visit that we must maintain a presence there and we must continue to build on what is a very good relationship" with the Afghan government and people.
"Now is the worst time to send a signal that we're going to make the mistake in Afghanistan that was made in Iraq," said Tillis, referring to the withdrawal of troops by the president at the end of 2011. While visiting Iraq, Tillis said, every leader he spoke to told him the U.S. troop withdrawal at the time was a bad idea.
It was one of the main reasons why Islamic State militants have caused so much trouble in Iraq, Tillis said, although he added that it now looks like the "tide may be turning" against the group there.
The delegation spoke with Netanyahu at the beginning of the trip, before Thursday's agreement between the Iran, U.S. and five other countries designed to curb Iran's nuclear program while economic sanctions are lifted. Netanyahu said Friday that he and his Cabinet were united against the deal and said the program must be dismantled.
Tillis responded cautiously to a question about the framework, saying people on both sides of the political aisle are expressing concerns and that more details are to come. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday it was "unsettling" that the agreement allowed for "key elements of Iran's nuclear program to remain in place."
Tillis said the trip confirmed it was right for Tillis, Burr and 45 other Republican senators to sign a letter last month warning Iran's leaders that any negotiated agreement on their nuclear program could expire when Obama leaves office. Some criticized the move as harming a unified U.S. foreign policy.
"It clearly did not dissuade the Iranians from coming back to the table," he said. "They were clearly negotiating."
The delegation also visited Kuwait and Jordan, which included a meeting with King Abdullah II.