WASHINGTON — Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran’s recent trip to Afghanistan left him convinced the U.S. needs more troops to finish that mission.
Also, it left him convinced the U.S. needs more troops.
“We need to increase our end strength,” the Republican senator said on Tuesday. “Afghanistan is not a short-term circumstance we face. Despite encouraging signs I saw, it doesn’t mean we are departing from Afghanistan soon.
“I’ve always worried about the number of deployments (for U.S. troops), the frequency and duration. When you add to that Russia’s efforts in Ukraine, Europe, really every theater we’re involved in … when you add to that North Korea and cyber security issues, it means we’re going to need to increase the strength of our military.”
Moran, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and will be a key figure in this fall’s defense budget debates, traveled with acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy to eastern Europe and Afghanistan over the holiday weekend to survey both regions in the wake of President Donald Trump’s new strategy for the fight in Afghanistan.
It was Moran’s fourth trip to the war zone. He said the visit reinforced his belief that the U.S. has an enduring role there, a message he’ll take back to constituents in Kansas who may be skeptical of an enduring commitment to the already 16-year-old conflict.
“There are 21 separate terrorist groups there all interested in killing Americans,” he said. “So we do belong in Afghanistan. We are making a difference there.”
In a national address last month, Trump outlined a path to victory in Afghanistan, offering no specifics on deployment totals but promising more support for the fledgling security forces there. Earlier this year, Gen. John Nicholson Jr. — commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan — said thousands more trainers are needed to properly prep those new local recruits and break the current “stalemate” with opposition fighters.
Trump also promised a crackdown on Pakistani support for terrorism in the region, which Moran praised as a sign of positive strategic change.
Trump’s plans have been met with derision from critics who say they lack critical details and real substantive changes. But after meeting with Nicholson and other top leaders, Moran said he was encouraged by the military response to the president’s message, and the implication that more training and support forces will be heading to the country soon.
“It didn’t have the feel of a place where we were just on hold or treading water,” he said. “Afghanistan had a feel of a place on the move for a better outcome.”
That’s a shift that Moran believes he can sell both at home and on Capitol Hill.
“Many of us are skeptical that we are the policemen of the world,” he said. “But I am of the view that we have an obligation to protect American lives. Terrorism is one of the greatest threats we face, and Afghanistan is a place where that war has to be fought.”
And that will require more fighters, in his view. Lawmakers approved an increase of 16,000 soldiers in Army end strength last year. Trump has already proposed adding 4,000 more sailors for the Navy and another 4,100 airmen for the Air Force in his budget plan.
House and Senate planners are considering going even further. The Senate’s latest authorization bill draft plan calls for 5,000 more active-duty soldiers, 1,000 more Marines, and 1,000 more Army reservists and Guardsmen to further boost the force.
Paying for that type of increase will be one of the key congressional fights in coming months. The idea has received support from some defense Democrats in Congress, but will add billions of dollars in military funding to a plan already above mandated spending caps. Any deal with Democrats to raise those caps will likely require more non-defense spending, which would add even more significant sums to the federal budget.
Moran said he’s ready for the debate.
“Everything I’ve seen confirms to me we need to increase our end strength,” he said. “Our role, not by choice, is only increasing.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.