Washington, DC – The US Senate has voted to advance an amendment seeking to rein in President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal of American special forces from Syria and put parameters around plans to reduce the number of US forces in Afghanistan.
The 68-23 vote on Thursday came on a procedural matter clearing the way for an amendment on Syria and Afghanistan troop levels by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican.
McConnell is seeking to add the resolution to a pending measure on Middle East security policy that has broad bipartisan support.
Thursday’s vote serves notice to the White House that senior Republican leaders want a reversal of Trump’s order to withdraw US special forces from Syria and a check on future plans to withdraw troops in Afghanistan.
“I think the president is slowing down in Syria and he is taking the opportunity to see if we can get a new structure in Afghanistan, if we can get a peace agreement,” Senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, told Al Jazeera.
The resolution calls on the Trump administration to “conduct a review of the military and diplomatic strategies in Syria and Afghanistan” and to “set conditions” for the long-term defeat of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
It also calls on Trump to “certify” that those conditions have been met “before initiating any significant withdrawal”.
Last month, Trump announced he was withdrawing some 2,000 US troops from Syria, declaring ISIL had been “defeated”.
He has since backtracked on his initial order of a rapid withdrawal with US officials announcing that no timetable had been set.
This week, US intelligence chiefs said ISIL remained a threat.
Trump has also ordered the military to come up with plans to withdraw about 7,000 or up to half of the US troops in Afghanistan.
After six days of talks in Qatar last week, US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said the United States and the Taliban had reportedly reached a rough framework for peace talks between the US-backed government in Kabul and the Taliban.
Major hurdles remain, however, including terms on a ceasefire and the withdrawal of foreign forces.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in a televised address on January 28 that all foreign forces would eventually leave Afghanistan once they were no longer needed.
The resolution voted by the Senate on Thursday specifically acknowledged “progress made by” Khalilzad and offered support for diplomatic efforts.
The non-binding amendment would encourage Congress and the White House to work together to develop long-term strategies in Afghanistan and Syria.
It also says that a hasty withdrawal in both countries could “allow terrorists to regroup, destabilise critical regions and create vacuums that could be filled by Iran or Russia”.
My amendment to S.1 would allow Senators to go on the record about what the United States should be doing in Syria and Afghanistan. ISIS and al Qaeda have yet to be defeated and American national security interests require continued commitment to our missions there.
— Leader McConnell (@senatemajldr) January 31, 2019
Trump’s withdrawal announcements were “being used against us right now”, said Republican Senator Marco Rubio, as he took to the Senate floor to argue in favour of the amendment. “This is a very dangerous situation. That’s why this [troop withdrawals] is a very bad idea.”
Although the amendment enjoys bipartisan support, a number of more liberal politicians – some hoping to seek a 2020 presidential bid – voted against the measure on Thursday.
“What McConnell is saying is let’s maintain the status quo,” said independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who also acknowledged that he believed Trump made the announcements too abruptly.
Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Washington, DC-based Wilson Center think-tank said “Trump has become very impatient with Afghanistan.”
“For an insurgency, a stalemate constitutes a victory,” he told Al Jazeera. “The Taliban are very emboldened and they are continuing to fight even though they are having these talks with the US,” Kugelman added.
“The state of play is clearly not in favor of the US, Afghan forces and NATO. The Taliban is really on the offense. It is doing everything it has to do to hold its own on the expectation that, eventually, US troops will leave.”
The fighting is taking a toll on Afghan civilians. More than 2,798 Afghan civilians were killed, and 5,252 wounded in the first nine months of 2018, according to United Nations figures cited by the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction in its latest quarterly report on January 30.
The US has spent $132bn in Afghanistan since 2001, according to the report, which said: “Afghanistan has made progress, but the results are mixed, and the outlook is still sobering.”
A final vote on the amendment could come next week. If it advances, it would be added to a broader foreign policy bill that includes a measure to “combat” boycotts of Israel.
That measure, titled the “Combatting BDS Act”, is opposed by rights groups and some Democrats who say it infringes on free speech. BDS stands for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.