Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that he doesn’t foresee troops leaving Syria or Afghanistan until conditions on the ground are right.
Inhofe also said he’s talked with President Donald Trump on his objections on any time-based withdrawals and anyone who claims to have a date of withdrawal doesn’t know what they are talking about.
“It should have been conditions on the ground from the beginning for any place where we have troops,” Inhofe said during a wide-ranging discussion with reporters on Capitol Hill.
Inhofe also told reporters that acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan won’t get the post permanently, he’s fighting the use of military construction funds for the U.S.-Mexico border wall and continues to push for a $750 billion defense budget in the next fiscal year.
On Syria, the senator said, “I think what is going to happen is that we’ll leave ample troops in there.”
But Inhofe later told reporters that it’s possible troops could be withdrawn in the coming year.
The comments add to the back-and-forth saga of when troops might leave Syria and Afghanistan after Trump raised the specter of quick troop withdrawals in both countries in recent months.
On Dec. 19, Trump stunned Capitol Hill and the Pentagon with a decision to withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops fighting the Islamic State in Syria within 30 days. The next day, reports suggested Trump was also planning to drawdown 7,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Since that time, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned and was replaced by Shanahan, his then-deputy. The Trump administration have also backed off plans for immediate troop withdrawals or drawdowns in either country.
Last week, the Senate defied Trump’s plan to withdraw troops in Syria and Afghanistan, voting 70 to 26 to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the countries through an amendment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attached to a larger legislative package.
Inhofe said Tuesday that when he wants to get Trump’s attention on what he thinks is a wrong move, the senator will signal that it is something former President Barack Obama would have done.
“I’m a fan of the president’s… but I’ve debated this with the him before … before we had that (vote), I was saying everything has got to be [based on] conditions on the ground,” he said. “I just don’t think anyone is going to be able to say today how many troops will be coming out or when they are going to be coming out.”
Inhofe also said he doesn’t foresee Shanahan getting nominated permanently to the post or reaching a confirmation hearing but he also doesn’t want to set a deadline for selecting a new defense secretary. One issue, Inhofe said, is Shanahan’s strong ties to Boeing, where he worked for 30 years.
“Every time someone has any kind of background whether it’s Boeing or regardless of what company it is … there’s going to be kind of a built-in suspicion and I would say this will become very partisan,” he said.
The senator also said Shanahan isn’t as humble as his predecessor. And while Inhofe wouldn’t divulge potential defense secretary candidates, he did say he hopes the next Pentagon leader has some of the traits of Mattis.
“[Mattis] had a very rare talent and it’s called humility, and I’d like that to have that rub off on somebody else,” said Inhofe, who described Mattis as a close friend.
Inhofe said he talked with Trump about the next defense secretary as the president was returning from his first trip to Iraq.
Inhofe also expressed objections to Trump declaring a national emergency to pull funds from military construction, though the senator was more open to the idea of pulling money from the Army Corps of Engineers.
“If it becomes necessary, I think that he might do the emergency,” Inhofe said. “What I have voiced is if it has to be that way, leave (military construction funds) alone.”
Since December, Trump has threatened a national emergency to use the military’s available construction funds and personnel to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Inhofe also said he continues to push for a $750 billion defense budget. That figure has become a moving target since Trump suggested cuts last year. But since that time, White House officials have signaled they are open to increasing the budget.
Inhofe said he supports that base budget and a larger overseas contingency operations fund.
“In my opinion, you need to be at 750,” Inhofe said of the overall Pentagon budget.
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