Clockwise from top left, Chellie Pingree, Jared Golden, Susan Collins and Angus King. Credit: BDN composite

Outgoing President Donald Trump’s proposal to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan has divided Maine’s congressional delegation, reflecting broad disagreement in Washington over the next steps in a conflict that has stretched on for nearly two decades.

Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, criticized the president’s plan to withdraw thousands of soldiers in the final months of his presidency. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, endorsed the Republican president’s plan, while Rep. Chellie Pingree characterized it as a step in the right direction.

The plan is wracked with uncertainty. The proposed Jan. 15 deadline comes just days before President-elect Joe Biden is set to take office. The White House has declined to answer questions about the policy since it was announced last week. Lawmakers of both parties have entertained including language in the next budget bill to block the withdrawal.

The foreign policy establishment largely favors maintaining some U.S. presence in the country. The U.S. has kept forces in Afghanistan since invading after the attacks of September 11, 2001, but has grappled with the dual challenges of the resurgence of the Taliban, the fundamentalist group fighting the Afghan government, and the rise of the Islamic State in recent years.

Trump, who ran in 2016 with the promise of bringing American troops home, has often conflicted with his advisors on the issue. Foreign policy has been a rare area where Republicans typically aligned with Trump have been unafraid to contradict him.

Collins is among those critics. She cited “numerous discussions” with defense experts who expressed “serious concerns” about Trump’s plan, citing the importance of U.S. troops serving in an advisory role and the need to pursue a withdrawal in close cooperation with allies.

“All of us want our troops home from Afghanistan and other troubled spots in the world, but we have to be strategic about how and when this is accomplished,” she said in a statement Monday.

King cited concerns that a withdrawal would empower the Taliban. He noted the U.S. entered an agreement with the group earlier this year that included certain conditions for withdrawal, but that those conditions — which included reducing violence — have not been met.

A sudden departure, King argued, could pave the way for the Taliban to take over the country. It could also endanger American troops who are left, he said, adding that a smaller force would be insufficient for counterterrorism operations in the region.

“Everyone wants to leave the Middle East, everyone wants our troops to come home, but at what cost?” King said through a spokesperson on Monday. “Will it create a situation where we will end up facilitating a terrorist attack based in Afghanistan, or having to return to Afghanistan with a larger force and fight to regain an advantage that we would be giving up by leaving?”

The minority of lawmakers who have expressed support for the proposed drawdown include Golden, a marine veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2002 and 2006 and now represents a district also won by Trump.

He pointed to the loss of American lives in the conflict and the inability of the U.S. and its allies to build a self-sufficient Afghan government after nearly two decades in the region as reasons for withdrawal, saying that the “many setbacks, and too few successes, have come at great cost to our country.” He hoped Biden would also support a removal of American forces.

“We must and will continue to deter and defend against terrorist organizations that aim to attack the United States at home and abroad, but that does not require that we continue indefinite troop deployments for the present mission in Afghanistan,” Golden said.

Pingree, a Democrat who has long been skeptical of hawkish foreign policy positions, offered a more tempered approval of the drawdown, calling the removal of 2,500 troops a “meaningful step” toward ending the American presence in Afghanistan.

But Pingree criticized Trump as failing to invest in the diplomacy necessary to maintain peace in the region. She pointed to tensions with Iran and his administration’s sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia, which has been engrossed in conflict with its southern neighbor Yemen.

“If the Trump administration were truly committed to a sustainable end to our forever wars, it would not keep the U.S. embroiled in conflicts in the region,” Pingree said.