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Trump’s troop withdrawal divides Florida Republicans and leaves Democrats skeptical

Tampa Bay Times logo Tampa Bay Times 11/29/2020 Steve Contorno, Tampa Bay Times

It has been 14 years since Greg Steube landed in war-torn Iraq to oversee multinational detainees during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He spent two years in a combat zone in the northern region of the country, where he recalled watching fellow service members killed in action.

Steube, now a member of Congress with the power to declare war and fund military missions, said he thinks it’s time for America’s involvement in the Middle East to end. So when the Department of Defense recently announced a reduction of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Steube, a Sarasota Republican, was for it.

“We will go anywhere in the world you tell us to go but we will be more successful if you tell us why we’re going and what our mission is,” said Steube, an officer in the Airborne Infantry and Judge Advocate Generals Corp from 2014 to 2018. “If we don’t have a legitimate mission or purpose, we shouldn’t be sending our sons and daughters in harms way.”

In calling for an end to America’s longest war in Afghanistan, Steube is an outlier in his party. Many Republicans expressed outrage at President Donald Trump’s late-term push to further draw down the United States’ presence in the Middle East. Some called it a retreat, insisting it would leave a void soon to be filled with terrorist organizations.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a fellow Floridian, warned in a recent op-ed that “a hasty exist risks putting American and Afghan lives alike in danger, which could draw us back into yet another prolonged engagement.”

“We need to bring our troops home, but we need to do it the right way,” Rubio wrote in National Review.

But in Florida, Steube is also not alone. U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Palm Harbor Republican, said, “we cannot let wars drag on indefinitely,” adding that he trusted the expertise of America’s military leaders who are removing troops from the battlefield. U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s closest allies, has been among the loudest Republicans calling for an end to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East that have cost trillions of dollars and more than 7,000 American lives over the past two decades.

Earlier his month, a panel of military advisers from defense think tanks told the House Armed Service Committee, of which Gaetz is a member, that even after two decades of American assistance and training, Afghan forces weren’t strong enough to stave off the Taliban and other militant groups on their own.

One expert implored Trump to rescind his withdrawal orders and leave 5,000 troops in Afghanistan for incoming President Joe Biden. The Trump administration has announced 2,500 troops would remain in Afghanistan and 2,500 in Iraq, an overall reduction of one-third.

Responding to the testimony, Gaetz asserted, “The biggest loser in Afghanistan is the nation that stays the longest” and called for the removal of all remaining troops there.

“This has been the longest war in our nation’s history,” Gaetz said. “Our country is weary of it, even if the Armed Services Committee is not.”

U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz, a St. Augustine Republican who also sits on the committee, has repeatedly opposed drawing down troops going back to President Barack Obama. Waltz, a U.S. Army National Guard Special Forces officer who served multiple tours in Afghanistan, said he was “thankful” that Trump is not following Gaetz’s suggestion because the remaining forces are needed for counter terrorism purposes.

“I understand the frustration. I get the soundbites,” Waltz said. “But what is left out of the isolationist worldview is how many casualties will come if we have to fight our way back in.”

The divisions in Florida are notable given the state’s strategic importance in the country’s national defense. There are 21 military bases in Florida and the state is home to about 100,000 active duty personnel. Gaetz represents many of them; so does Waltz. In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis released a state study that measured the defense industry’s impact to the state at $95 billion.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, didn’t respond to requests for comment and has not weighed in publicly on Trump’s latest foreign policy maneuvers.

Trump entered office in 2017 coming off a campaign in which he falsely insisted he never supported the invasion of Iraq. Nevertheless, he vowed to put a stop to “endless wars,” as he has called them. Trump’s allies have characterized the recent troop announcements as a step toward fulfilling that promise.

But Democrats are skeptical of Trump’s intentions as a lame duck commander-in-chief. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, an Orlando Democrat and former Department of Defense employee, called the move “a terrible mistake.”

Rep. Kathy Castor, who represents Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base, echoed those concerns. Castor, first elected in 2006 amid national fatigue over the Iraq War, said she wants to “bring our troops home” but doing so requires “a sound strategy and close work with our allies.”

“I fear the dangerous whims of a disgruntled President Trump, his contempt for NATO, and failure to develop a long-term strategy weakens our hand,” said Castor. “And that of President-elect Biden.”

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©2020 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

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