Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton joined me this morning to discuss President Trump’s speech last night and the policy going forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan:
HH: Senator Cotton, good morning, it’s great to speak with you.
TC: Good morning, Hugh, good to be on with you.
HH: A lot of people have opinions on the Afghanistan policy and the speech, but very few people have experience there. You deployed there in Laghman Province from April of 2008 to June of 2009. From that perspective, Senator Cotton, what did you make of President Trump’s speech last night?
TC: The President made a good speech, which resulted from a very good policy making process driven by General McMaster. And I think he reached the right conclusion. We cannot allow Afghanistan either to fall the way Mosul fell to the Islamic State in 2004, nor can we allow it to be, come under the influence of Iran the way Iraq increasingly has. Those are two critical objectives in Afghanistan. You know, we’ve had a lot of twists and turns over the last 16 years. There’s been some drifts in recent years in Afghanistan because of the last administration, but we cannot allow either radical Islamic terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda to reestablish Afghanistan as a base against which to plot attacks on the United States or Iran to use it as another proxy state.
HH: Now I think you meant 2014 when you said 2004 when Mosul fell. But it’s been reclaimed now, and I think that lesson is deep in his understanding that if we withdraw, it’s not peace and flowers, right? It just obviously nothing is static. It either goes in the right direction, or it goes in the wrong direction.
TC: That’s right, Hugh. You know, and he said this publicly, he said it to me on numerous occasions privately that the decision to withdraw all of our troops in Iraq in 2011, whatever you thought of the initial decision to invade Iraq, was the immediate cause of what happened in 2014 in Mosul. And you know, no matter what you thought about the drift that we’ve seen in recent years in Afghanistan, we’ve seen what happens when Afghanistan becomes a lawless, ungoverned country. Groups like al Qaeda and now the Islamic State establish a foothold. They get freedom of action and freedom of movement, and they use that to plot attacks against the United States and our citizens, and our interests around the world.
HH: Now Senator Cotton, to what extent, people know that there was a war cabinet process with Secretary Mattis and General McMaster leading it, but it was disciplined, it was thorough, and it was a long time coming. What level of detail or involvement did members of Congress have in this, particularly members of Congress like you and Senator Sullivan and Senator Young and Senator Ernst who have actually got combat experience in the war?
TC: Well, the process worked exactly as it should work. The President asked a lot of tough questions, tough questions that the American people are asking. And H.R. McMaster drove a process that included all members of the National Security Council, whether it’s Jim Mattis at Defense, Rex Tillerson at State, Mike Pompeo at CIA, Jeff Sessions at Justice and so forth. And members of Congress had input where appropriate. You know, we’re not members of the National Security Council. We’re not in the executive branch. But I’ve spoken about this matter on numerous occasions with President Trump, and been down to the Situation Room to meet with General McMaster and some other members of NSC. So we had appropriate degrees of input all along throughout the process, and I think both President Trump and General McMaster should be commended for the way this decision was reached, as well as for the decision itself.
HH: Senator Cotton, going back to your 11 months in Afghanistan, to your actual deployment days, do you have optimism that stability, I’m not talking about a republic, right, I’m talking about stability, that that can be reached in Afghanistan, even if it takes another decade?
TC: I do, Hugh, and that really has to be our goal in Afghanistan. We’re not trying to forge a Western European nation-state out of very disparate kinds of tribes and lands. We’re not trying to create a Western market-based economy. We’re not trying to create a constitutional democracy, as good as all those things are. Those are things for the Afghan people to choose and do among themselves. What we are trying to do is to create a stable land where the government and its affiliated support networks in the outlying regions have dominance over the use of violence. And they can stop the Taliban from reestablishing control, and allowing groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State the freedom of action they need to plot attacks against the United States.
HH: Now Senator, I want, if I can, a quick reaction to a Reuters story. Iran can resume production of highly-enriched uranium within five days if the nuclear deal it struck with us is revoked, the head of their atomic energy program said, according to state media. What’s that tell us about the deal that we struck?
TC: Well, I won’t comment on that specific report or Iran’s capabilities, but I’ll say that the deal is very bad, and that fellow is right that Iran gave up very little in this nuclear deal. They gave the sleeves off their vest. They were selling ice in the wintertime. It was a terrible deal in which they retained almost all of their capabilities. The only constraints they accepted in terms of delayed timelines are really constraints they already faced in terms of their own scientific and technological advancement. That’s why I’ve advocated the President not continue with this deal, but rather take a different course that’ll better protect the United States’ interests.
HH: Senator Cotton, always good to talk with you. Thank you for joining us today, and for the comments on the President’s speech.
End of interview.