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Graham warns against pulling out of Afghanistan
04:15 - Source: CNN
Kabul CNN  — 

Sen. Lindsey Graham is on a mission. A mission to connect with the troops once again, but also a mission to convince the President that after 17 years, Afghanistan is still a fight worth fighting.

During a recent trip to Afghanistan, Graham said he worries that pulling out of Afghanistan too soon may “set in motion chaos” and that one of the “most likely” outcomes of leaving before the mission is complete would be “a second 9/11 coming our way.”

The US military has been ordered to draw up plans to withdraw about half the troops from the country, a US defense official with direct knowledge of the matter told CNN Thursday.

CNN was allowed exclusive access to follow Graham during his trip, which took place just days before the news of a potential troop withdrawal from Afghanistan broke.

The conflict, now known as America’s longest war, has cost thousands of American lives (more than 2,400 to be more precise), billions of dollars and has spanned three administrations. But even after the build ups and draw downs, surges and declines, the Republican senator from South Carolina sees this moment in particular as an inflection point.

“I know he is on the verge of doing something,” said Graham. “What I am trying to convince President Trump of is our presence here is homeland security in another fashion. I understand why you would build a wall along the southern border with other technology to prevent drugs and crime from coming into America, to stem the tide of illegal immigration. I don’t know why you would pull out of places like Afghanistan until the conditions warrant because you can’t build a wall between us and radical Islam. And this is the center of gravity - Afghanistan. This is where it all started.”

Graham was already sounding this alarm before Trump announced Wednesday morning he was pulling all US troops out of Syria, and before CNN reported Thursday the possible plans for Afghanistan. Graham was just touching down in Washington, returning from Afghanistan, when the news about Syria broke. He took to the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon to slam the decision.

“I just got back from Afghanistan, haven’t slept in two days, really appreciate the chance to go visit our troops and talk to our generals, but they sure as hell, ISIS is not defeated in Afghanistan. So, to say they’re defeated is an overstatement and is fake news,” Graham said.

The assessment of ISIS as on the rise and still a real and direct threat to the US was one of the critical updates Graham says he received while visiting with the top US commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan – Gen. Scott Miller.

“The ISIS threat in Afghanistan is far greater than I thought it was. If you get a peace agreement tomorrow between the Taliban and the Afghan government, that will not solve the threat to our homeland,” said Graham following a briefing with Miller and US Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass.

ISIS is also becoming a critical focus for the Afghan military, which American troops are working closely with in their “train, advise and assist” mission. In a meeting at Camp Morehead, an American special forces camp training Afghan commandos, the top Afghan Commando, Lt. Gen. Bismillah Waziri told Graham, “40% of our operations are countering [ISIS], and most of our resources are also based there.”

All of this, Graham heard in the 28 hours he spent on the ground, near the end of which he offered this assessment of the Afghan military’s capability: “They are doing the fighting that we hoped they would be doing. They are getting better, and we are able to help them effectively a lot less than we ever have before. The bad news if we leave, this place will go to s*** in a year.”

Leaving is now more of a possibility than ever before. It is a decision Trump would be making without paying a visit to the US troops who have been serving overseas under his command now for two years – a decision the commander in chief would be making without ever setting foot in any combat zone, including where the fight against al-Qaeda began after 9/11. It’s a fact that doesn’t sit well with Graham, who has visited the region more than 40 times over the years.

“If you are sending people over here to fight for your country, you at least owe it to them to kind of check in on them,” said Graham aboard a C-130 headed to Afghanistan.

“I would hope the President would come over here. I know he loves the military. I would advise him to come over here and say thank you, sit down with President Ghani and the Afghan partners and tell them what you would like them to do better. Understand Afghanistan,” Graham said. “Being in Afghanistan is a completely different experience than talking about it in Washington.”

No one knows that better than the troops themselves. Maj. Isaiah Thomason is with the Colorado Air National Guard. He’s clear on his mission. He’s proud of his unit. He bristles at the moniker some have given to the US fight in Afghanistan – the forgotten war.

“People have tunnel vision on what only affects them so what they don’t know, everything in the world ends up affecting us. When we do something good out here, we are helping people around the world. That all comes back so it hurts to hear them say that, but at the same time it’s not going to have us stop doing what we are doing.”

Col. Kris Kough agrees. His team of about 30 personnel advises and trains the 205th Corps of the Afghan army.

“The six months that we have been here, we have seen the Afghan army make some amazing progress,” he said. “I see progress every day here on the ground. I’ve seen vast progress over this past six months. And for everybody back home, I think it’s important they realize that progress is being made. It does not feel like a forgotten war.”

The majority of US troops in Afghanistan serve as part of a NATO-led mission, Operation Resolute Support, which is aimed at training and advising Afghan forces.

It is clear they are focused on their mission and not the politics surrounding it coming from Washington. But soldiers and airmen CNN spoke with are also not blind to the politics. They do talk about it and do wonder what’s next in this 17-year long conflict. What does it mean for them? What does it mean for their families?

“I cannot stress enough to people back home that this is yet another Christmas that the soldiers are in Afghanistan, and the reason they are here is that so you can enjoy your Christmas,” Graham said in between countless handshakes with the men and women stationed at Kandahar Air Base. “They all know what would happen to this place if we left too soon. It would be an absolute disaster.”

On a personal level, this trip also marked a new chapter for Graham. His first trip to Afghanistan since the death of closest friend and confidante, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

“This is a tough one, I was just thinking a minute ago how many times I have been here, but just almost all the time with John,” he reflected. “I feel the burden of kind of taking up the cause. There are not many people advocating for Afghanistan.”

“And John McCain would talk about things that nobody else would want to talk about,” he said.

Picking up the mantle with his trademark candor – Graham now paints a sobering picture of the consequences of leaving Afghanistan too soon.

The good news? He sees progress and right now a real opportunity, he says, in negotiating an eventual political solution with the Taliban.

“The Taliban are being hurt militarily. The conditions for reconciliation exist better than any time I have seen,” Graham said.

The bad news is that process takes time and requires patience. Something Graham is concerned Trump may not have for this conflict, thus this dire warning:

“We could, if we make the same decision we did in Iraq - leave too soon, set in motion chaos that would make Iraq look like a walk in the park, and I think one of the most likely outcomes would be a second 9/11 coming our way. That’s what the military tells me, that’s what the CIA tells me, and I have no reason to believe they have no idea what they are talking about.”

But does the Commander in Chief? Stay tuned.