Democratic candidates for president clashed Tuesday on whether to leave U.S. troops in the Middle East.
The six candidates on Tuesday night’s debate stage were pressed during the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses on their qualifications to be commander in chief amid rising tensions with Iran that some fear could lead to war.
But other candidates pledged to withdraw “combat troops” — though their plans to do so and their definition of combat troops were not spelled out.
“We should stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said. “Our keeping combat troops there is not helping.”
The United States and Iran appeared on the brink of war earlier this month after a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani while he was at the Baghdad International Airport.
One consequence of the tensions, which have largely played out on Iraqi soil, has been to stoke opposition in Iraq to the U.S. troop presence. The Iraqi Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for U.S. troops to withdraw, and the outgoing prime minister asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to prepare a plan to withdraw.
The United States has about 5,000 troops in Iraq leading the fight against ISIS. There are also about 800 U.S. troops fighting ISIS in Syria. Meanwhile, about 14,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan helping Afghan forces fight the Taliban and conducting counterterrorism operations against groups such as ISIS.
Outside of combat zones, the United States has also deployed about 14,000 more troops throughout the Middle East since the summer in an effort to deter Iran.
President Trump has pledged to end so-called forever wars. He reduced the U.S. presence in Syria, but did not withdraw altogether as planned amid fierce opposition in Congress. His administration has also been negotiating with the Taliban to allow for a U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan. Amid Iraqis’ calls for a U.S. withdrawal, though, Trump has said he does not think now is the right time to leave.
At Tuesday’s Democratic debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) argued that Americans are “sick and tired of endless wars, which have cost us trillions of dollars.”
“In America today, our infrastructure is crumbling, half of our people are living paycheck-to-paycheck, 87 million people have no health care or are underinsured, we have 500,000 people sleeping out on the streets tonight,” he said.
He also said he would “rebuild” the United Nations and the State Department to resolve international conflicts diplomatically.
Warren also argued for relying on allies and economic tools over combat troops. In Afghanistan, she said, “no one has a solution and an end point.”
“We need to get our combat troops out. They are not helping create more safety for the United States,” she added.
Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said it’s possible to remain engaged in the region “without having an endless commitment of ground troops.”
“The very president who said he was going to end endless war, who pretended to have been against the war in Iraq all along — though we know that’s not true — now has more troops going to the Middle East,” Buttigieg said of Trump.
Billionaire Tom Steyer argued for “coalition building” in the region. He railed against Trump “obviously” having “no strategy” in the Middle East, but added a lack of strategy has been an issue for nearly 20 years.
“We know from The Washington Post that in fact there was no strategy.” Steyer said of Afghanistan, referring to a report showing officials lied about progress in the war there. “There were a series of tactical decisions that made no sense. So we really have to ask ourselves in the Middle East, what are we trying to accomplish?”
Despite the calls to withdraw ground or combat troops, it remains unclear whether or how the candidates will pull back entirely from a region that has bedeviled recent presidents. Former President Obama also planned to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, but was forced to redeploy troops to Iraq after the emergence of ISIS and was talked out of a withdrawal from Afghanistan by his military advisers.
Only Biden and Klobuchar explicitly said Tuesday they would leave U.S. troops in the Middle East.
Klobuchar said she would leave “some troops” in the Middle East, but not “in the level that Donald Trump is taking us right now.” In Afghanistan, she said “some” troops would stay for counterterrorism missions and training Afghan forces.
She added she would not have removed U.S. troops from Syria’s border with Turkey as Trump did, allowing Turkey to launch an offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. And in Iraq, she said she would leave the U.S. troops there now, “despite the mess that has been created by Donald Trump.”
Biden, meanwhile, said it would be a “mistake” to withdraw the “small number” of troops in the Middle East focused on fighting ISIS, warning that the terrorist group is “going to reconstitute itself.”
“There’s a difference between combat troops and leaving special forces,” he said. ISIS “will come back if we do not deal with them.”