U.S. troops in Afghanistan had several Thanksgiving visitors last week, including President Trump and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D-17). Lamb traveled to military bases abroad as part of a Congressional delegation which included members of the House Veterans’ Affairs committee, to meet with leadership and deployed troops.
"The holidays are a hard time when you’re overseas away from family in the military,” Lamb said, who served in the U.S. Marines. “I experienced that a couple times when I was stationed in Japan. Both last year and this year I wanted to go and spend time with troops and hear what they’re going through.”
Lamb said despite the nearly two decades the United States has occupied Afghanistan, morale among troops was positive, and he praised service members for their work combating ISIS, which has been active in Afghanistan as well as in Syria and other parts of the Middle East.
“In the last year, [U.S. troops] have done some incredible work against ISIS, which is a whole separate part of the conflict that Americans don’t really think of as much in Afghanistan,” Lamb said. “They’ve taken almost all of ISIS’s territory away from them and made a real contribution to the safety of that country.”
But Lamb said the grinding war against the Taliban, which has vied for control of the country ever since the United States ousted its leadership after the 9/11 attacks, is effectively a "stalemate."
Lamb’s visit coincided with an unannounced visit to the country by President Trump, who also visited troops in Afghanistan over the holiday. During his visit, Trump said that the Taliban was ready to agree to a cease-fire, a statement which surprised and confused both Taliban and Afghan leaders.
“[The cease-fire] is something that the Taliban have never really successfully agreed to,” Lamb said. “So I don’t think people there are really optimistic that that’s going to be part of this. But I do think a lot of folks serving us in Afghanistan believe that talks should be taking place. We’ve been at war for way too long, it is a stalemate, and so we have to be talking to try to end this.”
Lamb said he believed that could be done by bringing down troop levels while “still keeping American safe.”
In his interview with WESA, the western Pennsylvania Democrat also addressed Trump’s intervention in several cases of military misconduct, in which Trump pardoned three soldiers either accused or convicted of war crimes. Lamb himself successfully prosecuted cases of military misconduct as a lawyer in the Navy.
In two of the cases, other soldiers testified against the accused, former Army Captain Clint Lorance and Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL. The Navy planned to remove Gallagher from the elite force, but Trump intervened on the soldier’s behalf multiple times. Trump pardoned a third soldier, Army Major Mathew Golsteyn, before he was court-martialed.
“I think it’s deeply concerning that the military members and civilian heads of those departments themselves were in such deep disagreement with the president,” Lamb said. “You can’t ignore the fact that the President seems to be making this a political issue and a political decision instead of one that's about the facts and the laws and the moral standards that bind the U.S. military.”
Republican veterans and Congressional candidates in the region have praised Trump’s efforts.
“One of the things that this is showing the American people is that the president does have pardon authority,” Lamb said. “It’s legal, what he did, whether you like it or not. That might be something we have to think about going forward, about whether we want to take another look at those laws and the options that are available to him.”
While Lamb visited Afghanistan last week, constituents on both sides of the aisle protested the impeachment investigation against President Trump outside Lamb’s Mt. Lebanon district office. Asked if he had a message for protesters, Lamb said, “I have the same message that I’ve had since this began and that I’ll have until it’s over.
“I’ll make this decision not based on partisanship, or politics, or how many people want to protest outside my office," he said. "I’m going to make it about the facts and the law, and the oath that we all took to uphold and defend the Constitution.”