The Republican Party's official line on the war in Afghanistan has undergone a well-documented evolution over the course of two decades. For much of the conflict, most leading GOP voices backed an indefinite timeline in which American servicemen and women remained in Afghanistan in pursuit a poorly defined "victory."
As is true on a number of fronts, Donald Trump altered the party's thinking on the war -- or at least much of the party. The former president made no secret of his desperation to withdraw U.S. troops, even striking a controversial deal with the Taliban. He brought much of the GOP along with him.
As President Biden brings the war to an end, the Republican Party's line has grown ... complicated.
On the one hand, GOP leaders are loath to contradict Trump. They're also aware of polls showing many Americans wanting to bring troops home. But on the other hand, Republicans are also eager to condemn a Democratic president and exploit critical coverage of the administration in the wake of the Taliban reclaiming power.
The result is a narrowly tailored talking point, embraced by much of the party: GOP officials have spent a couple of weeks attacking Biden, not for withdrawing our forces, but for withdrawing our forces in problematic ways. The message has focused less on the "what" and more on the "how."
It's why it came as a surprise when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) unexpectedly changed direction yesterday.
Pointing to the GOP leader's Capitol Hill press conference yesterday, Politico noted in passing that McCarthy "said he would have kept American troops in Afghanistan."
That wasn't an exact quote, so I checked the video of the Q&A, and this was the relevant exchange:
REPORTER: "It sounds like you are for leaving some sort of troop presence in Afghanistan if you were in charge."
In terms of tone, the congressman answered in a matter-of-fact sort of way, as if his position were obvious. When the reporter followed up, asking what the troops' mission should be and how long McCarthy would want to see troops deployed to Afghanistan, the GOP leader didn't answer directly, focusing much of his answer on the decision to withdraw from the Bagram Air Base.
Asked whether Trump was "wrong to agree to withdraw our troops," McCarthy didn't answer that question directly, either.
To a very real degree, this reflects a shift on the Californian's part. In February 2020, after the Trump administration announced its deal with the Taliban, McCarthy applauded the former president for "working toward closing this chapter."
But more important is the degree to which the House minority leader is setting the stage for a clearer foreign policy debate. The White House has a policy: end the war; withdraw U.S. forces; bring the troops home. Kevin McCarthy expressed support yesterday for an alternative policy: leave U.S. troops in Afghanistan until, well, some point in the future.
Aside from the finger pointing, tired talking points, and attack ads, this is the basis for a meaningful and substantive discussion. The nation's top Democrat and one of the nation's top Republicans disagree on a fundamental point: whether there should be an ongoing U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan.
The country would benefit from a robust discussion on who's right.