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Rep. Ro Khanna: U.S. Troops Are a “Sitting Target” in Syria; It’s Time to Bring Them Home

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In Syria, a suicide bomber struck a restaurant in the northern city of Manbij Wednesday, killing 19 people including four Americans. Two of them were U.S. soldiers. The bombing was claimed by ISIS and came just weeks after President Trump declared victory over the group and ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria, prompting the resignation of Pentagon chief Jim Mattis. Just hours after the attack, Vice President Mike Pence reiterated that ISIS has been defeated. Wednesday’s attack drew renewed calls from congressional hawks—both Republicans and Democrats—to reverse Trump’s Syria withdrawal. The U.S. has an estimated 2,000 troops stationed in Syria, even though Congress has never declared war on the country. We speak with Ro Khanna, Democratic congressmember from California. He is a leading critic of U.S. military interventions abroad.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Syria, a suicide bomber struck a restaurant in the northern city of Manbij on Wednesday, killing 19 people including four Americans. Two of them were U.S. soldiers. The bombing was claimed by ISIS and came just weeks after President Trump declared victory over the group and ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria, prompting the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Just hours after the attack, Vice President Mike Pence reiterated ISIS has been defeated.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Thanks to the leadership of this commander-in-chief and the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces, we’re now actually able to begin to hand off the fight against ISIS in Syria to our coalition partners, and we are bringing our troops home. The caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated.

AMY GOODMAN: Wednesday’s attack in Syria drew renewed calls from congressional hawks—both Republicans and Democrats—to reverse Trump’s Syria withdrawal of troops. The U.S. has an estimated 2,000 troops stationed in Syria, even though Congress has never declared war on the country.

For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Ro Khanna, Democratic congressmember from California. Last month, he wrote a piece for The Washington Post, “Trump was right to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan. This is what he should do next,” he wrote.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Congressmember Khanna. Your response to the attack in Manbij, and what you think the U.S. response should be?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, first, my heart goes out to the families of the soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation and to the families of all those who lost their lives. But I think this should double our resolve to remove our troops. They are actually a sitting target for ISIS.

What has happened in Syria is that ISIS used to control about 34,000 square feet [sic] of territory, and now—34,000 square miles, and now it’s down to 15 kilometers. And that’s not just because of Trump; it started with President Obama. So, ISIS does not control much territory.

We need to remove the troops. And we need to recognize that there is no military solution to a diffuse insurgency. What it will require is good intelligence work, law enforcement and cooperation with the regional players to target the remaining insurgency.

AMY GOODMAN: And your comments on Pence giving this speech, saying ISIS has been defeated, seemingly not understanding what had just taken place?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, that was just foolish and totally out of touch. I mean, the reality is, there are still 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. The accurate statement would be to say that ISIS no longer controls much territory in Syria. That was largely because, frankly, of the Obama administration’s strategy.

But you cannot fundamentally eradicate ISIS, which is diffuse and has 20,000 to 30,000 people across Iraq and Syria. It would require a permanent occupation of those countries, which no American wants. The only way to deal with that is to work with intelligence, with networks, to tackle the ISIS attacks that may emerge. But they do not control territory, and I think—or, more than 15 kilometers. And that’s, I think, what Pence should have said.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Trump calling for the withdrawal of half the U.S. troops out of Afghanistan?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I support that, again, if it’s done responsibly. I do not support the way the president approached Syria—just want to clarify that—because he had no agreement with Erdogan to protect the Kurds and to make sure that Turkey didn’t annex part of Syria. We should have had much better negotiation and diplomacy before our withdrawal.

Same when it comes to Afghanistan. I do think that we ought to bring our troops home. When we had the surge in 2008, the Taliban controlled about 40 percent of the territory. Today the Taliban controls 70 percent of the territory. It is not possible, with 14,000 troops, for us to prevent or retake Afghanistan and not allow the Taliban there. It would take hundreds of thousands of troops to do that. And I don’t think the American people want that, nor is that in our security interest.

So, we should withdraw, but we need to understand and have diplomacy, a regional diplomacy, that involves Pakistan, that involves India, that involves China and Russia and other players, to make sure that we have some vigilance against emerging terrorism, which, by the way, isn’t just in Afghanistan, but much of it is across the border in Pakistan. So this idea that if we withdraw our troops, that there may be some other attack, well, those attacks are being planned not just where they happen in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about Yemen? You have been a leader on calling for the U.S. to stop supporting the Saudi bombing of Yemen. We have this new news, from Nick Turse at Yahoo! News. He writes, “[N]ewly obtained documents reveal that the United States has also been training coalition military personnel from the United Arab Emirates for the air war in Yemen.”

REP. RO KHANNA: I thought Nick’s reporting was brilliant. It was the first clear reporting about our complicity in that war, not just with the Saudis, but also with the United Arab Emirates.

The reality is very simple, Amy, as you know. I mean, there are 14 million Yemenis who face the possibility of famine. This is not because the world doesn’t have enough food and medicine. There are many agencies who want to get food and medicine to the Yemeni civilians. But it’s because the Saudis and the coalition, including the United Arab Emirates, have been bombing the port of Hodeidah and not allowing food and medicine to get in. And that’s led to extraordinary inflation in Yemen. And kids are not getting basic nutrition. There is not basic medicine.

We need to bring an end to this war. Fortunately, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer have both given a commitment that as soon as we can vote, the shutdown is over, we’re going to bring the War Powers Resolution for a vote in the House. It’s going to pass. And Bernie Sanders is going to bring it back in the Senate. It will pass. It will be the first time that a War Powers Resolution has passed in the House and the Senate in opposition to the White House, and it will be a clear signal to end this war.

AMY GOODMAN: Now let’s talk about the government shutdown and the pain that it is causing, not just the 800,000 federal workers who are not being paid, so many of them being forced to work and work overtime but are not receiving paychecks. I’d like to get your response to that. Also, after Nancy Pelosi told President Trump he shouldn’t be giving a State of the Union address at this time, it’s dangerous with the whole government—many in government in one place, that he should give it in writing, which has precedent, or at the Oval Office or at another time, and then, in response, Trump canceling a military flight Thursday that was set to deliver the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional delegation to visit NATO and also troops in Afghanistan, Pelosi leading the delegation that included chairs of the House Intelligence and Veterans’ Affairs Committee, his 11th-hour order causing the bus carrying the delegation to turn around on its way to the airport. He said she could take a commercial flight to Afghanistan, but also, in writing that letter, exposed that they were going to Afghanistan.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, it’s outrageous, and it’s petty. And it may be a turning point in the entire debate. I mean, the president is using personal retaliation against the speaker. It’s no—he’s not standing up for a cause. It actually reminds me of when Newt Gingrich said that he shut down government because he wasn’t allowed to exit from the front of Air Force One, and the press labeled him a crybaby because he made it something so petty. And that’s what the president is doing.

And substantively, there are those of us in Congress, progressives, who actually want to help the president get out of Afghanistan, and make the case to our own leadership that there’s a responsible way of withdrawing troops. Let me tell you, he’s not helping himself when he’s denying the speaker the opportunity to go to Afghanistan.

And this is not a tit-for-tat situation. The speaker has said that the president can come for the State of the Union. It should be whenever we stop the shutdown, because the Department of Homeland Security personnel aren’t being paid, and it would be unfair for them. The president is doing something that is totally vindictive and wrong. The military is being paid, and this is a time-sensitive mission to Afghanistan in light of his own calls to withdraw troops.

In terms of the broader economic damage, I mean, I meet people all the time from my district and in the community who are really hurting. I mean, they’re going without paychecks. They are unable to make mortgage payments, are unable to pay, in some cases, for their kids’ college education. I mean, this is having a real impact.

And it’s having a real impact on the economy. The president’s own economic advisers are saying that we’re losing 0.1 percent of GDP growth every week this shutdown goes on. And we already have had a slowdown potentially in the economy. This may be a policy that, unfortunately, drives us into recession, which would be terrible, given that it’s totally self-inflicted.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about a vote that did take place this week: the House of Representatives voting 424 to 1 to condemn white nationalism and white supremacy, in a rebuke to Iowa Republican Congressmember Steve King. It wasn’t a formal censure of King, who’s made similar remarks throughout his 16-year career in Congress. Can you comment on what he said?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, it’s so appalling, it’s so outrageous, that he should resign. But I think your point, Amy, is a very good one, that this is not a unique situation. Doug Burns, who is a journalist in Steve King’s district, has a piece where he chronicles that Steve King has been saying the same thing about white supremacy for the past 10 years, and there hasn’t been any action. I’m glad he’s been stripped of the committees, but I just don’t see how someone of his views, which is blatantly racist, can continue to serve in 21st century America.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you be pushing for a censure?

REP. RO KHANNA: I will be. Tim Ryan has been leading the charge for a censure. I’m hopeful that this will be a bipartisan-basis censure. I don’t see how anyone can really stand for what Steve King represents.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Silicon Valley Congressmember Ro Khanna from California, leading critic of U.S. military interventions abroad.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll be joined in studio by the foreign minister of Venezuela. Stay with us. Is a coup against President Maduro in the works?

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