Trump Confronts Major Choice On How To Proceed In Afghanistan

Aug 21, 2017
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After months of debate about the way forward in Afghanistan, President Trump will address the nation tonight from an Army post in Virginia. During the campaign, Trump criticized the war effort as not being worth the money that had been spent on it. We're joined by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So what are we likely to hear tonight?

BOWMAN: Well, Ari, we expect the president will announce around 4,000 more Army troops to the 8,500 American troops already there. Now, these will be trainers, not combat troops. But some will be closer to the front lines with Afghan troops. Others will help increase the number of Afghan commandos, who are considered the best fighters. And still others will help increase the size of the Afghan air force, which now has just a small number of warplanes.

And I'm being told that there'll be no deadline, no drawdown of these troops as we saw under the Obama administration when, you know, you would get a surge of troops and then an announcement they'd be reduced. They'd come home in six or nine months. This will be a firm, open-ended commitment, I'm told. And that's new.

SHAPIRO: There used to be a hundred thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan along with 40,000 allied forces. Now, as you say, there are about 8,500. So what will an extra 4,000 people accomplish?

BOWMAN: Probably not much. Some Pentagon officials refer to all this as mowing the lawn. You just keep pushing back the Taliban and hope they'll negotiate. But they come back once the U.S. forces leave. Now, the Taliban gained 15 percent more ground over the past year when the Afghans were pretty much on their own. Now one problem is the Afghan army just isn't strong enough, and they don't have competent leaders. The Afghan commandos are quite good but not sufficient in number. Now, we also expect to see a lot more American airstrikes to push back the Taliban. That's been effective in the past. The problem is it could lead to civilian casualties.

But, Ari, the larger challenge has been to create a government that's strong and cohesive and responsive to its own people. Now, I've been hearing that for nearly a decade of traveling there, but that goal has been elusive because there's corruption, incompetence and divisions in the country. There have been - that's been an ongoing problem that the U.S. can't resolve. And the reason you have insurgencies is when a government is predatory or nonexistent or just unresponsive.

SHAPIRO: Now, the White House says that the president will talk tonight about a regional strategy beyond Afghanistan. What does that mean?

BOWMAN: Well, a little while ago, the State Department put out a release saying Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked with leaders in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India on what's called, quote, "a new, integrated regional strategy." Now, we don't know what that is. Maybe the president will talk a little bit more about it tonight.

What we do know is Afghanistan blames its insurgency on Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, and Pakistan and India hate one another. And what we do know is that Pakistan has not been willing to deal with those safe havens despite U.S. warnings. So Taliban fighters just keep slipping over the border. Now, that's key because the Army's field manual on fighting insurgencies says any successful fight must work to eliminate those sanctuaries. And that's just not being done.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.