AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Pentagon is close to sending thousands of more troops to Afghanistan. There are more than 8,500 troops there now, and soon that number could grow to about 12,500. But what kind of difference can that deployment make after more than 15 years of fighting? Here to talk about that is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Welcome to the studio.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey.
CORNISH: So what are these new troops going to do?
BOWMAN: Well, they'll be mostly U.S. army trainers. They'll work with Afghan forces, and some will likely head down to smaller Afghan units closer to the front lines. Of course back in February, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General John Nicholson, said the fight is at what he called a stalemate, and he need a few thousand more troops. There's been no formal decision, Audie, from the Pentagon, from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. We're told there could be an announcement - a formal announcement in the next week or two.
CORNISH: In terms of that decision, who's behind it? Help us understand, like, how we reached this number and about whether to send them.
BOWMAN: Well, first of all, the president gave Secretary Mattis the authority to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. Now, this is far different from President Obama, who kept a very close eye on the number of troops, American troops in Afghanistan, and some of the Pentagon complained Obama and his advisers were micromanaging the situation there, even controlling the number of people they would send over to close bases.
Right now, this new troop request is being worked by the commander in Afghanistan, the National Security Council under H.R. McMaster and senior leaders at the Pentagon. All of them are involved. And we're told there was some reluctance from some in the White House like Steve Bannon who asked, you know, why are we sending more troops? What do you hope to accomplish? And of course the president during the campaign complained about these overseas commitments.
CORNISH: To that point, how is the war there going? I mean what should we read into this infusion of support?
BOWMAN: It's not going well at all. Remember; stalemate - that's the word from the commander. And Secretary Mattis told Congress this week, quote, "we are not winning." And a senator asked Mattis a logical question. Well, what does winning look like? And here's Mattis.
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JAMES MATTIS: What does winning look like? The Afghan government with international help will be able to handle the violence and drive it down to a level that local security forces can handle it.
BOWMAN: And - but they can't handle it now. That's the bottom line. The Taliban has gained a lot of ground over the past year, especially in southern Afghanistan around Helmand and Kandahar. And what Mattis and others have said is that you'll need more American air strikes to push the Taliban back, more artillery strikes. These are the things the Afghans really don't have. And also, there's a move to create more of the elite Afghan units, the commandos who are quite good, highly skilled and are really called upon in pretty much every situation. So the Americans would train more of those guys.
But there is a frustration clearly in the Congress, some in Congress, even some at the White House, some at the Pentagon I talk with. I was talking to one official today who likened this to mowing the lawn. You basically go back and mow the lawn with more troops, air strikes and artillery strikes.
CORNISH: But you're probably not mowing the lawn for 15 years - right? - which is, like, how long this fighting has been going on. And just for context, the U.S. had a hundred thousand troops in Afghanistan under President Obama. So what's the sense of what kind of difference 12,000 troops could make now?
BOWMAN: Not a lot of difference, frankly, outside of preventing more territory or cities in the south from falling. The best-case scenario, Audie, is holding these cities, the main highway, and the Taliban will control a lot of the countryside. U.S. and Afghan officials hope that this new effort will at least give the Afghans breathing space to build a more competent force with these elite commandos and put enough pressure on the Taliban to lay down their arms and negotiate. But you're right. With a hundred thousand troops, they weren't able to do that. So right now, all of this is just hope.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WAR ON DRUGS SONG, "UNDER THE PRESSURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.