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The Biggest National Security Stories Of 2019

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

North Korea, Syria and Afghanistan - all three of these countries have presented national security challenges to the U.S. for years. When 2019 began, there was some hope that this year could be different. Now that hope is nearly gone. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to explain the arc of these relationships over the last year and what may be ahead in 2020.

Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with North Korea. Earlier this year, President Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in that country. He painted a rosy view of his relationship with leader Kim Jong Un. But by the end of this year, there's no apparent progress toward a deal. North Korea apparently never stopped working on its missile program. What happened?

BOWMAN: Well, quite simply, Ari, neither leader could deliver what the other wanted. Trump wants a denuclearized Korean peninsula. Kim wants sanctions relief. But many analysts believe North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons because they're needed for regime survival. And former national security adviser John Bolton has come around to that. Here he is talking with our colleague Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition just over a week ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHN BOLTON: The North Koreans are very happy to declare that they're going to give up their nuclear weapons program, particularly when it's in exchange for tangible economic benefits, but they never get around to doing it. And I think the inescapable conclusion is they're happy to sell that same bridge over and over again, but there's no serious chance they will ever voluntarily give it up.

BOWMAN: So the big question for the Trump administration is, do they end up settling for something less in the coming year, let's say a freeze on the North Korean program, maybe working more closely with China to curb North Korean actions, and then North Korea gets some sanctions relief in return?

SHAPIRO: So no measurable progress in North Korea. In Syria, there was a notable victory. In October, special forces killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. How big an impact has that had on the fight against ISIS?

BOWMAN: It was an important success for the administration. Baghdadi was a charismatic leader. U.S. military officials say he's been replaced by a technocrat who just doesn't have the same power and vision. The problem is ISIS still has thousands of fighters left in Syria and Iraq, as well as tens of millions of dollars. It is still a threat and possibly growing. U.S. military officials say ISIS has a plan to recreate the caliphate over the next several years by mounting attacks, assassinations and slowly grabbing more territory.

Now, the U.S. has just under a thousand troops. They are still working with their Kurdish allies to go after ISIS. But there's no sense when the U.S. will leave. This effort could last well into 2020 and beyond.

SHAPIRO: Finally, Afghanistan, where the U.S. has been at war for almost two decades. Earlier this year, there was talk of a possible peace deal. And then in September, President Trump abruptly canceled that. What is the path ahead?

BOWMAN: Well, American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is expected to resume talks next month in Doha, Qatar, with the Taliban. And interestingly, Tolo News Network in Afghanistan is reporting the Taliban political leaders are agreeing to a ceasefire, which is key, but Taliban military leaders are not on board yet. This could be important, Ari, a ceasefire, and then you move toward a peace deal with the U.S., reductions in American troops, then possibly talks between the Taliban and Afghan leaders.

But meanwhile, the killing continues. The U.S. commander, General Scott Miller, is hammering the Taliban, going after its leadership in particular. And the Taliban are also mounting more and more attacks and this week killed an American Green Beret, Mike Goble. He was the 20th American, killed this year. And as always in war, civilians are bearing the brunt of it. The U.N. reports that civilian deaths are up this year, mostly at the hands of the Taliban.

SHAPIRO: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman with a look at the year in national security.

Thanks, Tom.

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

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