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Obama Decides To Leave A Large Presence Of U.S. Troops In Afghanistan


President Obama promised, when he took office, to bring to an end the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State has led the U.S. to resume airstrikes. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban's resurgence has caused the president to take another look at his plan to have all American troops out by the time he leaves office. Later this morning, the president will announce a big change in U.S. military policy. NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, is with us. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What exactly will he announce?

BOWMAN: Well, the president will say that 9,800 troops in Afghanistan right now will stay at that level through most of next year, and then drop to, like, 5,500 for 2017. And it's a big change. They had been talking about going down to 1,000 troops only stationed in the embassy in Kabul, not spread around the country. But there have been indications about this for months now. The U.S. commander there, General John Campbell, testified before Congress. And he said he was recommending a larger troop presence. He was giving the president options. And the fact is the Taliban's much more active. There have been questions about whether the Afghans are up to the challenge. And of course, the northern city of Kunduz was taken for 15 days by the Taliban and then retaken, so that kind of shocked everybody.

MONTAGNE: Yes, a big shock. But you know, Tom, it's not just the generals. Yesterday, a group of senior foreign policy officials released a policy paper urging the president to not draw down troops dramatically. And the signatories were what is important about that - former defense secretaries from Republican and Democratic administrations, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, four former U.S. ambassadors to Afghanistan. And yesterday, I asked one, Ambassador James Cunningham, how he would envision a future for Afghanistan if the troops from the U.S. did not stay.

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: Well, unfortunately, we saw in Kunduz what the future could look like for Afghanistan with the Taliban. In the short time that they took control of the city they executed government workers. They destroyed government facilities. They destroyed facilities for women. They went literally house to house, searching for women who were running women's shelters and providing care for women and children and seeking to execute them. I mean, what they showed is what the future for Afghanistan looks like for many Afghans if they get a chance to come back. And that's a future that none of us want to see. If it does, it will be a nightmare for Afghanistan and dangerous for us.

BOWMAN: As he says, dangerous for us. So part of this effort - the training effort is one part, but the big part also is counter-terror mission, going around the country with Afghan forces, you know, hitting the remnants of al-Qaida and their allies. So that's going to be a big part of this. And just recently, Renee, U.S. and Afghan forces hit some al-Qaida training camps outside of the southern city of Kandahar, close to the Pakistan border. The other thing is this training effort. General John Campbell, the commander there, said they need a lot more help with logistics, getting supplies to their troops in the field. And also, their air force needs a lot more help. He estimated three more years to build up their air force. Right now, Renee, they only have two attack helicopters.

MONTAGNE: And, you know, just in the few seconds we have left, there's also the issue of ISIS, the Islamic state in Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: That's right; that is building up a bit. Not too far from the capital of Kabul, ISIS is building up. As General Campbell said, they're changing jerseys. They want to fight with the winning team. A lot of their Taliban commanders have been in Pakistan for years; they don't see them. Now they want to fight with those who are winning. That's ISIS.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.