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Evaluating Afghanistan As More Troops Expected


Additional U.S. troops are likely headed for Afghanistan. A U.S. official confirms to NPR that the Pentagon is expected to send nearly 4,000 more troops to train Afghan security forces. They will join the 8,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops who are currently there. But after 16 years of fighting, the Taliban continues to gain territory and mount brazen attacks. So if the Taliban couldn't be defeated with the 100,000 U.S. troops that used to be in Afghanistan, how will a couple thousand more change the equation?

For some perspective, we turn now to retired Lieutenant General David Barno. He was the overall commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. He's currently at the School of International Service at American University here in Washington. General Barno, welcome to the program.

DAVID BARNO: Great to be here.

BLOCK: We heard the defense secretary, James Mattis, tell Congress this week that the U.S. is not winning - his words - in Afghanistan. Do you think these additional 4,000 troops could actually make a difference there?

BARNO: Well, I think they'll help fill in some of the gaps that the U.S. commander there, General John Nicholson, talked about in his testimony earlier this year. He needs some more forces to be able to get out with Afghan units as advisers. He needs more forces to do the counterterrorism mission against a Islamic State force there that's growing in strength.

And so it's simply going to be a gap-filler in many respects. I don't think it's going to be some type of a decisive increment of troops, and all of a sudden it's going to turn around the battlefield results and make this a war that we're suddenly winning when those troops get deployed.

BLOCK: And does it strike you, though, that in trying to come up with a new strategy, there are really any more options than have been on the table in past administrations who have been trying hard - and much blood and treasure has been spilled - in trying to answer these very same questions for many, many years now?

BARNO: I think there's some potential different openings here. You've got a very different president with a very different outlook about American commitments around the world. I think he is going to consider all options, including a zero option, potentially, for Afghanistan.

BLOCK: A zero option meaning what, no troops?

BARNO: Which means no U.S. troops, yeah.

BLOCK: Well, wait a minute, if they're talking about a zero option of no U.S. troops, what would the point be of sending 4,000 additional troops as they're talking about doing now?

BARNO: Well, again, I don't think this idea of no U.S. troops is a principal option. But I think they are going to consider a range that takes them from, you know, no U.S. troops in Afghanistan to one that has, you know, somewhat of a buildup of troops that can put more pressure on the Taliban, ideally, to get them to the negotiating table. So I think this will be a wide-ranging strategy. Every previous strategy review has actually considered that as an option as well.

BLOCK: General Barno, I feel like I've had similar conversations over the past 12 or so years about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and the need to build up the Afghan army so it can stand on its own. There's a "Groundhog Day" feeling to all of this. I mean, are you at all confident that anything could be different that would shift the equation and alter the U.S. role in Afghanistan in a positive way?

BARNO: I think these additional troops are going to be able to be pushed further forward as advisers with frontline Afghan units. That has been prohibited under the Obama administration. They haven't been out there on the battlefield.

If you connect the forward-based advisers that are out with Afghan units to some additional airpower that can actually direct some serious firepower against some of these Afghan formations, that might deliver a little bit of a different result. We've been actually pretty constrained given the numbers of forces that we've had in Afghanistan for the last two years at least and the rules of engagement and the ability to be able to get them forward onto the battlefield where they can actually have an impact.

BLOCK: Think back, if you would, General Barno, to when you were the U.S. commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. Would you have imagined at the time that this war would still be going on some 12 years later and that the U.S. would still be involved?

BARNO: No, I wouldn't and certainly not - would not have envisioned that the Taliban would have resurged so strongly and have, you know, so much territory. And things were looking much different, much better than they are today, so it's - it is a bit disconcerting. And most concerning, I think, is that we haven't really found the right path to take us to where we want to get.

And I'm not sure we clearly are articulating to ourselves what's success for us. What's the acceptable outcome here for the United States, and how do we get to that? And is there any way to get to that?

BLOCK: That's retired Lieutenant General David Barno with American University's School of International Service. General Barno, thanks for sticking with us.

BARNO: Yeah, you're very welcome.

BLOCK: And today NPR has confirmed that four U.S. service members have been shot and injured in an apparent insider attack by an Afghan soldier at a military base in Mazar-I-Sharif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.