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How Will Trump's Afghanistan Strategy Change Fight On The Ground?


NPR's Tom Bowman has spent the day at the Pentagon, looking into what's to come in Afghanistan, what U.S. military tactics may be moving forward and what defines victory there. Tom, thanks for being here once again. And the president last night did not talk about troop numbers, but we've been reporting the number 4,000. As we just heard, that's the number that's being discussed on Capitol Hill, too - any more clarity on this from the Pentagon?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, the actual number the Pentagon has is 3,900. That's the number they've been given by the White House. And what I'm hearing at the Pentagon is the military is already drawing up plans and deployment orders. We could see some announcements as early as this week. Now, they won't send all those thousands over at once but in stages, Robert, over the coming weeks. That's what we're hearing.

SIEGEL: So if thousands more troops will head over, what will they be doing there?

BOWMAN: Pretty much what they've been doing for quite some time - training Afghan forces. You'll see some go closer to the front lines - that's new - with the Afghan army, help plan operations with them, maybe call in airstrikes. Now, other Americans will help increase the numbers of Afghan commandos. Those are the best fighters. They need thousands more of those commandos.

And you'll also need American trainers to increase the size of the Afghan air force, which just has a handful of small attack aircraft. Now, the Afghan air force has gone on some bombing runs already, Robert, but they need a lot more pilots and aircraft and spare parts, mechanics and so forth.

SIEGEL: Last night, President Trump offered what he called a clear definition of victory. Let's listen to what he said.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition - attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaida, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.

SIEGEL: And, Tom, he offered no timeframe during which any of those things would happen.

BOWMAN: That's right. That's new, and that's significant - no more deadlines. As far as winning, it will be easier, Robert, to deal with ISIS and al-Qaida because they're fewer in number and generally isolated in eastern Afghanistan. But the Taliban is on the move all around the country and gaining ground.

Now, you hear President Trump saying the Taliban may end up negotiating, but here's the thing. The U.S. was unable to pressure the Taliban to negotiate with 100,000 U.S. troops there - weren't able to completely defeat them, either. No one ever thought the Taliban would ever be strong enough to take over the entire country. But again, they're gaining ground. And even with those few thousand Americans, that stalemate will likely continue.

SIEGEL: The president criticized Pakistan for harboring the Taliban. He said that has to change. What's the plan for getting Pakistan to end support for the Taliban?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't have any details other than tough talk from the president. The U.S. has tried to persuade Pakistan in the past to give up these safe havens. The U.S. has withheld money on occasion, and that may happen again. And there have been times when the U.S. just bombed locations, these safe haven areas in Pakistan. And some of the military would like to have that option once again. And of course just last year, Robert, a drone strike took out the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mansoor. He was driving in a car through Pakistan.

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

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