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World

Trump Fails To Define His Concept Of Victory In Afghanistan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

While we know more now about President Trump's plans for managing the war in Afghanistan, there were many details left out of his speech last night. He said the U.S. will fight to win without defining what that looks like. So now we're going to dig into the challenges he faces and the prospects for success. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre starts us off.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: The U.S. has been fighting for nearly 16 years in Afghanistan since shortly after the 2001 al-Qaida attacks. But remember; the U.S. joined the war midstream. The Afghan conflict began way back in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded. After nearly four decades of fighting, many analysts say President Trump has little choice but to manage the war rather than end it.

SETH JONES: So big takeaway is, we're staying.

MYRE: Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation has been going to Afghanistan nearly every year for more than a decade. He says President Trump opted for limited changes to the status quo.

JONES: And at this point, he is not willing to outline how long we'll be there for, what the numbers are on the ground. I think he doesn't want to bind himself with any commitments. So it's pretty open-ended at the moment.

MYRE: During the election campaign, the president said very little about Afghanistan. And when he did, he spoke in favor of a full U.S. withdrawal. Trump's advisers argued this would be a bad choice, allowing radical groups to rebuild, as happened when the U.S. pulled out of Iraq in 2011.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: Well, I was very happy with the speech.

MYRE: That's Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

O'HANLON: You know, I think that President Trump ultimately had to choose between a lot of mediocre and bad options, but he still found the least bad of all.

MYRE: Americans, he says, are weary of endless fighting with no real signs of progress. But O'Hanlon says, consider the likely alternative.

O'HANLON: It would still be a real shame to pull out and probably watch the Afghan government fall and terrorists again take root there. And so in that context, I think that President Trump made the right decision and focused on the right basic issues.

MYRE: The U.S. has about 8,500 troops in Afghanistan. Trump didn't say how many more he was likely to send, though senior U.S. officials tell NPR it will be about 4,000. No one expects that number to completely change the trajectory of the war. The U.S. had about a hundred thousand troops there during President Barack Obama's surge. But the additional troops would allow the U.S. to work with the Afghan army to put additional pressure on the Taliban. Michael O'Hanlon again...

O'HANLON: The Taliban aren't interested in negotiating right now. They think they're winning.

MYRE: The Taliban control many rural areas of the country and feel they can outlast the U.S. forces. And the Taliban are not the only group the U.S. and its allies are fighting. Here's Seth Jones again.

JONES: Any strategy I think has got to include not just the largest insurgent group, the Taliban, but also a number of groups that threaten the U.S.

MYRE: He's referring to the Islamic State, which has established a foothold in Afghanistan, as well as other radical groups like the Haqqani network. Tom Gouttierre, who for many years ran the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha, says stability, not victory, should be the goal in the near term.

TOM GOUTTIERRE: Stability in Afghanistan is essential to the Afghans and very much in our interest.

MYRE: President Trump said his focus would be on, quote, "killing terrorists, not nation building." But Gouttierre says that focusing just on the military approach is not a likely recipe for success.

GOUTTIERRE: It's just not a military game. That stability has to do with politics in Afghanistan and politics in the region.

MYRE: All this means the president may have to spend more time on Afghanistan than he would like, and the results might be hard to measure.

JONES: I think this is unlikely to end any time at least during the next three and a half years, which means the president is mostly going to be managing the war rather than ending it.

MYRE: And that was a painful lesson his predecessors learned as well. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.