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FACT CHECK: Trump's Claim Linking The Collapse Of The Soviet Union To Afghanistan

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The president delivered a history lesson yesterday that left historians scratching their heads. The lesson was on Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. Here's what he said.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan - Russia.

KELLY: The president went on.

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TRUMP: The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there.

KELLY: President Trump there speaking at a cabinet meeting yesterday. Well, we are going to fact check this point by point with Seth Jones. He is author of a book on war in Afghanistan. He is director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, from where he joins me now. Welcome.

SETH JONES: Thank you for having me on.

KELLY: So a lot to unpack there, but start with the why - why Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The president, as we just heard, says it was to stop terrorists who were attacking Russia. Was that the reason?

JONES: Well, we actually have now declassified Soviet documents, so we can fact check this ourselves. And what Soviet leaders say at the time is that their primary reason for going into Afghanistan was because of concerns that the U.S. government, including the CIA, were having significant influence among Afghan leaders. We know from these documents that the Soviets were increasingly concerned, much like the Soviets had been meddling in the soft underbelly of the United States in Cuba, that the U.S. was now doing the same just south of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

KELLY: And again, just to be completely clear, were terrorists from Afghanistan crossing the border into Russia?

JONES: No, I mean, there were certainly mujahideen operating in Afghanistan at that point. But no, there were no major terrorist attacks. And the Soviet archives are pretty clear about this. The reason was not about terrorism. The reason was entirely about balance of power politics.

KELLY: What about another assertion to fact check here that war in Afghanistan bankrupted Moscow and caused the collapse of the Soviet Union? Do the facts support that, that it was the war in Afghanistan that broke up the USSR?

JONES: No, the facts don't support that the war in Afghanistan broke up the USSR. The USSR had tons of problems. It had overreach globally. Its military industrial complex was way too large. Its economy was in shambles because of a state-run system, and it had numerous ethnic problems both in Central Asia and in its Eastern European flank. So the Soviet Union collapsed for a range of very complex reasons. Virtually none of them had to do with its operations in Afghanistan.

KELLY: One more piece of the president's comments to ask you about - he asserted that the Soviet Union was right to be in Afghanistan, which is an opinion, not a fact to check per se, but - safe to say this is not a view that has ever been staked out by a U.S. president before.

JONES: Well, I think the irony of the comment is that this was entirely about great power competition with the United States. So by saying they were right to be there, either it's a misunderstanding of why the Soviets were actually there, or you're giving them credence to be competing with the United States at that very point and to be worried about the U.S. influence. So it's sort of a strange interpretation.

KELLY: Do we know where the president is getting his information about history in Afghanistan and the Soviet Union?

JONES: I could not tell you on this one (laughter).

KELLY: You're laughing.

JONES: Well, I mean, it's clear that it's not coming from history books. It's not coming from declassified Soviet archives. So I defer to the president's advisers on where he's getting his information from.

KELLY: Well let me push back at you and ask this. Does it matter if President Trump gets the history right or wrong? I mean, these are...

JONES: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Events of decades ago. Why does it matter today in 2019?

JONES: Well, I think it matters a great deal because they affect decisions that are taking place today. But the U.S. strategy is very different. The government in Afghanistan is very different. So if you're trying to use that as a reason for why the U.S. went in and why the U.S. is now leaving, it's not a very good case to highlight.

KELLY: That as Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's also author of a book on the history of Afghanistan and war titled "In the Graveyard of Empires." Seth Jones, thank you.

JONES: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.