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World

What The U.S.-Taliban Deal Means For American Troops In Afghanistan

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S. has signed a deal with the Taliban that aims to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan, the longest in American history. But there's already a glitch. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says he won't free thousands of Taliban prisoners as yesterday's deal called for. Joining us to talk about that is NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. He spent years embedding with U.S. and Afghan forces. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So the agreement's less than a day old, and there's already a problem. How serious is it that Ghani says he won't release the prisoners?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know yet. And I'm sure the U.S. and NATO officials will be reaching out quickly to Ghani. Now, the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners was supposed to be a precondition of the Taliban-Afghan talks slated to begin soon. Ghani says he's not ready to release any prisoners before talks begin. And he said that prisoner release was not a promise the U.S. could make. I think it shows what many predicted - the most difficult step was not a U.S. Taliban agreement but one between the Afghans and the Taliban.

FADEL: So there are about 12,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. What are they doing? And when will they begin to leave?

BOWMAN: Well, right now, they're training Afghan troops and also together with Afghan commandos going after terror groups like ISIS. The U.S. troops will drop to 8,600 in the next several months, but the military still says that that number - they can both train Afghans and go after ISIS or other terror groups. The agreement says all U.S. troops out in 14 months. Now, Leila, that's faster, I'm told, than some earlier plans to draw down in two years. So either the Taliban pressed hard for a better deal, or President Trump just wanted the troops out faster.

FADEL: So is it realistic then?

BOWMAN: Depends who you ask. One official told me the timeline is - he called it optimistic and said the Taliban has to abide by the agreement to stop attacks, break with al-Qaida and open talks with Afghan officials. But here's the thing - last September, right when an earlier U.S. Taliban peace agreement was about to be signed, the U.S. attacked an al-Qaida cell in western Afghanistan. And American officials told me when I was in Afghanistan at that time that the Taliban were also working with al-Qaida in the east near the Pakistan border. So some question whether the Taliban will really break with al-Qaida.

FADEL: So then how does the U.S. make sure that the Taliban is honoring the agreement?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. and the Taliban will have some sort of a monitoring office in Qatar to make sure everyone abides by the agreement. And in Afghanistan, the U.S. and Taliban are communicating by phone or radio to report on what they're seeing on the ground. The problem is U.S. troops are in small numbers and largely confined to bases and not out and about around the country, like they were in past years, you know, patrolling with Afghans, going into villages. One retired general with years of experience in Afghanistan told me, as a result, there's no way the U.S. can effectively monitor this agreement on the ground or even witness if the Taliban are intimidating the population.

FADEL: But the U.S. will stop the troop drawdown if the Taliban doesn't cooperate?

BOWMAN: Right. That's what they've said. And it's likely, even in the face of some Taliban noncompliance, that the U.S. will continue to draw down. And military leaders have long said, of course, there's no military solution here, only a political one. President Trump wants to bring what he calls endless wars to a close. Now, I'll be heading to Syria soon, Leila, to check out the U.S. military mission against ISIS. The president also is cutting back there. There were once about 2,000 American soldiers in Syria. Now it's down to about 500 or so.

FADEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "AUGUST 10") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.