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Trump administration weighs best path forward on Afghanistan war

August 3, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
Under President Trump, a new strategy for the almost 16-year war in Afghanistan has been the subject of divisive debate among him and his national security team for months, with the president apparently growing frustrated with the slow progress. P.J. Tobia reports and Judy Woodruff talks to retired Army Gen. John Keane about how to handle America’s longest war.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. war in Afghanistan has been under way for almost 16 years, and now a third president is facing a policy decision on how to handle America’s longest war.

With at least 10 more American deaths on the ground there this year and more than 2,400 since the war began, the Trump administration’s next moves are in the spotlight.

P.J. Tobia begins our coverage.

P.J. TOBIA: Helicopters raced across the Afghan sky, transporting wounded from yesterday’s Taliban attack near Kandahar City in Southern Afghanistan.

On the ground, the charred husk of an American armored vehicle destroyed by a suicide bomber. Two U.S. service members were killed, four others wounded. For months, a new Afghan strategy has been the subject of divisive debate among the president and his national security team.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re going to be getting some ideas, because we have been there. It’s our longest war. We have been there for many years. We have been there for now close to 17 years, and I want to find out why we have been there for 17 years, how it’s going, and what we should do in terms of additional ideas.

P.J. TOBIA: Progress has been slow, and Mr. Trump has apparently grown frustrated with his advisers.

NBC News reported yesterday, Mr. Trump suggested that Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joe Dunford fire the top commander in Afghanistan, Army General John Nicholson. Nicholson assumed command more than a year ago. The Pentagon was reportedly considering extending his term.

General H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, dismissed the charge in an interview yesterday with MSNBC host Hugh Hewitt.

HUGH HEWITT, MSNBC: Do you have confidence yourself in General Nicholson, the combatant commander in Afghanistan?

H.R. MCMASTER, U.S. National Security Adviser: Of course. I have known him for many years. I can’t imagine a more capable commander on any mission.

HUGH HEWITT: Does — Secretary Mattis, does the president?

H.R. MCMASTER: Absolutely.

P.J. TOBIA: Today, Republican senators came to Nicholson’s defense, and cautioned Mr. Trump against ignoring his advice.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: If you don’t listen to the generals and you try to make this up as you go, as Obama and Biden did, you’re going to wind up losing Afghanistan like we did Iraq, and the consequences to America are worse.

P.J. TOBIA: The president’s own position on Afghanistan is unclear. In June, he authorized Mattis and the Pentagon to dictate troop levels in Afghanistan. Nicholson said earlier this year he need several thousand more troops to assist the roughly 8,500 Americans and 5,000 NATO personnel already on the ground.

On Capitol Hill in June, Mattis added:

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. Secretary of Defense: I understand the urgency, and I understand it’s my responsibility. We are not winning in Afghanistan right now, and we will correct this.

P.J. TOBIA: But so far, there’s been no formal announcement about adding troops. Adding to the uncertainty, The Wall Street Journal reports the administration is now also exploring the possibility of withdrawing forces.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m P.J. Tobia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all of this, we turn to retired Army General Jack Keane. He was vice chief of staff of the Army from 1999 to 2003. He was an influential advocate for the surge of troops in Iraq 10 years and now has his own consulting company.

General Keane, thank you very much. It’s good to see you again.

What is the Trump administration policy toward Afghanistan?

GEN. JACK KEANE (RET.), U.S. Army: Well, right now, they’re just maintaining the status quo.

The commander in the field has requested some additional troops, to be sure. The president has asked for a strategic review of what is happening in Afghanistan. I think the questions you just heard him ask are the appropriate ones. Why are we there for 16 years?

And I can just tell, from you my own perspective, when I had the opportunity to talk to President Bush about why the strategy was failing in Iraq and what we should do about it, that is the place to begin, Judy: Why? Why 16 years and no enduring victory?

The reason for that is simply this. A lack of political will and commitment to achieve an enduring victory and the lack of capacity and resources in support of that. And that began almost immediately after the Taliban were defeated in 2001, when Secretary Rumsfeld, in charge of the Pentagon, denied us the opportunity to put in the kind of trainers to build a security force that would keep the Taliban down.

We didn’t do that. And then from 2003 to 2008, the United States was preoccupied with the war in Iraq, and Afghanistan, Judy, was put on a diet. And then, in 2009, President Obama added more troops, but he didn’t give Generals McChrystal and Petraeus what they wanted. They told him the minimal force required to win in Afghanistan is 40,000. He cut that number by 25 percent and then pulled it out 15 months later.

That doomed Afghanistan to the protracted war that we have right today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you are talking about a lack of will, a failure of will, a lack of resources.

Is there agreement at least on what the goal is in Afghanistan? What is it the United States wants the outcome to be there?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, I think they’re probably is some agreement there.

Look, let me give it a try. Number one, a fifth of all the terrorist organizations in the world reside in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So, what we want to do, because of our painful experience of 9/11, we want to deny a safe haven and target terrorists in Afghanistan.

We want to stop the Taliban from overthrowing the Afghan government, which is a duly elected government. We want to stop Pakistan from supporting and providing safe haven to the Afghanistan Taliban. And we also want to continue international community support.

We need to assist the government of Afghanistan in providing more effectiveness, the rule of law, and also assisting it with the incredible mineral capacity that they have.

And, finally, we want to seek a political reconciliation to the war. That is kind of how I would shape what our strategy would be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, is the advice that President Trump is getting, as far as we know it, going to lead to that outcome?

GEN. JACK KEANE: I’m not convinced.

The pathway to some kind of resolution favorable to the United States and the government of Afghanistan has got to be through Pakistan, Judy. There has never been insurgency ever that was defeated when it had a bona fide safe haven outside of the combat zone.

And the Afghan Taliban have two in Pakistan. Not only that, the Pakistan military provide them with intelligence and support for their operations, which is quite outrageous, considering they’re supposed to be an ally. That has to stop.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of a split is there among the people around the president, secretary of defense, secretary of state, General Nicholson an others?

GEN. JACK KEANE: I don’t know the specifics on that. I do know that I think, instinctively, the president would like to resolve this favorably, but he doesn’t want to get mired down in a long, protracted war that his predecessors have done.

But the reality is this, Judy. Afghanistan, if we do not stabilize that country, it will become a breeding ground for terrorists that will threaten Europe and the United States. And we cannot do that. So I think we have got a tough decision in front of us here. And it means more involvement in Afghanistan, not less.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, who is the most influential at this point in terms of who the president listens to?

GEN. JACK KEANE: I think the president certainly listens to H.R. McMaster and also General Mattis and the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Those are the three major players here when it comes to Afghanistan.

He will always get certainly advice from Jared Kushner and also from Steve Bannon on any subject. But in terms of whose lane is this, that is the lane. And there is — I take it from — because he’s been briefed by these key figures, that he doesn’t like the answers he’s been given.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, if General McMaster is saying that General Nicholson is safe, who is in charge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but the president is expressing frustration, how is that going to turn out?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, if I was one of those three people, I would just flat tell the president, I would say, Mr. President, the problem in Afghanistan has never been our field generals. The problem in Afghanistan has been the commander in chief, in not providing the resources and the political will to win this war. It is not the field commanders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you think the president is prepared to do that?

GEN. JACK KEANE: I honestly do not know, Judy, where he is going to come out on this. I don’t want to try to speculate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, a lot of questions, I think more questions than answers tonight.

General Jack …

GEN. JACK KEANE: Yes, I agree with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: General Jack Keane, we thank you very much.

GEN. JACK KEANE: You’re welcome, Judy.

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