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What should be in Trump’s plan for America’s longest war?

August 21, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
President Trump will address the nation Monday evening and reveal his changes to American policy on the war in Afghanistan. Special correspondent Nick Schifrin offers a look at the current state of the conflict and deteriorating security, then Judy Woodruff talks to Andrew Wilder of the United States Institute of Peace and journalist and author Ahmed Rashid about the challenges facing the U.S.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since inauguration day, the Trump administration has been deliberating over what to do about the war in Afghanistan.

Tonight, the president will address the nation and reveal changes to that policy. The U.S. has almost 10,500 troops there now. More than 2,400 Americans have died and more than 17,600 have been wounded since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after 9/11. And tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and military personnel have been killed.

For many Afghans, President Trump’s announcement can’t come soon enough.

Special correspondent Nick Schifrin starts our coverage.


NICK SCHIFRIN: In Afghanistan this weekend, an anxious country celebrated its independence day. Security was extremely tight. The government controls only half the country. Over the last couple years, violence has increased, stability has decreased. And the Afghan government says it still needs the United States.

MIRWAIS YASINI, Member of Parliament, Afghanistan: Hopefully there is one day we will be a good partner without having any troops in Afghanistan. But for the time being, it is necessary.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Mirwais Yasini is the first deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s lower parliament. In 2009, he ran for Afghan president. He speaks for many here when he asks President Trump to increase U.S. troops.

MIRWAIS YASINI: We would like to have a steady and continuous war against ISIS particularly, and Taliban. Ambiguity is costing us. And we are paying, and international security is paying the prices for the delay of the strategy which is coming out of the White House.

NICK SCHIFRIN: For months, the Trump administration’s been debating its policy. Now-fired senior advisor Steve Bannon advocated withdrawal, or replacing troops with private contractors.

President Trump’s expected to reject that plan and endorse a 4,000 to 5,000 troop increase advocated by military advisors with long histories in Afghanistan. National security advisor H.R. McMaster, who is a brigadier general, was tasked to fight Afghan corruption. Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former four-star whose son First Lieutenant Robert Kelly died in Afghanistan. And Defense Secretary James Mattis, who led troops on the ground during the Afghan invasion.

They’ve teamed up with current commander, General John Nicholson, who just yesterday painted an apocalyptic picture if the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan.

GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON, Commander, NATO Forces in Afghanistan: If we were to fail, it would unleash waves of migration in the millions around the world. If we were to fail, it would embolden jihadists globally.

GEN. JOHN ALLEN (RET), Former Commander, NATO Forces in Afghanistan: Putting some more firepower back in can make a huge difference at the right time and at the right place to be successful.

NICK SCHIFRIN: From 2011 to 2013, General John Allen was the U.S.’s top commander in Afghanistan. Last year, he campaigned against Donald Trump, for Hillary Clinton:

GEN. JOHN ALLEN: Hillary Clinton will be exactly, exactly the kind of commander-in-chief America needs.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But today, he’s backing President Trump if he increases troop numbers.

GEN. JOHN ALLEN: Here’s an opportunity for President Trump to make decisions that can put us on the road to the success that he’s looking for.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Allen and the president’s military advisors say deploying more troops that are better integrated and have no departure date can turn the tide, and help push the Taliban to the negotiation table.

GEN. JOHN ALLEN: You can get a lot more out of 5,000 if they’re properly positioned, to train and to advise, and if we resource this properly, and we resource it in the context of both time and the right kinds of individuals, we can be successful.

NICK SCHIFRIN: As a civilian, Donald Trump disagreed. Between 2011 and 2013, he wrote at least 11 tweets criticizing the Afghan government and urging President Obama to withdraw.

We should leave Afghanistan immediately, he wrote in March 2013. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard and quick. Rebuild the U.S. first.

That skepticism is shared by retired lieutenant colonel and former National Security Council staffer, Doug Ollivant.

DOUG OLLIVANT, Senior Fellow, New America: What is this magic powder, this secret sauce, this new idea that you’re going to do with this new 4,000 troops that you weren’t doing when we had almost 100,000 troops in country? And if it didn’t work with 100,000 troops, why do you think it’s going to work now?

NICK SCHIFRIN: Ollivant used be a senior advisor in eastern Afghanistan, advocating for more troops. But today, he and other critics advocate leaving a small number of U.S. assets to ensure Afghan government stability, and facilitate counter-terrorism, and otherwise, to withdraw.

DOUG OLLIVANT: Pulling the band aid off will hurt. But are the policy options going to be any different from 10 years from now? Or 15 years from now? The best tribute we might be able to give to someone who died in Afghanistan is not to have another generation of children die in Afghanistan.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Many Afghans acknowledge while the country has made great strides, major parts of the U.S. policy haven’t worked. But they don’t want the U.S. to abandon them. And they urge the president not only to increase U.S. troops, but somehow help fix the problems that have long plagued the Afghan government — a lack of resources, and endemic corruption.

MIRWAIS YASINI: My advice is to support the people of Afghanistan economically, financially. The corruption — fighting against the corruption is not less important than fighting against the terrorism.

NICK SCHIFRIN: It’s been 16 years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. President Trump’s hoping his decision can prevent what he’s complained about: his successor inheriting America’s longest war.

For the PBS NEWSHOUR, I’m Nick Schifrin.


JUDY WOODRUFF: The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan has been accompanied by rising ethnic tensions, warlord rivalries, as you just heard, corruption, and a government in the capital city that many say is barely functional.

To walk us through what the U.S. faces: Andrew Wilder is vice president of Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. And Ahmed Rashid is a long time journalist and the author of several books about Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Gentlemen, we welcome you both to the program.

Ahmed Rashid, I’m going to start with you. You wrote earlier this summary about the crisis the U.S. faces in Afghanistan. You talked about the strengthening Taliban, the dangerous role of Iran and Russia, the political crisis in Kabul. How bad is the situation there?

AHMED RASHID, Journalist/Author: Well, I think there are multiple crises. Much of the talk in the U.S. has been about troop levels and how many troops President Trump should send. But there are other equally major problems.

There are political crisis right now. The President Ashraf Ghani has lost a lot of legitimacy. There is enormous opposition against him from the parliament, from politicians, from warlords, and I don’t mean the Taliban.

There’s a huge economic crisis and no guarantee that the Trump administration is going to come up with all the money that is going to be needed.

And then there’s this regional interference by now three neighboring countries deeply involved in giving some kind of support to the Taliban — Pakistan, Iran, and Russia. And at the moment, it doesn’t seem that the U.S. has a team either in the National Security Council or in the State Department which could deal with such a multitude list of problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Wilder, what would you add to that? And do you — you talked to this administration. Are they aware of what they’re dealing with here?

ANDREW WILDER, United States Institute of Peace: Yes, they are. You know, it’s very daunting the challenges in Afghanistan, and I think there is no quick fix. People are looking for a silver bullet and for many years and many administrations, we have been looking for quick fix solutions. So, I think there is an opportunity to re-think our strategy and I will be listening very closely to President Trump tonight to see, you know, what it’s going to be.

But, you know, in the segment we just showed, yes, there is very rightly skepticism. So we decide on an additional 4,000 troops. What impact is that going to have when we’ve had 100,000 troops before and 4,000 troops would bring us to around 12,500, 13,000. They’re not — it’s not going to defeat the insurgency.

But I think as Ahmed rightly pointed out, we’ve always focused on troop numbers and the military strategy and have not put nearly enough emphasis on what is the political strategy in Afghanistan. So, I actually hope that we hear there will be more troops sent and we’ll have a modest increase on the military side, but primarily to support a political strategy which will be focusing on what Ahmed said, getting the Afghanistan government to step up more, to tackle corruption and things that are undermining its legitimacy, which is fueling the insurgency. But also the regional strategy, getting Pakistan to do more, but also trying to focus on what is possible to get a politically negotiated end of the conflict with the Taliban.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ahmed Rashid, what would the strategy be on the part of the United States that would address the regional threat, Iran, Russia, Pakistan, that would address this political crisis inside the capital with the current leadership?

AHMED RASHID: I think what has been so sad is that for the last year or two, the U.S. has not had a regional strategy. Its has not really been able to put together an alliance of countries around Afghanistan which would talk peace and persuade the countries who are interfering to pull out of there and the Taliban to get to the peace table.

What you need is a major diplomatic push. Now, given everything else that’s happening in the world, the Middle East, North Korea and others, I fear that President Trump is not going to put together a really high-powered team which is going to effectively deal with some of these neighboring countries and bring them together in some kind of alliance. And, of course, there are problems. I mean, the U.S. has very shaky relations with Iran, but Iran is a major player. The U.S. has very good relations with Pakistan, but it is also become a major player in backing the Taliban. So, this needs a great deal of diplomatic effort which at the moment is just not there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Wilder, is it your sense again from talking to people in the administration that they are prepared to come up with some semblance of a strategy that you and Ahmed are describing?

ANDREW WILDER: I think so. I mean, certainly, we thought we were close to having a strategy in April and then in July, and I think one of the things that delayed it was a sense in particular from the State Department that we didn’t have an adequate regional strategy. And I think Ahmed is right, the absence of that has truly destabilizing behavior. People don’t know what the U.S. policy is going to be, so Iran helped stepped into the void a bit more, Russians have stepped into the void in addition to what Pakistan has been doing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But as you said a moment ago, Ahmed Rashid, a moment ago, the U.S. right now strained relations with Iran, strained relations with Russia. So, how does one see working around that to make a difference?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I think there have been very good proposals by America’s scholars that really would get the Americans to look at Afghanistan separately, perhaps involve other players, neutral players like the United Nations, and support perhaps not an American-led but perhaps someone else-led coalition of countries with interested parties like Russia, Saudi Arabia and others and get them to sit around a table and work something out.

The problem is that certainly it’s risky and it would be extremely difficult to do simply because the U.S. doesn’t have good relations with so many countries. But it’s the only thing that’s going to work. And if the U.S. can’t do it, get somebody else to do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Wilder, we heard Ahmed Rashid say a moment ago that part of this should be looking at a way to bring this to an end, but is that even realistic at this stage?

ANDREW WILDER: I think it’s difficult but I think it’s realistic and I think that’s what our objective should be. And I should point out, actually one area where I think the Taliban, Afghanistan’s neighbors and the U.S. agree is — or President Trump agrees, we don’t want our troops there forever. So, that seems to be something we should negotiate on.

It was interesting when I used to travel to Afghanistan last year or the year before, the big concern in Afghanistan’s neighbors was that we were leaving precipitously, it was going to collapse, which would be very bad for the neighborhood. Now, I think the concern might be that, you know, they also don’t want us there forever. And so, my argument for I think the opportunity for the Trump administration is to make the case that, no, we also want to leave, but we don’t want to leave precipitously and have it collapse. We want to leave responsibly, and we can agree on that with Afghanistan’s neighbors and eventually with the Taliban as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To both of you, very quickly at the end, Ahmed Rashid, what would you like to hear President Trump say tonight?

AHMED RASHID: I would like to hear him give a very nuanced speech in which he does not just talk about the military deployment but also talk about the other issues: strengthening the Afghan government, getting them to do more reforms, dealing with corruption, helping the economic crisis in Afghanistan, all these refugees who are fleeing the country, getting them to stay put by having a sounder economic policy and raising money from other places, and most importantly, taking steps to get the Taliban to the table to talk peace.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Wilder, just quickly to you. What do you want to hear?

ANDREW WILDER: I would like him to renew our commitment that we want a partnership with Afghanistan. We don’t want to abandon Afghanistan.  So, I think that would have a stabilizing thought that we are not about to jump ship and abandon them, and going to have positive political, economic and security benefits in the region.  But I also, I think, President Trump needs to explain to the American people why we’re in Afghanistan, why it’s important not to leave precipitously because I have no doubt in my mind it would then become one again a safe for transnational terrorist groups that would threaten the U.S.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If the U.S. did pull out?

ANDREW WILDER: Exactly, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Wilder, Ahmed Rashid, gentlemen, thank you both.