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What influenced Obama’s decision to keep troops in Afghanistan

The longest-running war in American history will go on even longer than expected. Hari Sreenivasan speaks to the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe about what prompted President Obama to change course and decide to leave troops in Afghanistan.

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    We get more on today's announcement from Washington Post reporter Greg Jaffe.

    Greg, how did he get to this decision?

  • GREG JAFFE, The Washington Post:

    You know, in the spring, they started a review to decide what they were going to do. The plan had been to go to essentially a Kabul-based force, a small force.

    And I think most in the administration, especially the president's inner circle, seemed to think that that's where they were going to land. The discussions carried on through the summer. In August, General Dempsey came forward, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — he just recently stepped down — with a plan for a sustaining force of about 5,000 focused on counterterrorism.

    And it was then, it seemed to me, that the debate changed, and the president seemed open to that.


    So what were the tensions here? Is this partly the political pressure of making a campaign promise to get the country out of this war, and then the military reality on the ground, where all his top advisers are saying something different?


    You know, I don't think politics played a big role in it. I think the president has a real skepticism about military forces' ability to effect solutions in places like Afghanistan, so he's a really hard sell on these sorts of issues, just because he doesn't think military force fixes the problems, that they're really political problems. No military solutions has sort of become a mantra.

    So, it took a lot of convincing to bring him around, I think.


    So, if you have insight to this, what was the menu card of options that the generals presented him, here's A, here's B, here's C? What were his choices?


    You know, I think that the main choices, as I understand them, were there was an option to essentially stay at 9,800, where they are, indefinitely.

    The real choice and the real focus of the debate in terms of a sustaining presence beyond 2016 into 2017 was really this 5,500 option. That was the one that sucked most of the oxygen in the room. That was the one that they really focused on.


    And so what were the costs and benefits of doing either one plan or increasing it to 10?


    You know, well, 10 is where we are now. And so I think 10 felt to a lot of people lets you do things that you can't do with five.


    For example?


    Yes, I think that, in terms of counterterrorism, I think you can pretty much do the similar things with both. What the extra 5,000 gets you is, it gets you out in the field with Afghans a little bit more. You know, we have been using them. Up in Kunduz, for example, special forces helped the Afghans retake that city by calling in airstrikes and providing advice.

    I think it also gives you a sense of how Afghans are performing in other places. I think we were all shocked by how fast the Iraqi forces crumbled and collapsed. On paper, they looked pretty good. On paper, the Afghan forces sometimes look pretty good. But things like will and resolve are really hard to measure.

    And if you're present, you can get a much better sense of those things than you can if you're, you know, hundreds of miles or thousand of miles away.


    Is part of this that nobody has figured out the equation on how to train up Afghan forces well enough?


    Yes, I think not just Afghan forces, but all of these kind of indigenous forces in these broken societies, where governments are corrupt or deeply flawed.

    General Dempsey said in an exit interview — I thought it was fascinating — he essentially asked himself in this exit interview with a publication called "Joint Forces Quarterly," you know, can we do this mission? And he answered his own question by saying, I don't know, but I'm not sure we have a choice.


    What's the next step then? If we're keeping these troop levels at the same thing, are there going to be additional perhaps deployments of special units in certain cities?


    I think if there are problems like you saw in Kunduz, where you have the Taliban taking the cities and the Afghans have to retake it, I think you could see special forces units embedded with Afghan units to retake those kinds of places.

    You know, I think it's interesting way the president talked about the 9800, or essentially 10,000. He said that will be the force through late 2016. You know, by late 2016, his successor will be in place. I think he could be signaling some flexibility there, too, that rather than go down to 5,500, if his successor were to say, I really would be much more comfortable at 10,000, I think it would be hard for him not to stay there.


    All right, Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post, thanks so much.


    Yes. Thank you.

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