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Why America’s longest war is getting longer

The Obama administration revised up the number of troops it plans to keep in Afghanistan by the end of the year. With a current force of 10,000 there, President Obama said he will reduce the number to only 8,400 in order to respond to increased threats from the Taliban, breaking plans to pull out thousands more. Hari Sreenivasan learns more from Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Our nation's longest war just got longer. The Obama administration had hoped to cut the number of U.S. service personnel in Afghanistan, currently at 10,000, in half by the end of the year.

    But, today, the president said increased threats will put the number at 8,400.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    We have to deal with the realities of the world as it is. And we can't forget what's at stake in Afghanistan.

    This is where al-Qaida is trying to regroup. This is where ISIL continues to try to expand its presence. If these terrorists succeed in regaining areas and camps where they can train and plot, they will attempt more attacks against us. We cannot allow that to happen.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Hari Sreenivasan is in our New York studios to explore why this decision was made and what it means.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And we get that from Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. He's written extensively about the Afghan conflict, and has served as an adviser to the special operations forces commander in Afghanistan.

    So, Seth, the difference between the numbers, 8,400 to 5,500, why the decision now?

  • SETH JONES, RAND Corporation:

    Well, I think it reflects a bit of a collaboration between the military, which wanted higher numbers — the numbers came down from just under 10,000. They wanted those roughly the same or something close to that — and the president, which had asked for about 5,500 or so. This largely meets up somewhere in the middle.

    So, didn't go down to the levels the military feared, but it gives the president an argument politically that he continues to end the U.S. involvement in the war.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What's that difference in real, practical terms? If we have another couple thousand troops on the ground in different parts of Afghanistan, what does that mean to Afghan forces?

  • SETH JONES:

    Well, I think the biggest issue is if the U.S. had gone down to 5,500, it would have been mostly what we call kinetic operations, strikes against al-Qaida, Islamic State and other groups, a little bit of Taliban.

    With the numbers we're talking about now, 8,400, there's an ability to do train, advise and assist of Afghan forces out in the field, so this gives the military a little bit more wiggle room to train Afghan forces out in the field and back in their barracks.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    This is not — as you said, this isn't what the military wanted, so does that end up compromising the end goal here to get the Afghan forces standing up as fast as possible?

  • SETH JONES:

    Well, look, I think this is one of many factors. This is about a number of forces. There are a lot of other things, the posture of U.S. forces, which forces you're going to put in, whether it's special operations or conventional.

    I think at this number, it does allow the U.S. to do some training-advising, some strikes against the Taliban, but a lot of this is going to be also outside the U.S.' control. It's going to be about the quality of the Afghan government. And that's something the military won't be able to control.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And haven't we recently kind of loosened the restrictions on what American forces are allowed to do if they're engaged in combat with the Taliban or other forces?

  • SETH JONES:

    There have been restrictions at least in two senses.

    One is who the U.S. can target on the ground. For a while, it was largely just al-Qaida forces. The U.S. loosened that a couple of months ago to include Islamic State operatives, mostly in Eastern Afghanistan. And then also now to include some senior Taliban officials. And we saw that with the targeting of Mullah Mansour recently.

    There have been a little bit loosening of what the U.S. can do in putting U.S. forces on the ground in or near a combat area.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now, the president said this is going to be able to tailor to help Afghan forces. Is there something special that some of our troops are engaged in when it comes to training Afghan military forces?

  • SETH JONES:

    Well, forces that have done the vast majority of the training, particularly the high-end forces in Afghanistan, like the commandos, have been U.S. special forces.

    Operational Detachment Alpha is the ground. So, having this number, more than the 5,500 that the president initially said he wanted to get down to at the end of 2016, does allow him to tailor some of the training to the higher-end forces who are going to be really important in case the Taliban try to storm, take and hold a major Afghan provincial or even district capital.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And let's talk a little bit about the sort of geopolitical aspect of it. This comes before the NATO summit.

  • SETH JONES:

    Yes. I think the timing is a good one, just before Warsaw.

    What this sends is a message to America's NATO allies that the U.S. is going to be committed at roughly decent levels through the next administration. And there are German forces, for example, operating in Northern Afghanistan, Italians in the west. They're going to keep their forces roughly the same numbers with the U.S. commitment now.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And, also, let's take a look at the counterweight here. The president says that this should indicate to the Taliban that really your only way through this, especially if we're going to leave more forces on the ground, is to get back to the negotiating table. Where are those talks now?

  • SETH JONES:

    The negotiations are still a pretty infant stage.

    The Taliban has not been willing to do a lot of serious discussions like what we have seen in other conflicts. It's unclear whether we're really going to get to this end. In fact, only about a quarter or so of insurgencies end by a negotiated settlement. It's clear the U.S. would like it to end this way, but we have to got to really get to a stalemate, I think, I think before sides can actually get to a settlement.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And, finally, how much is the shadow of Iraq looming over these sorts of decisions, especially in the last few weeks and months, where we have seen such incredible violence in Iraq?

  • SETH JONES:

    I think there's no question that the shadow of Iraq hangs over Afghanistan.

    The U.S. decision, sort of black and white, to just pull out forces in 2011, and then what happens after that eventually with the Islamic State takeover of Mosul and other places, I think the U.S. is operating a lot more cautiously here in incrementally pulling out forces, so as to not take too much risk.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Seth Jones from the RAND Corporation, thanks so much.

  • SETH JONES:

    Thank you.

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