AILSA CHANG, HOST:
All right. Let's move from shutdown to the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. Yesterday, President Trump ordered a massive reduction of U.S. troops now deployed in that country. The drawdown in Afghanistan had quickly followed two big pieces of news this week, Trump's decision to also withdraw from Syria and the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. So what does all of this mean for military operations going forward? Well, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to tell us. Hey, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: All right. So right now, there are about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. What is their specific mission?
BOWMAN: Well, the mission for the past four years has been twofold. Number one, go out with Afghan commandos to hunt down terrorists, al-Qaeda and ISIS, so they don't once again gain a foothold in Afghanistan. The second mission is to train Afghan forces. That's been going on for some time, costing tens of billions of dollars.
And the incoming commander in the region who will oversee the Afghanistan mission told a Senate committee this month that the Afghan forces need a lot more work. Here's Lieutenant General Frank McKenzie.
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LT GEN FRANK MCKENZIE: They're not there yet. And if we left precipitously right now, I do not believe they would be able to successfully defend their country. I think that one of the things that would actually provide the most damaging to them would be if we put a timeline on it.
BOWMAN: So the general says, you leave quickly, Afghan army might collapse, fall to the Taliban. That's the concern of the U.S. military. And some analysts are saying that if you only have 7,000 troops left, you won't be able to both train Afghan forces and mount that anti-terror effort.
CHANG: Wait, so meaning with this troop reduction, generals on the ground may have to decide between Afghan training and counterterrorism?
BOWMAN: That's right. Maybe you would have to choose. And some say that even at the current level of 15,000, it's hard to do both. Senior people I've spoke with in the Pentagon say you have to maintain that number, 15,000. But of course, here's the thing. As we all know, the U.S. is entering its 18th year in Afghanistan.
BOWMAN: The president and others - some on Capitol Hill, some analysts - are rightly asking, how long will this take? The military says the fight's still at a stalemate after all these years and this effort. So there's some 2,500 Americans dead, 20,000 wounded, nearly a trillion dollars spent. And here's the other thing. There have not been really any serious hearings on the Hill over the years.
CHANG: Now, Trump has stated he does not want the U.S. to serve as the world's policeman. And General Mattis said in his resignation letter that he agrees with the president on that point. So if they agree, how would you explain their very different views on how to proceed in Afghanistan?
BOWMAN: Well, it gets back to that precipitous withdrawal, which is what the Trump decision looks like, versus measured withdrawal, which is what the military and many in Congress would like to see. You battle the Taliban while you negotiate with the insurgent group.
CHANG: Well, that raises another question, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad is in the region for peace talks with the Taliban. Is it possible this large U.S. troop reduction is part of these negotiations?
BOWMAN: You know, we don't know if this is a calculated effort to get a deal with the Taliban or more of President Trump fulfilling a campaign pledge to bring U.S. troops home. People are asking these questions in the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington. But here's the thing. All we have right now is a number - a 7,000 troop cut and no real explanation at this point.
CHANG: OK. Real quickly, do you think it's possible Trump would remove all U.S. troops before negotiations are even complete, or would he likely wait?
BOWMAN: It's possible he could pull all U.S. troops out and declare victory, just like he did in Syria this week.
CHANG: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
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