What's Changed In Afghanistan Since President Trump Decided To Stay

Aug 21, 2018
Originally published on August 21, 2018 9:50 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Exactly one year ago, President Trump publicly vowed to win the war in Afghanistan even though he said his original instinct was to pull out.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We must achieve an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the enormous price that so many have paid.

CHANG: Today, insurgents attacked the presidential palace in Kabul with mortars while Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was there speaking to the nation, calling for a cease-fire. It was one more sign that the strategy Trump announced for winning a war that's gone on for nearly 17 years may not be working. NPR's David Welna takes a closer look at that plan.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Seven months after taking office, President Trump went all in on the nation's longest-fought war. He declared in a nationally broadcast speech that, quote, "we will push onward to victory."

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TRUMP: America's enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.

WELNA: Trump said there would be no more talk of troop numbers or arbitrary timelines for pulling out of Afghanistan. By the end of last year, he'd added 5,000 more troops to the 10,000 already there. He'd also remove restrictions on air power and cut nearly all nonmilitary spending. Aaron O'Connell served as a Marine officer in Afghanistan and as a defense policy director in the Obama White House.

AARON O'CONNELL: It's certainly President Trump's war at this point. He made the decision not just to stay but to escalate. He owns those decisions.

WELNA: Retired Army Colonel Chris Kolenda says Trump's aim was to push the Taliban to the point of surrender.

CHRIS KOLENDA: That was part of the calculus - that if we increase the advisory effort, if we put more pressure on Pakistan, if we remove the timelines, then the Taliban will want to give up the fight. That has not been the case. You've seen the Taliban continue to make some territorial gains.

WELNA: And O'Connell, whose latest book is titled "Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts And Minds In Afghanistan," says despite stepped-up training by the U.S., that country's security forces have serious issues.

O'CONNELL: It's fair to say that the Afghan army and police are still very far from being able to fight this war on their own. And it's not just their fighting abilities. There's also still rampant problems with corruption and serious problems with desertion.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

WELNA: Just last week, Taliban forces temporarily seized parts of the key city of Ghazni. It took American bombers and special forces to push them out. O'Connell, who now teaches history at the University of Texas, says Afghanistan is awash in arms. Iran and Pakistan are helping the Taliban. And poppy production that finances their fighting rose 80 percent last year.

O'CONNELL: The Taliban and now the Islamic State have almost everything they need to fight indefinitely.

WELNA: Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Afghanistan for the first time as secretary of state.

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MIKE POMPEO: My conclusion from this visit is that the president's strategy is indeed working.

WELNA: And Pompeo announced something Trump made no mention of in last year's strategy speech.

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POMPEO: The United States will support, facilitate and participate in these peace discussions.

WELNA: The fact that a State Department official met last month in Doha with Taliban officials does not surprise Barnett Rubin, who pursued peace talks for the Obama administration.

BARNETT RUBIN: Because even though there's no formal timeline, everyone knows that President Trump is very impatient with Afghanistan. And he does not want to make an indefinite commitment there. So that's one reason that the government, the military and the State Department are under pressure to try to find some kind of solution since the military side of the strategy simply is not working.

WELNA: And retired Army Colonel Kolenda, who's met with the Taliban as recently as May, says time may be running out for any resolution of this war.

KOLENDA: The cost is high. The president is probably losing patience. Certainly after 17 years, I would hope the American people are losing patience with this.

WELNA: Which is why, he says, peace talks may be the best strategy at this point. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.