Afghanistan

Making The U.S. Afghan Strategy Stick

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This week marked another phase in the war in Afghanistan. The Obama administration completed a review of its war strategy. The conclusion: Progress is being made and American troops can begin to be withdrawn beginning next summer. Still, the administration concedes that gains are reversible.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

This week, the Obama administration completed a review of its war strategy for Afghanistan and concluded that the strategy is working. Or as Mr. Obama put it at the White House: We are on track to achieve our goals.

It was just a year ago the president decided to send 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan. In just a few months he'll face a new decision: how to start bringing some of them home.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, has been reporting on the war, both from the field, there in Afghanistan, from the Pentagon. He joins us in the studio now.

Tom, thanks for being with us.

TOM BOWMAN: Good to be with you.

SIMON: And let's start with your review. What evidence did they cite that the strategy's on track?

BOWMAN: Well, there are security gains in Kandahar in the south and also Helmand Province next door, and as a result of those 30,000 additional troops. And if you go to a place like Helmand, you'd definitely see better security. I was at a bazaar back in November, thousands of people there, something you wouldn't have seen last year. And then in Kandahar as well, the Americans swept in, pushed out the Taliban. But the concern here is the Taliban sort of melted into the villages. They just took off. They essentially put down their weapons and picked up a shovel. So the big question is, will the Taliban come back in the spring and start fighting again? And at this point nobody really has an answer to that question.

SIMON: I mean, and that's why some critics, and not just critics, compared that strategy to a game of Whac-A-Mole(ph), where they said that they attack the Taliban at one point and then they just come back somewhere else. And the administration report acknowledged that and said that safe havens are the problem because insurgents can go into these places and essential wait out U.S action.

BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. The serious problem of the safe havens in Pakistan, everyone agrees with that. The president and Secretary Clinton, Defense Secretary Gates mentioned that as well - that you have to push the Pakistanis to deal with those safe havens. And a Pentagon report last month said that's the primary problem to a secure and stable Afghanistan.

SIMON: What does all this do to the question about - a lot of, obviously, Americans are eager to know when U.S. troops can start leaving.

BOWMAN: Well, the plan right now, and the president articulated this, is for some U.S. troops to start coming out next July. Now, I asked the number two officer in the Pentagon, Marine General Jim Cartwright, about that this week. Here's what he had to say.

U.S. troops will come out in July, 2011, right?

General JAMES CARTWRIGHT (Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): No. What they've said is that at 2011 to 2014 there is a drawdown. What is being negotiated and what will be adjusted is the rate of that drawdown.

BOWMAN: But troops will come out.

Gen CARTWRIGHT: Troops will come out.

BOWMAN: Troops will come out. The question is: how many will come out? We don't know that yet.

SIMON: From what you can see now, Tom, is it likely to be a substantial reduction in force or, if I might put it in the baldest possible terms, kind of a token withdrawal right before an election season begins?

BOWMAN: At this point people I talk with both in the Pentagon and on the ground over in Afghanistan think it'll be small numbers of troops coming out. And the reason is that most of these 30,000 troops are in the toughest parts of the country, in the southern part, in the eastern part, where there's still a lot of fighting going on. So we expect small numbers of troops and they've essentially kicked this can down the road now to 2014. That's when they say the Afghans will be able to take over security duties.

SIMON: NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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