Troop Withdrawal Disappoints Military Advisers

Despite the pressure to draw down troops in Afghanistan quickly, President Obama was being tugged in the opposite direction. His military advisers wanted to keep more of the "surge troops" for a longer period of time. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR Pentagon Correspondent Tom Bowman, reporting from Afghanistan, about the president's decision to withdraw U.S. troops.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Some of President Obama's military advisers called for a different course in Afghanistan. They wanted to keep more of the surge troops for a longer period of time.

NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, is in Afghanistan. For the past three weeks he's been out in the field with those troops.

Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM BOWMAN: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And first off, where have you been?

BOWMAN: Well, Scott, we've been here about a month now, and at first we were with the Marines in Helmand Province in the southwestern part of the country. It's a very high desert area, very arid. And then in the last week or so we've been in the eastern part of the country, very mountainous terrain, not far from the Pakistan border, with elements of the First Infantry Division.

And in both cases, we've been in the areas of heaviest concentration of American Troops, and also the greatest amount of fighting over the past year or two.

SIMON: The president's military advisors have actually been pretty forthright about the fact that the president essentially rejected their advice as to how many troops to pull out.

Here's Admiral Mike Mullen testifying Capitol Hill on Thursday.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): What I can tell you is the president's decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept. More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course. But that does not necessarily make it the best course. Only the president in the end can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take.

SIMON: And obviously, Admiral Mullen respecting that the president is the commander-in-chief, and it's his right to make that decision. At the same time, is it as simple as every commander just wants more.

BOWMAN: You know, I don't think it is. And I think most of the people we've talked with, everyone from Sergeant up to General, they're worried about it, and they think it is too risky.

We've heard consistently that they've made a lot of gains against the Taliban, both in the southwest with the Marines, and the east with the American Army troops. And they're worried that if you reduce troops too quickly, those gains will slide back, that the Taliban will move back into those areas.

And what both the Marines and the soldiers are doing now, it they're moving out, setting up patrol bases, partnering with Afghan soldiers, and what General Petraeus has said is that the progress is fragile and reversible.

And what they're particularly worried about is removing combat troops, what they call trigger pullers. They say that you maybe can reduce some support troops, and that could be anything from construction battalions to military police. But they're very worried about reducing combat troops.

SIMON: Tom, you've been in the eastern part of Afghanistan, and I wonder if that's one area of the country where a draw-down in troops could actually change what U.S. strategy is to operate in that area.

BOWMAN: You know, it's possible that it could. The big fight in the east is different from where the Marines were in the southwest part of the country. And the fight in the south, and that's Kandahar Province and Helmand Province, it's more of a localized insurgency. Everyone who fights there kind of lives here.

But in the east there are safe havens in Pakistan, and the big fight in the east is with what's called the Haqqani network. Now this network was set up by a Mujahideen fighter who fought against the soviets and later linked up with the Taliban and al-Qaida.

So there's a concern if your draw down American combat troops too quickly, it'll have a hard time fighting this Haqqani network.

SIMON: In addition to talk about the numbers, obviously there's been some dispute over timing. And let's listen to an exchange on Capitol Hill Thursday. General David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, was testifying, got some pretty sharp questions from Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): From a pure military standpoint, the troops coming out before the end of the fighting season next summer, in order to comply with a September pull out, does it make it more difficult for General Allen to carry out pure military aspects of his mission?

General DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, again, this is a more aggressive timeline. It means that there are, again, further challenges by not getting all the way through the fighting season.

SIMON: General Allen by the way is, of course, nominated to replace General Petraeus. Tom, the military must read the public opinion polls in the United States and all the news accounts. Do a lot of them have a perception that this withdrawal date is in response to those public opinion polls and political considerations?

BOWMAN: Oh, I think absolutely. They realize that the support for the war at home is decreasing and also the support in Congress is decreasing as well. But their concern is pulling these troops out too quickly before the fighting season ends. The fighting season generally lasts until the snows come, into October or November, so they're really worried a bit about that. You look into next year, they want to remove the remaining 23,000 surge troops before September of 2012, and that would mean the large number of these troops would come out in the spring and summer right in the middle of the fighting season. So there is a great deal of concern about, again, slipping back on the progress theyve made by pulling these combat troops out in the middle of the fighting season.

SIMON: Another question that has to be asked; the logic of U.S. withdrawal is predicated on Afghan troops taking over the burden of fighting the Taliban and other forces. Youve been with the Afghan army. What's your impression of the progress theyve made?

BOWMAN: Well, weve been, weve seen a quite a number of Afghan troops in the month or so weve been here, and some of them are pretty squared away. There was one occasion, we were off with the 1st Infantry Division up in the hills of Eastern Afghanistan and there was a small number of Afghan forces there and they happened to see some Afghans out in the woods, and they actually rolled up these guys to find out what they were doing out there, questioned them and then let them go. So these guys seem to be pretty much on the ball.

But there are other occasions where we'd be patrolling with American soldiers or Marines, and the Afghan soldiers are almost along for the ride. They were looking around. They weren't asking questions of any of the villagers. They were wandering off, some were jumping into canals and swimming. It really is what you would call a mix bag. Some of them are clearly ready to take over; they could probably do it tomorrow, but quite a few others are going to need a lot more time.

SIMON: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. We reached him in Kabul. Thanks so much.

BOWMAN: Youre welcome, Scott.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And youre listening to NPR News.

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