U.S. Troops Leaving, But Afghan Situation Still Rocky

The U.S. plans to reduce the number of its troops in Afghanistan next year. The current level — about 65,000 — is already well below the peak of about 100,000 American forces.As the war draws down, however, and the troops come home, the challenge in Afghanistan does not get any easier. A new Pentagon report suggests the Taliban remains strong. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman about the latest.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

The White House is getting closer to a decision about how many of the remaining troops to start bringing home from Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is just back from a visit with top generals in Afghanistan to talk next steps. The planned cuts come at a time when the war isn't going so well. A new Pentagon report highlights some familiar perhaps intractable problems.

NPR's Tom Bowman joins us now to talk about the way head. Tom, let's start with the troop cuts. There will be a drawdown in the new year. What do we know about how many troops are coming home?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, I think we're looking at sizable troop cuts in 2013, Rachel, and we expect an announcement in the next few weeks. Now, there are roughly 65,000 American troops there now in Afghanistan, and what I'm hearing is maybe a 20,000, 30,000 soldier cut, but in a stair-step approach. You'll cut a bit, maintain that level for while, cut a little bit more and maintain the level right down the staircase.

And military leaders have said publicly they want to keep as many troops as possible at least through 2013. But it looks like the White House wants deeper cuts. The top commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, is supposed to come up with options for the president, and that will begin the formal process.

MARTIN: OK, so still some questions about the numbers and pace. But a recent report by the Pentagon says that the war isn't actually going all that well at this point, right?

BOWMAN: That's right. This report to Congress covered most of 2012. And it found that enemy attacks were up slightly over last year. It said insurgency safe havens in Pakistan, as well as corruption in the Afghan government, are the greatest risk to long-term stability and security in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: I mean, safe havens, corruption; we've been hearing about these particular issues for years now.

BOWMAN: Absolutely. And I dug up an old report from the summer of 2009. This was done based General Stan McChrystal who was commander at the time. He said in this report that - and again, 2009 - there are two principal threats in the country. One was insurgent groups supported by Pakistan. The other is a corrupt and ineffective Afghan government. So three years after this report, the Pentagon is finding the same thing.

And here are some examples from the recent reports. The government, this new report says, isn't doing enough to deal narcotics trade, which is the main way the insurgency is funded. And even though Afghanistan has created anti-corruption groups, there's no political support for them, according to the report. So if someone is charged with a crime, let's say, they're never prosecuted.

MARTIN: And, as you mentioned, that corruption then just fuels the insurgency.

BOWMAN: That's right. You know, the reason you have an insurgency is you have a government is corrupt or ineffective or predatory. So, for example, the Pentagon report finds that people just don't trust the Afghan government's justice system. The report says that among many Afghans, the Taliban court - and I'm quoting here - "is less corrupt than the formal Afghan justice system."

MARTIN: OK, so next year, with all of the problems that you're describing, there will be even fewer American troops to deal with the insurgency.

BOWMAN: Right. And military officials will say, hey, there's good news here - there are more Afghan soldiers and police to take over; they're gaining in competency, but they still have problems. A 27 percent attrition rate in the army. There are high levels of illiteracy among Afghan soldiers and police, and also a lack of officers and sergeants to lead these troops.

And the Pentagon report says there's only one of 23 Afghan army brigades that is deemed to be, quote, "independent." But even that one brigade still needs American advisers.

MARTIN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks so much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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