Examining U.S. Goals in Afghanistan

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President Obama says the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan, and also to prevent al-Qaida from having any safe havens in Afghanistan. To that end, there are 68,000 U.S. troops, more than one-third of them combat brigades, in Afghanistan. They are mostly along the border with Pakistan and in the south.

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Eight years after the United States went to war in Afghanistan, that war is now at a critical juncture. In the coming weeks, President Obama will say what his strategy will be in Afghanistan, and whether he will send more troops. The officer he chose to command the war, General Stanley McChrystal, wants a larger force so that he can pursue a vigorous counterinsurgency strategy. Others say, it's time to wind down the war and scale back Washington's ambitions of what it can achieve there.

MICHELE NORRIS: To dig in or to bail out - what's next for Afghanistan? We're devoting this entire hour of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED to that question. We don't have the answers, but we do have NPR reporters in Afghanistan and in Washington who've reported extensively on this war. And we hope that this hour may clarify the challenges and the choices the U.S. faces.

SIEGEL: Joining us is NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, who is on assignment in Afghanistan. And Tom, let's start with the basics. How many American troops are there in Afghanistan now and where are they deployed?

TOM BOWMAN: Robert, there are about 68,000 American troops, more than one third of them are combat brigades. And the rest are support troops, you know, everything from engineers, bomb-disposal units, military police. The Americans are generally located in Eastern Afghanistan, along the Pakistan border, and also in Southern Afghanistan - especially Helmand province and Kandahar province, the two greatest areas of Taliban control.

SIEGEL: It's a sizeable force. What is their understanding of why they're there? What are America's strategic interests in Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, President Obama says the strategy is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and also to prevent al-Qaida from having any safe havens in Afghanistan. The strategy is also trying to prevent a return to power of the Taliban. What they're saying is the way to prevent a return is to help the current government. We were with the marines in Helmand province. Their commander, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, said his forces are offering a breathing space of sorts to the Afghan government, giving them time to build themselves up. And here's what he told us.

LARRY NICHOLSON: We're giving them a break to take that heat off them, to take that heavy wind off of them, while they establish their capacity to provide the security and the government. So, I think that's a critical piece.

BOWMAN: Yeah, that's very critical because the only way to really turn around an insurgency historically is to have local forces take over the security effort.

SIEGEL: Well, if the U.S. aim then is to provide that breathing space, how do they do that? What kinds of missions the U.S. troops actually carry out now?

BOWMAN: Well, Robert, before this year, most U.S. troops were chasing down the Taliban forces, going into remote areas like the Korengal Valley in Eastern Afghanistan. Now there's a new focus under the new commander, General Stan McChrystal, to protect the population. So, the Marines are - they're setting up small outposts. They're going out on patrol, working with locals. It's very slow work. And Robert, most Marines we talked with, from general to sergeant, agreed that they've really only just begun here.

SIEGEL: Okay, Tom, we're going to come back to you later in the program. That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who is with the U.S. troops in Southern Afghanistan.

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