RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When the conventions are over and a new president takes office, one of the biggest challenges will be the Islamic State. That group has lost territory across Syria and Iraq, even as ISIS, or ISIL as it's also known, continues to claim devastating attacks. This morning in Washington, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is meeting with defense ministers from the coalition of nations against the Islamic State. That gathering comes at a turbulent time. A key member Turkey is reeling from an attempted coup, and its president is blaming followers of an Islamic cleric now in exile in the U.S. When I sat down with Secretary Carter at the Pentagon yesterday, I asked him what the turmoil in Turkey might mean for the fight against ISIS.
ASHTON CARTER: Well, we didn't know this was coming. But I don't think it's going to affect our campaign against ISIL. And in fact, I spoke to my Turkish counterpart earlier today, and he told me as much. As far as we know, the entire military wasn't involved. This was a faction or a group within the military. And the Turkish military is very large, very professional organization. They're a NATO ally. We've worked with them for decades, and I expect our relationship there to continue.
MONTAGNE: And does - and your counterpart, is there anything you can tell us about what he said?
CARTER: Yes. No, he simply said that they had gained control of events there. He was very pleased to hear from me. He and I have a good relationship. And I told him I was very glad to hear of his safety.
MONTAGNE: Well, talk about attacks in other parts of the world. Obviously, Western Europe - we've seen some terrible attacks in France, in Brussels. How much of this is being directed out of Raqqa? You talk about defeating ISIS. You've got to talk about some - a real place. It's Raqqa, Syria, and also the city of Mosul.
CARTER: Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq are our two primary objectives because they're large cities. And in the case of Raqqa, this is the self-proclaimed capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate. And...
MONTAGNE: So what's the plan?
CARTER: Well, the plan will be to take Raqqa away from them and make sure that there aren't - isn't any ISIL planning done there. It's important to show that there cannot be and will not be an Islamic State based upon this ideology. In answer to your question about inspiration or direction, you see both. Sometimes you see direction of attacks in other countries coming out of Raqqa or Mosul. Sometimes it's just the inspiration. It's just the idea that there's this thing called this Islamic State. But either way, it's important that we destroy the fact of and the idea of an Islamic State.
MONTAGNE: Secretary of State John Kerry is working with the Russians to help coordinate air strikes in Syria against ISIS and a Syrian al-Qaida affiliate as well, the Nusra Front. Russia came into the conflict on the side of the Assad regime. If the Pentagon coordinates airstrikes with the Russians, would this not help Bashar al-Assad stay in power?
CARTER: Well, that's not in the cards at the moment. What we're discussing with the Russians is the possibility - which still only remains a possibility - that they will begin to do, in fact, what they said they were going to do when they first intervened in Syria. What they said they were going to do was promote a transition away from Assad and therefore toward the end of the civil war, which started this whole thing. And then they said they were going to fight the terrorists, but that's not what they've done. They've instead propped up Assad in fighting the moderate opposition.
MONTAGNE: Pulling Russia away from attacking Western-backed rebels, when it chooses to do that, and getting it focused on ISIL - will there potentially be a partnership at that very moment in time? There's the same.
CARTER: No, well, we'd always - we have our differences with Russia. And obviously, Syria is one. Ukraine is another. At the same time, we stand ready to work with Russia, as with others around the world, where our interests coincide and overlap. So, for example, the Russians worked with us on the Iranian nuclear deal. They've worked on us in some aspects of nonproliferation affecting North Korea. So there are areas where we found it's possible. But up to now in Syria - and we'll see about the future - they have been more intent on operating in ways that are not consistent with our interests than in ways consistent with our interest. So we'll see what the future holds.
MONTAGNE: Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. We went on to talk about Afghanistan. The U.N. estimates the Taliban holds more ground in Afghanistan now than since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
President Obama aimed, from day one, to leave office with no American troops in Afghanistan. He thought it was the good war. He said we could do good things there, but they - we're going to be out. Several dates came and went. And now, he has agreed to leave 8,500 troops through 2017. For most people - most Americans haven't thought of the war that much. What can that mean? How valuable can that be?
CARTER: Well, it is a much smaller number than used to be there. And that is because our role there now is to assist the Afghan security forces. Remember, there were no - was no Afghan army. There was no Afghan air force. There was nothing.
We laboriously built up the Afghan security forces. And they're capable of fighting largely on their own - but not entirely on their own. So we're helping them. So that's what the American presence there is for. And you're right, the president has constantly assessed and adjusted what we're doing there in consideration of the conditions. So if you like, he took out a little extra insurance policy on the success of the Afghan security forces and, therefore, asked us to make some adjustments.
But in the military sense it's mostly in the hands of the Afghan security forces now. And as you know from years - of the past, they are, today, a capable force. They were nothing a few years ago.
MONTAGNE: Likely to see thousands of American troops there for some years to come?
CARTER: Oh, I think probably future presidents will continue to adjust that. And I think as the Afghan security forces get stronger and the Taliban and other forces get weaker or more dispirited, that not just the U.S., but the other international presence there can go down. I think we'll always want to keep a close eye on counterterrorism in South Asia. That'll probably be an enduring interest of the United States for quite some time.
MONTAGNE: That was Defense Secretary Ashton Carter who was hosting defense ministers from nations in the counter-Islamic State coalition today in Washington.
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