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A Look At The State Of Diplomatic Efforts In Afghanistan


When President Trump outlined his new strategy for Afghanistan back over the summer, he called for a more aggressive approach to the Taliban. He called for crushing al-Qaida, obliterating ISIS, using, quote, "overwhelming force." But the president cautioned that the U.S. can't just use bombs and bullets.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country.

KELLY: NPR's Tom Bowman was recently in that country, his latest reporting trip to Afghanistan. He was trying to gauge how the new strategy is being applied so far. And he's here in the studio with us now. Hey, Tom.


KELLY: So if the new strategy is about all aspects of American power, diplomatic power, economic power, etc., are you seeing all aspects of American power out and about and being coordinated when you're actually there on the ground?

BOWMAN: No, absolutely not. It's really only the military that's out there in the field. And we spent a lot of time with Marines in southwest Afghanistan and Helmand Province. And what's amazing is you only have the military out in the field. I didn't see any State Department people - no one from U.S. Agency for International Development, no DEA people, Drug Enforcement Agency - really, no one out there, no diplomats at all. And in past years, you would always run into diplomats.

KELLY: Where are the diplomats? I mean, they're there. Are they just all clustered in Kabul?

BOWMAN: Yeah, they're all hunkered down in the embassy, basically. And the embassy frankly looks like a massive prison. Let me give an example of this. John Sopko - he's the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. He's been doing this job for five years. We invited him to a dinner one night around the corner from the embassy still within the international zone, all covered by blast walls - the most secure place in the entire country. They wouldn't let him go one block to have dinner with us.

KELLY: Who wouldn't let him go, the embassy?

BOWMAN: Right, the embassy security officers. So it wasn't just John Sopko couldn't go to dinner with me one block away. He told me about something that happened back in May. He was trying to go out to an Afghan base to see how the American taxpayer's money is being spent. He was going to go with American soldiers, but something happened. Let's listen.


JOHN SOPKO: At the last minute, the embassy ordered us not to travel. You know, there's this risk aversion - or risk avoidance, I should say - on some people in the State Department.

BOWMAN: And he basically said this is a huge problem here. The military is out there talking to Afghans. No one, for the most part, is leaving the State Department. Or if they do, it's just a small handful. And even those that do leave the embassy, Mary Louise, they just go a few blocks to another embassy. They're not getting out to the countryside meeting with local Afghans. So you can't have an all-of-government approach if they just sit inside the American Embassy in Kabul.

KELLY: It's your impression that the experience John Sopko has is shared by other American government personnel there.

BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. I talked to some people in the embassy. I spoke with someone last week here in Washington and said, yeah, we're trying to get out of the embassy. We're having a real hard time. And John Sopko said he's heard complaints from others. Let's listen to him.


SOPKO: These people have complained to us that over the last year, they're not getting out. Every general I've talked to and every former ambassador I have talked to who served in Afghanistan have said that this is not going to be won with the military alone.

KELLY: OK. So that's the view from John Sopko, as you said, as the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction. What has changed that has made it so much harder for people to move around in Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, I think a couple of things. You know, of course, they used to have 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan. Now it's been whittled down to 11,000. So I sat down with the American commander there, General John Nicholson. And he said, yeah, we don't have as many bases as we had in the past. But he also said there's another reason here, and it's Benghazi. And that, of course...

KELLY: Benghazi, Libya.

BOWMAN: ...That's - right, the 2012 mob attack that led to the death of the ambassador there, Chris Stevens. And let's listen to what Nicholson had to say.


GENERAL JOHN NICHOLSON: In a post-Benghazi State Department, you know, force protection, of course, has always been important. But now it's even more important.

KELLY: That's the view from the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan. What about the top diplomat in Afghanistan? Did you ask the U.S. Embassy?

BOWMAN: Well, the embassy really wouldn't address John Sopko's comments. But they did say some people get out of the embassy on a case-by-case basis. They wouldn't mention the numbers. And they basically said, we'll be working with General Nicholson on the new strategy. But they didn't really address the key issue here, that you can't do the job unless you leave the embassy.

KELLY: Tom, thanks very much for the update.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.