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Trump Decision To Pull Troops Out Of Afghanistan Comes As 'A Big Shock'


There is another significant story in the realm of international affairs and defense policy that might have gone by you with everything else going on. This is about Afghanistan NPR and other news organizations have learned that President Trump plans on pulling about 7,000 troops out of Afghanistan. That's about half of the U.S. forces there now. We've got to talk about that with Lieutenant General David Barno who was the senior American commander of U.S. coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. He is now retired and is with the Strategic Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

General, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DAVID BARNO: Great to be here. Michel.

MARTIN: So can I first ask you for your opinion on the president's decision to draw down troops in Afghanistan? Given your extensive time commanding allied forces there, what do you think the practical effect of that decision will be?

BARNO: I think it's going to be very significant. And I think it also signals the direction the president is heading on the entire war in Afghanistan. I think this call that he made here, I guess yesterday or the day before, has taken his military commanders in the theater by surprise. There's an ongoing negotiation happening right now with the Taliban that's being led by Ambassador Zal Khalilzad, who is my running partner there as the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan during my tenure there.

And this is a big shock for everybody who's been following the Afghan war. No. 1, there is a negotiation going on that's ostensibly trying to come to some political solution to the crisis. And at the same time we're doing that, we've now announced we're cutting half of our troop strength. So on the military side, that's going to make the job of counterterrorism forces and the job of the security assistance forces there much, much harder, if not impossible. And on the political side, I think it's going to undercut our negotiations with our adversary in the Taliban over the last 17 years.

MARTIN: You know, it's hard to separate the two, but I'm wondering. It's both the what and the how it was done. It's the decision itself and the way it was made. And I wonder, you know, if either of those factors looms the largest for you - evidently, the lack of consultation with defense advisers in this area and the decision itself, which seems sort of precipitous. I just wonder which of those carries more weight. Or is it impossible to separate the two?

BARNO: I think, in their own way, they're both devastating because one undercuts your ability to do the military mission that you've had American troops committed to doing for, you know, well over a decade now and puts us on a glide slope, I think, potentially, to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan, which I don't think is outside the realm of possibility right now.

But the other one may be even more of a concern, which is that the president, I think, now has been in the job for two years. And he is now comfortable making decisions with very little consultation. That's very different. That's almost unprecedented, even with any previous president that I can think of - not bringing in the National Security Council, not hearing out all the arguments but making, you know, fairly abrupt decisions that are going to have long-term impact.

MARTIN: Where do you see American foreign policy going from here in that part of the world? Do you have any sense of the direction that the U.S. is taking?

BARNO: Well, I think our partners and allies there don't know what to think. And both the effort in Afghanistan and the effort in Syria has involved, you know, a significant number of other countries partnering with us in Afghanistan with NATO nations, where we've been partnered since almost the very beginning of the conflict there. They don't know what to make of this. They've got troops on the ground (inaudible) Afghanistan as well. They're going to have to question what their next steps for their own nations are.

And in Syria, the coalition that's been fighting against ISIS has been the reason why that coalition and that military effort has been effective. Now we're taking, in a sense, the biggest stick in the Jenga pile out of this. And at some point in time, I think our allies are going to question whether they can stay in these two tough regions as well.

MARTIN: And what about the service members? I'm just wondering - given your long service, given your family's long service, I do find myself wondering if these decisions affect how service members feel about their service. I mean, does it change their sense of their role in this?

BARNO: I think people that serve in uniform - I served in Afghanistan for 19 months. Both my sons served in Afghanistan for over a year apiece. I think they understand changes in policy and changes in direction. And they're willing to salute and move out and get the mission accomplished as long as they also understand that there is some strategic calculus and some thought process and some deliberation behind those decisions. They, I think, may be a bit uncomfortable. And I can't speak for - broad range of everyone in the military, clearly. But I think - you know, in my own case, I think one of the most discomforting parts of this is that there isn't a process behind it. There isn't a strategy behind it. There's very abrupt decisions that, in some cases, seem to result from telephone conversations with foreign leaders in the case of Syria. So that, I think, is going to be very unsettling to people that are serving out there in harm's way.

MARTIN: That's retired Lieutenant General David Barno. He was the senior American commander of U.S. coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

General, thank you so much for talking to us. We really appreciate it.

BARNO: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.