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Acting Defense Department Chief Will Pick Up Where Mattis Left Off


President Trump announced on Twitter yesterday that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will be out as of January 1. That's two months earlier than originally planned. Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan will take over. He'll lead the Pentagon as acting secretary. Earlier this year, Shanahan talked to our co-host Steve Inskeep, and in that conversation, he pointed to China as a challenge to the U.S.


PATRICK SHANAHAN: You know, we think of China as - we see their growth in the military, their theft of intellectual property, we see all of those things as disruptive and, you know, threatening to the American way.

KING: But Shanahan will also have to focus elsewhere. The White House says it will withdraw all troops from Syria and several thousand from Afghanistan. Vikram Singh is with me now. He served in the State Department as the deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 to 2011. Good morning, Mr. Singh.

VIKRAM SINGH: Good morning, Noel. How are you?

KING: Good, thanks. So Patrick Shanahan is a former Boeing executive. He joined the Pentagon in 2017. What do you make of his promotion?

SINGH: Well, I think in the wake of what would be the most chaotic departure of a secretary of defense in recent years and in memory, really, Mr. Shanahan's appointment will probably calm some nerves. He's been serving as deputy secretary for over a year now. The deputy secretary is really the chief operating officer of the Pentagon. He gets to know all the ins and outs. So I think that people will feel that Mr. Shanahan, who has a good reputation as a thoughtful guy, is sort of a steadying hand at a really uncertain time.

KING: Oh, that's interesting. Does it matter at all, do you think, that he hasn't served in the military given that the Pentagon is making these big shifts to priorities in Afghanistan and Syria?

SINGH: I don't think - actually, I don't think it matters at all. Having a former soldier as the secretary of defense is an exception rather than a rule. We have civilian control of the military in the United States for good reason. So I think that's just fine. I think there will be questions about him having been a Boeing executive. The one thing I would say, in that clip, he talked about China and intellectual property theft. And he'll know a lot about that first hand because Boeing has had plenty of its aircraft designs and other things stolen by the Chinese over the years.

KING: Let me ask you about Afghanistan and the president's decision to draw down thousands of troops there. What have U.S. troops been doing in Afghanistan, and what do you think about this decision? Is now the time?

SINGH: Well, I mean, I think it's the time to think about how to end the war in Afghanistan, and part of that should be an objective of having the United States not have to have troops there anymore. So in that sense, I think thinking about troops leaving is good. I think how it's happened is a little bit worrying. And I'm hearing now that it's a sort of planning target rather than a firm decision. The troops have mainly been training, advising and assisting Afghan forces in holding off the Taliban. The security situation has been bad, but it's been bad for years. And the Taliban have been able to mount attacks sort of all over the country, but they have not been able to take and hold any urban centers, any sort of major cities in the country. You know, one irony, of course, is that this kind of a stalemate is exactly what you need for there to be a chance at negotiations. And that is something that's also been happening. So it's a very complicated picture right now.

KING: Let's talk about the negotiations. U.S. diplomats have been working to revive peace talks with the Taliban. Hours before the announcement of this U.S. troop withdrawal, the most senior American diplomat involved in these negotiations, Zalmay Khalilzad, made it clear to the Taliban that the American commitment is firm. What does this mean for his efforts? Does this throw a wrench in the works at all, or can he just keep proceeding?

SINGH: Well, I mean, the fact is if it's uncoordinated and they don't - and they're not really - and they don't have a policy that's sort of focused, then it could potentially undermine him. But I actually think he has a lot of room for maneuver. The talks that he just held in Abu Dhabi included Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which were the only three countries to recognize the pre-Taliban - pre-9/11 Taliban government. That is really significant. I mean, it suggests that we have the most significant moves on a peace process that we've seen in at least a decade. And I think the core demand of the Taliban, of course, is the removal of foreign forces. And the core demand of the United States is that there be no terrorist safe haven there. So removing 7,000 forces, you know, should help show the Taliban that the United States is serious about potentially leaving. It doesn't completely undermine his ability to say but we're still around in large numbers. Let's not forget just 1,500 troops have been making a major difference in Syria. And so there's still a lot of room there. But it's really important for this to be coordinated. This is a big push for peace. It's something that has been pretty under the radar, and it should get more attention. And I hope the administration will focus on tying its military and its diplomatic efforts closely together.

KING: Last question for you - how well-trained and resourced and managed are Afghan forces at this point? Will they do OK without U.S. troops?

SINGH: Afghan forces will not do OK without U.S. support. They need logistics support. They need intelligence and surveillance support. And so there has to - if the war is to continue, the Afghan forces would really do badly without the United States. And the civil war that could ensue would be far bloodier than anything that we've seen if there's sort of an abrupt departure and no diplomatic solution.

KING: Vikram Singh served in the State Department as deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He's now a senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress. Thank you, sir.

SINGH: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.