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U.S. Strategy For Afghan War Reaches Critical Stage


We're going to look now at American military strategy for the war in Afghanistan. There's been some confusion lately about whether American forces would end their combat mission sooner than planned and also about how long the U.S. will remain in Afghanistan. So to try to make sense of it all, we're joined by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with the basics. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently talked about hopefully - that was his word - ending the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2013. Which was understood to be about a year earlier than had been talked about before. So will the U.S. stop combat missions at that point?

BOWMAN: Renee, the key word there is hopefully, that the combat mission at the end of 2013 can be turned over to Afghan forces. But everyone I've talked with says at least through 2014 they're talking about still having U.S. forces do some form of combat operations. It might not be large land battles, but at the very least you'll see U.S. Special Forces, Green Berets going on raids, let's say, against Taliban forces. Bottom line, they're still going to be involved in combat.

MONTAGNE: Well, Afghan forces, are they close to ready to take over or are they actually not really ready?

BOWMAN: They're not even close to being ready. And I've seen them myself in the field. And that's precisely why you're seeing so much talk now about pulling back and starting this transition earlier - a year earlier. If the deadline is 2014, you have to start at least a year earlier training them, working with them so you can see their weaknesses and then help them improve. You have plenty of time to help them improve.

This week at the Pentagon we heard from the officer who runs day-to-day military operations in Afghanistan. His name is Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti. And I asked him about this very point, about training the Afghans. They're going to send more training teams over this year - 50 Army training teams to help them. And he talked about pushing the Afghans this year more into the lead. Let's listen to what he had to say.

LT. GEN. CURTIS SCAPARROTTI: And I'm pressing commanders to put them into the lead as soon as they can. The earlier we get them into the lead, the better we have a metric of just how well they're doing. And we also know better how to improve them. And I want to do that while we have more forces on the ground in order to help develop them.

MONTAGNE: So again, the idea, Tom, is get these Afghan soldiers out there in the fight so that they can be worked with sooner rather than later so they might be ready by the end of 2014...

BOWMAN: That's exactly right. That they'll have plenty of time to train them and make sure they're competent. And key things they're looking are the ability to supply themselves in the field, do they have good leaders. You know, they might have to change out some leaders over the next year, but they want to do all of this by the end of 2013. They don't want to do this in the end of 2014 when they're ready to turn it all over to the Afghans.

MONTAGNE: One last thing to clarify. Does the mission end by the end of 2014? Will U.S. troops be out by then?

BOWMAN: Absolutely not. And the Americans have talked with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about what they call a longer term national security relationship. And people I talk with say you could have anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 American troops after 2014 doing things like training, perhaps going on counterterrorism raids. That kind of thing. Maybe even having a quick reaction force. If the Afghans get into trouble, you can go help them.

The thing here is that everyone talks about ending the combat role earlier. The bottom line is you're going to have U.S. troops involved in combat in Afghanistan for a number of years.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.

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

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.