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U.S.-Taliban Talks May Be Proceeding Too Quickly, Retired U.S. Commander Says


What is the future of the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan? President Trump's administration has been pushing for a peace deal and talking of pulling troops out of the country. The Senate now has a different view. Lawmakers, including Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, voted just yesterday that U.S. troops should stay.


MITCH MCCONNELL: I believe the threats remain. ISIS and al-Qaida have yet to be defeated, and American national security interests require continued commitment to our missions there.

INSKEEP: Retired Lieutenant General David Barno was overall commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, and he's on the line. General, good morning.

DAVID BARNO: Good to see you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Are U.S. troops still needed in Afghanistan?

BARNO: I think, unfortunately, they are. And I think Senator McConnell hit the nail on the head when he said that the defeat of ISIS and the defeat of al-Qaida is still out there in front of us somewhere. And those troops are what keeps further strikes from happening here on the United States. And, you know, for 17 years, the American troops have been in Afghanistan. I was there for over a year and a half. Both my sons fought in Afghanistan. And so all those folks that served out there, you know, they believe they were fighting to prevent the Taliban from taking over the country. And I think, in a lot of people's minds, that may now be on the table.

INSKEEP: Although, general, I feel that you just indicated some of the very reasons that some people might be inclined to get out of Afghanistan. 17 years is a long time. We're in the 18th year, I think. You're talking about a generational conflict where fathers and sons have fought, and now there is some kind of a peace deal that seems to be in reach that might conceivably bring the Taliban into some kind of government. And if that peace deal is to work at all, it would include a commitment that Afghanistan wouldn't harbor terrorists. Is that possibly enough?

BARNO: I think that's essential. But I also think that we're moving a bit too quickly on our negotiations and that we may want a settlement much more than the Taliban does right now. That's a bad negotiating position to go in with. Clearly we want to find a negotation under the settlement, but it's got to involve protecting the gains that we've made over the time we've served there. And the prospect of the Taliban taking over the country and wiping out all of those gains and human rights and democracy, all of the things that people fought for - I think that's problematic. And I don't think - that's where the Senate's resolution came from yesterday. There's a lot of reason to proceed with caution here.

INSKEEP: Well, let's bring another voice into this debate from the House of Representatives where Democrats have new power of course. Adam Smith is the new Democratic chairman of the House armed services committee. And in an interview on this program the other day, he said, OK, it's really bad to withdraw - bad consequences but maybe even worse to stay and stay and stay. Let's listen to a bit of that.


ADAM SMITH: A strategy that says our continued military presence in Afghanistan is unlikely to improve the situation, is unlikely to be worth the cost is an argument that is becoming more and more persuasive to me.

INSKEEP: Do you intend to use the power that you have as the head of this committee to push for that outcome?

SMITH: I intend to use the power that I have in this committee to spur that debate.

INSKEEP: OK, so open question, General Barno. If Adam Smith calls you as a witness before his committee, what arguments would you use to him that - even if there's a peace deal, even if ISIS seems to be on the run - U.S. troops should stay more years?

BARNO: I think the ultimate argument is a national security interest of the United States. Do we have the ability to prevent al-Qaida from resurging in Afghanistan, from - ISIS from getting stronger in Afghanistan much like we saw happen in Iraq after we pulled out of Iraq in 2011? This isn't, you know, because we're a great humanitarian. This is because it's in our national security interest to maintain a very small and important presence there and to keep ISIS and al-Qaida from returning and presenting a threat against the United States.

INSKEEP: Would you go so far as Max Boot, the analyst who's writing this week that, listen, this is just going to be a permanent presence; never going to fully win; always got to be there?

BARNO: Well, we certainly had a permanent presence in Europe after World War II and in Japan after World War II. And some would argue that that's the reason that those two regions stayed stable because we kept American troops there. We've got less than 2 percent of the active-duty U.S. military involved in Syria, in Afghanistan combined. A lot of people would say that's a good investment in our long-term security in this country.

INSKEEP: General Barno, it's always a pleasure listening to you. Thank you so much.

BARNO: Great talking with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Retired Lieutenant General David Barno. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.