Troop Withdrawal Disappoints Military Advisers

Originally published on June 25, 2011 10:25 am
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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM BOWMAN: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And first off, where have you been?

BOWMAN: And in both cases, we've been in the areas of heaviest concentration of American Troops, and also the greatest amount of fighting over the past year or two.

SIMON: Here's Admiral Mike Mullen testifying Capitol Hill on Thursday.

MIKE MULLEN: What I can tell you is the president's decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept. More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course. But that does not necessarily make it the best course. Only the president in the end can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take.

SIMON: And obviously, Admiral Mullen respecting that the president is the commander-in-chief, and it's his right to make that decision. At the same time, is it as simple as every commander just wants more.

BOWMAN: And what they're particularly worried about is removing combat troops, what they call trigger pullers. They say that you maybe can reduce some support troops, and that could be anything from construction battalions to military police. But they're very worried about reducing combat troops.

SIMON: Tom, you've been in the eastern part of Afghanistan, and I wonder if that's one area of the country where a draw-down in troops could actually change what U.S. strategy is to operate in that area.

BOWMAN: So there's a concern if your draw down American combat troops too quickly, it'll have a hard time fighting this Haqqani network.

SIMON: In addition to talk about the numbers, obviously there's been some dispute over timing. And let's listen to an exchange on Capitol Hill Thursday. General David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, was testifying, got some pretty sharp questions from Senator John McCain of Arizona.

JOHN MCCAIN: From a pure military standpoint, the troops coming out before the end of the fighting season next summer, in order to comply with a September pull out, does it make it more difficult for General Allen to carry out pure military aspects of his mission?

DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, again, this is a more aggressive timeline. It means that there are, again, further challenges by not getting all the way through the fighting season.

SIMON: General Allen by the way is, of course, nominated to replace General Petraeus. Tom, the military must read the public opinion polls in the United States and all the news accounts. Do a lot of them have a perception that this withdrawal date is in response to those public opinion polls and political considerations?

BOWMAN: Oh, I think absolutely. They realize that the support for the war at home is decreasing and also the support in Congress is decreasing as well. But their concern is pulling these troops out too quickly before the fighting season ends. The fighting season generally lasts until the snows come, into October or November, so they're really worried a bit about that. You look into next year, they want to remove the remaining 23,000 surge troops before September of 2012, and that would mean the large number of these troops would come out in the spring and summer right in the middle of the fighting season. So there is a great deal of concern about, again, slipping back on the progress they've made by pulling these combat troops out in the middle of the fighting season.

SIMON: Another question that has to be asked; the logic of U.S. withdrawal is predicated on Afghan troops taking over the burden of fighting the Taliban and other forces. You've been with the Afghan army. What's your impression of the progress they've made?

BOWMAN: But there are other occasions where we'd be patrolling with American soldiers or Marines, and the Afghan soldiers are almost along for the ride. They were looking around. They weren't asking questions of any of the villagers. They were wandering off, some were jumping into canals and swimming. It really is what you would call a mix bag. Some of them are clearly ready to take over; they could probably do it tomorrow, but quite a few others are going to need a lot more time.

SIMON: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. We reached him in Kabul. Thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Scott.

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