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Trump's National Security Team Meets To Discuss Way Forward In Afghanistan


President Trump was out of sight today, huddling with his national security team at Camp David. On the agenda - a much delayed decision on a plan for America's longest war. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: For months, the Trump administration has been promising to unveil its strategy for Afghanistan.


JAMES MATTIS: We are coming very close to a decision, and I anticipate it in the very near future.

KELLY: That's Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He says all options are on the table. So let's examine the menu. One option is to cut bait, announce that 16 years is enough, and the U.S. is pulling out. It wouldn't be the first time that idea has been in play, says General John Allen, who led U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013.

JOHN ALLEN: When I was the commander, we were asked to examine the zero option. We said, sure, we'll do that. That takes about two seconds. And the zero option ends with complete failure in Afghanistan.

KELLY: A more likely option - a modest troop increase. Mattis and others at the Pentagon have been pushing to send around 4,000 additional troops. Aaron O'Connell served 22 years in the Marines, including a tour in Afghanistan, before joining President Obama's National Security Council. He says the modest increase option would allow the U.S. and Afghan forces to hold the line, maybe even make progress against the enemy. But...

AARON O'CONNELL: Right now there's about 8,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That is less than 10 percent of what we had at the height of the war in 2010 and 2011 when we had 100,000 troops and allies added another 40,000 troops. Even with that number, we couldn't decisively defeat the Taliban. So nobody's saying that with 4,000 or 5,000 more troops, we will end this war.

KELLY: Other options under consideration include a gradual drawdown or shifting some of the burden to private contractors, mercenaries by another name. General Allen hopes Trump will be listening to Mattis and his other advisers with combat experience.

ALLEN: If he listens to them, he can be the president that stabilized Afghanistan and brought us ultimately the success that we want. It's not going to happen next week. There will be no decisive Napoleonic battle that we can all point to as the day we won. But we can certainly arrest the downward spiral.

KELLY: That phrase you heard Allen use - it's not going to happen next week - is one you hear a lot in the context of Afghanistan. Former ambassador to Kabul Jim Cunningham describes this as part of a generational campaign against Islamist extremism.

JIM CUNNINGHAM: This whole conflict, not just in Afghanistan, is going to be something that's going to be with us for years to come. And this administration ought to be honest with the American people and with its international partners about what it is that we're dealing with here. This is not something that can be won in the sense of conquering a city and walking away.

KELLY: Words that suggest none of the options presented to the president today is easy or guaranteed to bring a successful close to America's longest war. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODESZA SONG, "SAY MY NAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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