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Morning News Brief: Trump's Afghan Strategy, Total Solar Eclipse


In a televised address tonight, President Trump plans to lay out his strategy for Afghanistan.


It's been nearly 16 years since the U.S. invaded the country, making it the longest war in U.S. history. It's a war that's bedeviled generals, diplomats and now three presidents. For President Trump, it's been a months-long decision in the making. Here's Defense Secretary James Mattis on Sunday.


JAMES MATTIS: The strategic process was sufficiently rigorous and did not go in with a preset condition in terms of what questions could be asked or what decisions would be made.

CHANG: Whatever the president decides, the U.S. faces a stalemate in Afghanistan. The Afghan government controls just over half of its territory, with the Taliban and the Islamic State taking parts of the country that the U.S. and coalition forces had once secured.

GREENE: And, Ailsa, let's bring in NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley and also NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Good morning to you both.



GREENE: Scott, before we get to the substance and policy, just - let's set the stage here. This television address tonight comes after what was a really tough week for President Trump. I mean, is this a way to turn to a new subject and turn the page and move past all that chaos?

HORSLEY: Well, you're right, David. This was certainly not a restful working vacation...


HORSLEY: ...That the president is coming off of. You had not only another staff shake-up but all the controversy surrounding the president's comments on Charlottesville, the ensuing defections of business leaders from some White House advisory councils and very vocal criticism from members of Congress. None of that is necessarily driving this decision on Afghanistan and the decision to hold the prime-time speech tonight. But certainly, the president and his team would be happy if this televised address were to eclipse some of the negative coverage the president's been...

GREENE: I see what you did there.

CHANG: (Laughter) Nice, nice.

GREENE: (Laughter) I see what you did there.

CHANG: And then there was, of course, the firing of his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who felt pretty strongly about winding down our troop levels in Afghanistan - right, Scott?

HORSLEY: You're right, Ailsa. Steve Bannon described himself as an economic nationalist, and so he was averse to any really big and costly troop buildup in Afghanistan. He also advocated outsourcing some of the Afghan operation to private contractors, although it's not clear that would have saved the U.S. government a whole lot of money.

It's also not clear just how much influence Bannon had in his final days at the White House. It was widely noted that he was left off the list of advisers who took part in that big powwow on Friday at Camp David, where this strategy was discussed. And, of course, we now know that when that meeting at Camp David was held, Bannon was already on his way out the door.

GREENE: OK, so we have all this secrecy about what the strategy is actually going to be. I mean, Scott, you mentioned that Steve Bannon was against a troop buildup. Mary Louise, what are the options? I mean, is a troop buildup one of the options? What exactly is the president considering here, mulling over?

KELLY: Absolutely, I mean, the president was presented with the whole smorgasbord of options, all of which have their risks, none of which are easy. And they ranged from radical options, like going all in - a really significant troop increase - to the opposite of that, saying 16 years is enough. We're cutting bait. We're pulling out.

Where it appears the president has landed is in the middle of those - some sort of modest troop increase. We're talking maybe 4,000, maybe 5,000 additional troops. Now, nobody thinks you're going to win the war by sending in 4,000 additional troops. But the hope is that that makes you - it puts you in a position to buy some time, maybe make a little bit of progress, create a space where a political settlement could happen down the road.

CHANG: But hasn't the U.S. already tried that option - to ramp up at least slightly in Afghanistan?

KELLY: They have. It's remarkable how much this sounds like a continuation of what the Obama administration was trying in their final years. I think that means what to watch for tonight is how President Trump frames the strategy. I mean, sending 4,000 troops isn't a strategy. It's not your instate. So what's the instate? How does he describe U.S. interests - what the U.S. goal is in Afghanistan? That's where to look to get a sense of when - as we just said, it's the longest war in U.S. history - when this might actually wind its way toward a close.

GREENE: Scott, what about what the country wants - and particularly, what President Trump's supporters want? I mean, he is - you know, with his poll numbers, he has been clinging to this base of support. Could this do something and impact that?

HORSLEY: Well, obviously, it depends on what the decision is. I think there would be maybe some pushback from the base if there were some really large-scale troop escalation of the kind we saw when President Obama addressed this back in 2009. There might be also resistance if there was a whole lot of dedication of additional U.S. funding for Afghanistan.

But a more modest increase, of the sort that Mary Louise is talking about, I'm not sure that's going to lead to any real resistance from the president's base - even if it does generate some some negative headlines from Steve Bannon, who's now back at Breitbart News. The president tweeted - perhaps optimistically - over the weekend that Bannon would be a tough, smart, new voice at Breitbart. And he added, fake news needs the competition.

GREENE: Mary Louise, I mean, Steve Bannon is out now. Are we going to learn anything tonight about who actually has the president's ear right now?

KELLY: Well, it's perhaps not a coincidence - if, as expected, the president comes out and announces some kind of modest troop increase - that he does that a few days after Steve Bannon exited the White House. I mean...

GREENE: Might tell us something.

KELLY: It may tell us that the generals, who Trump clearly respects - so we now have John Kelly as his chief of staff. We now have H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser. We have Jim Mattis over at the Pentagon - all people with significant combat experience. All of whom, we are told, it appears have lined up behind this strategy of a modest troop increase. And that may mean that, in this one aspect of national security policy, their voices are - for the moment - the ones being heard.

GREENE: And since you cover national security, before we let you go, I just want to ask you about a story we're going to be surely following all day. There have been these reports of a U.S. Navy ship and an oil tanker colliding off the coast of Singapore. What do we know at this point?

KELLY: Yeah, that's right. This is a U.S. destroyer, which did collide with an oil tanker about three times its size. This is off the coast of Singapore. The ship was out on patrol in the South China Sea, and it was headed toward port in Singapore when this happened. Two things worth noting, one is 10 Navy sailors are missing. Five are injured. So there is a search underway right now for survivors - trying to see what they can do. The second time - the second thing worth mentioning is this is the second time that a Navy ship has collided...


KELLY: ...In this part of the world just in the past few months. This happened a couple of months ago. Seven people died. So this will raise questions for the Navy overall and the 7th Fleet in particular.

GREENE: The voice there of NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly and also White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Hey, thank you both.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right, so finally it is time to break out those solar eclipse glasses if you managed to get a pair. Did you get a pair, Ailsa?

CHANG: I did not, but sitting across from me is someone who did, Joe Palca. Today is the great American eclipse, guys.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: That's right.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Is everybody excited about the solar eclipse? It's a week away.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: A total solar eclipse is a must-see phenomenon.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The moon completely blocking the sun, turning day to night.

GREENE: So much drama, drama.

CHANG: Day to night, pretty cool. Of course, this one is extra special today. The total eclipse will crawl across the continental U.S., from one coast to the other, for the first time in nearly a century. It starts in Oregon, and then it creeps diagonally across to South Carolina, all over the course of a couple hours.

GREENE: Yeah, and we're all going to be watching this. And so NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca is in the studio in Washington with Ailsa. I am out here in Southern California at NPR West. Joe, what is your - what do you wear on solar eclipse day?

CHANG: (Laughter).

PALCA: (Laughter) What do I wear?

GREENE: A special T-shirt or something?

PALCA: No, no, for me, it's the usual garb. But I do - I am equipped with a pair of glasses that are - as you said, they're special glasses for looking at the sun. This is a very important thing for people to understand. Don't look at the sun. There is only one tiny - it lasts about two minutes during this eclipse where you're safe to look at the sun. And that is if you're in the path of totality, and the sun is completely obscured by the moon - you can look. And that way - then you'll see the corona, which is this wispy atmosphere of the sun. That's the only time it's safe to look at the sun.

GREENE: That is very specific. The rule should be don't look at the sun, by default.

PALCA: Don't look at the sun.

GREENE: Don't look at the sun.

CHANG: (Laughter).

PALCA: That's right. And if you have a pair of dark glasses you have at home, and you think, oh, these will be good enough - no. I have this - Ailsa can see now.

CHANG: Yeah.

PALCA: I am wearing these glasses, which are officially eclipse glasses. And, Ailsa, wave at me.

CHANG: I'm waving at you.

PALCA: I can't see anything.

CHANG: He can't.

PALCA: (Laughter).

CHANG: He has them propped up over his eyeglasses just so he can read.

PALCA: That's right. You can wear them over your eyeglasses, but you cannot wear anything that isn't certified as specifically for an eclipse. They are special glasses. They cut out most of the light. And the good news is that most of - the entire country will be able to see a partial eclipse. So if you have these glasses, and you want to look, good for you. This...

GREENE: But only some people will be in the totality belt...

PALCA: That's right.

GREENE: ...Right? Only a few people will get - or a small number of people will actually get to see the actual totality.

PALCA: Well, small number, maybe - I mean, there's actually 12 million people that live in the path of the totality.

GREENE: OK, few people, yeah.

PALCA: Few people, but unfortunately a lot of them will be in cloudy weather, which is going to obscure the sun.

GREENE: That's unfortunate. That it is not convenient.

PALCA: The good news is that the West Coast - Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming - looking pretty clear.

GREENE: Well, that's good.

PALCA: Parts of Tennessee and Kentucky look good, but the rest of the country a little dicey for the totality.

GREENE: I love when you sound like a weatherman, Joe Palca.

PALCA: (Laughter).

GREENE: Is this going to - will we get anything like this anytime soon? I mean, is there another one soon if we miss this?

PALCA: 2024 in the U.S. and 2019, if you can't wait, you can go to South America.

GREENE: Well, I'll go there with you on a reporting trip.

PALCA: Absolutely.

GREENE: OK, it's a date.

PALCA: All right.

GREENE: That is NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You bet.

GREENE: And you can follow live coverage of the eclipse on your local member station and also at npr.org. Enjoy it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "SUMMER SHIMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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