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President Barack Obama is set to announce the withdrawal of 34,000 American troops from Afghanistan by January 2014. The reduction of troops and the realignment of civilians working there will restructure America’s relationship with a country where it’s been at war since 2001. We get an update on Obama’s new strategy and what it means for the future of America’s national security policy.
- Rajiv Chandrasekaran Senior Correspondent, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, love in the time of algorithms. We'll look at the changing dynamics of dating in the 21st century, but first, tonight President Obama is expected to announce that by this time next year the U.S. will have pulled 34,000 troops from Afghanistan. The United States first entered the war in Afghanistan 11 years ago. And since then has spent over $600 billion sustaining it. In his annual State of the Union Address, the president will present a specific plan for the removal of U.S. troops.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd it could mean that slightly more than half of U.S. forces serving in Afghanistan could be home by 2014. Joining us to explore what this new plan will mean for America's military and diplomatic strategies, as well as what it means for Afghanistan itself, is Rajiv Chandrasekaran, senior correspondent and associate editor for the Washington Post and author of "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thank you for joining us.
MR. RAJIV CHANDRASEKARANGood to be on with you, Kojo.
NNAMDINATO's mission in Afghanistan, Rajiv, is set to end in 2014. That's, well, next year. How does the president's expected announcement align with that timeline?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, the president's advisors, should I say, some of who I've been talking to about this for some time, see this announcement tonight as part of America's exit from Afghanistan and a slow and steady exit. We have about 66,000 troops there right now. And what the president is going to announce is that about half of them are to come back over the next 12 months. That will leave about 32,000 troops in country next year. And the president then would hope to bring many of them back over the course of next year.
CHANDRASEKARANSo a steady move to the exits. What they don't want to do is try to bring everybody out at the very end of this mission in 2014 because Afghanistan is a tough place to remove equipment from. It's halfway around the world. It's a complicated logistically endeavor. So they want this to be slow and steady. I should note, Kojo, that this reduction over the next year of 34,000 is more than what the military had wanted to pull out. I'm reporting right now that the military had only wanted about 25,000 or so troops removed.
CHANDRASEKARANSo the White House is being more aggressive than what the Pentagon wanted, in part because they believe Afghan forces are ready to take more responsibility for their fight. And also the White House is concerned about the sheer cost of keeping our forces in Afghanistan. It costs about $1 million per soldier per year to station forces in Afghanistan. And so that's certainly something that the White House has factored into this decision.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about this timetable for the withdrawal from Afghanistan and how President Obama's addressing it, you can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Rajiv, can we therefore, I guess, speculate that the White House is also going to be more aggressive with the remaining 32,000 troops who will be there after these 34,000 come home?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, yes and no, Kojo. There are two issues at play here. One is how many troops are we going to take out between now and the end of 2014 when NATO's combat mission officially ends? And the second question is, how many troops will the Obama administration seek to leave behind in 2015 and beyond? And what I reported in the Washington Post this morning is that there is now growing consensus between the White House and the Pentagon to essentially have a diminishing presence there from 2015 onward.
CHANDRASEKARANPerhaps starting out with about 8,000 or so U.S. troops left behind and that number dropping steadily year to year so that by 2017 or so there may be fewer than 1000 American troops in the country. Most of them operating from the embassy, providing advisory services to the Afghan Ministry of Defense, helping to do so some training, but not doing anything like the sort of missions in the field that they're doing today. But those numbers still remain a point of negotiation between military commanders and the president's top civilian national security advisors.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd then whatever numbers the president agrees to will have to be formally negotiated with and agreed to by Afghanistan's government.
NNAMDIOur guest is Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He is senior correspondent and associate editor of the Washington Post and author of the book, "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." Rajiv, the U.S. is also funding the 352,000 members of the Afghan security force. How much longer does the U.S. plan to sustain that?
CHANDRASEKARANThat's a really good question, Kojo, because the Afghan government has no ability to pay for an army and police force of that size by itself, but that $4 billion or so, which is the annual price tag for a 352,000 strong security forces there, that price tag of $4 billion a year is more than the Afghan government's entire budget. We have been paying that tab for the past few years. We have committed to paying it for some years to come into the future, but that is another point of discussion at the White House and the Pentagon.
CHANDRASEKARANThe White House has wanted to start to reduce the size of the Afghan security forces to reduce the cost to the United States. Military commanders argue that keeping the Afghan forces that big is necessary through at least 2018, particularly if we are going to be reducing our forces so rapidly. The military commanders say, hey, look, we understand this is expensive, but it's a lot cheaper than keeping U.S. troops there. So ultimately, I think, Kojo, this does come down to a question about money. It's worth just a brief history lesson here.
CHANDRASEKARANYou know, when the Soviet forces left Afghanistan in 1989 the Afghan government that they had backed didn't collapse overnight. It collapsed a couple years later when the Soviet Union collapsed and Moscow was unable to write checks to the government in Kabul. So ultimately, the stability of a government we leave behind in Afghanistan may depend less on the number of American boots on the ground and more on the willingness here in Washington, in Congress particularly, to write big checks to the Afghan government to pay for its army and police force.
NNAMDIHow can we be sure that that money is being spent correctly if our own military presence there is significantly reduced? How will we be able to effectively monitor that?
CHANDRASEKARANThat's a real big challenge. And I think we have to accept that some portion of that money, perhaps even a big portion will be lost to corruption and inefficiency. A lot of our aid money there today winds up not in the hands of deserving Afghans, but in the bank accounts of rich and powerful political leaders, often outside the country. It's sort of a cost of doing business there. It's unfortunate. I don't mean to condone corruption in any way, shape or fashion. And certainly for the Pentagon, which will face pressures from Congress and others to audit that money, it's going to be much tougher if they're not out in the field ensuring that the, you know, that the 1000 gallons of gasoline that they purchased actually makes it to the base that it needs to get to, as opposed to being sold off along the road.
NNAMDIRajiv, Washington's NATO allies have been steadily withdrawing military support from Afghanistan. Has the international community definitively closed the book on its role in Afghanistan?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, I think the international community is also heading to the exits. Many of our NATO partners are also drawing down forces. They're certainly looking to this decision by the president as sort of a signal of what the U.S. is going to do and I think it will be seen by other countries as a sign for them to start reducing as well. And, you know, it's a big question as to how many of those NATO partners will want to keep forces there after the formal mission ends at the end of next year. The Pentagon is hoping that some of our key allies, including Britain and a few others in Europe will want to keep a handful of troops there and they're hoping that will be the case, but again, that's all still up in the air.
NNAMDIIf the U.S. aims to reduce troop levels to as low as 8,000 when this mission ends next year, will the U.S. have forces available to continue carrying out counterterrorism operations there if need be?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, I think at the 8,000 level, yes. There will be a contention of special operations troops that'll be able to carry out raids against any key al Qaeda leaders that they need to target in Afghanistan or other members of terrorist organizations deemed to be a threat to the United States. But once you start to get down much lower than that, once you get down to sort of maybe a thousand troop contingent operating out of the embassy, you wouldn't necessarily have a special operations strike team ready and waiting to go into country.
CHANDRASEKARANUnder that scenario, what I hear from top Pentagon officials is that they would keep some infrastructure ready to go in Afghanistan, essentially some bases where troops could plug into. They'd keep some helicopters and other equipment prepositioned in the country, but those actual troops that would conduct those missions, maybe Navy SEALs or members of the U.S. Army's special forces battalions, would come in from bases in other countries or might operate off of ships in the Arabian Sea and fly into the country, conduct those missions and then leave, allowing the U.S. to keep a lower level of forces there on a permanent basis.
NNAMDIGiven all of the economic and political pressures to pull out, how seriously can the White House take the admonition that Afghanistan is where empires go to falter and that inevitably what we'll be seeing there will be a return of the Taliban?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, I think the White House and the Pentagon, official Washington writ large hopes that won't be the case. And the debate here really is how much or put differently, Kojo, how little do you have to do to keep that from happening? And the Pentagon sees certain numerical levels of troops, both American and Afghan that are necessary to keep the Taliban from retaking key terrain, key cities and roads in Afghanistan. The White House has a different view.
CHANDRASEKARANIt believes that a smaller number of troops will be sufficient to hold the Taliban back, saying that our forces have made remarkable progress there over the past several years. But really, there's a big question mark around this. It's hard to know with any great certainty. I think, though, that it is clear that U.S. and Afghan forces have made a lot of progress. The Taliban has been pushed back, but they will almost certainly mount an aggressive effort, as our troops start coming home, to try to reassert themselves.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd the question is how successfully will they be able to do that? And will Afghan army units, in particular, be willing to stand up and fight, or when faced with that pressure and faced with the challenge of really confronting the Taliban on their own with very limited American support, will they be able to fight or will they crumble and allow the Taliban essentially to march back in to key cities and eventually retake the countryTaliban, essentially, to march back into key cities and eventually retake the country. But I don't think that's a certain outcome. I think, you know, there's a real question mark as to how these next several years will proceed.
NNAMDIA question that Rajiv Chandrasekaran will be in the frontline of those seeking an answer to over the course of the next few years. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is senior correspondent and associate editor of the Washington Post and author of the book "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." Rajiv, thank you for joining us. Always a pleasure.
CHANDRASEKARANAlways a pleasure to talk with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, "Love in the Time of Algorithms." We look at the changing dynamics of dating in the 21st century. I suspect you'll want to start calling now, 800-433-8850. What's been your experience? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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