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White House Appears To Be Behind Latest News Out Of The Pentagon


We now have a better idea of why the departing president changed leadership at the Pentagon. Shortly after losing the election, President Trump fired the defense secretary. Now it appears the move cleared the way for an announcement on Afghanistan. The new acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, made a statement yesterday.


CHRISTOPHER MILLER: I'm here today to update you on President Trump's plan to bring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a successful and responsible conclusion and to bring our brave service members home.

INSKEEP: OK, so what does that really mean? NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us. Tom, good morning.


INSKEEP: It seems kind of clear there - successful conclusion, bringing service members home. Does that statement actually mean all the troops are coming home?

BOWMAN: No, not at all. Thousands of troops will still remain in both countries. Now, the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan. They've not stopped attacking cities. They've not broken with al-Qaida. Both are two key conditions of the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February. And in Iraq, those U.S. troops continue to go after remnants of the Islamic State, not just in Iraq but in Syria as well; so no conclusion by a long shot. Now, let's look at the numbers. The White House has mandated a troop reduction in Afghanistan, going from 4,500 to 2,500 by January 15, a smaller drawdown of 500 in Iraq to 2,500. This will happen, Steve. These are orders by the commander in chief.

INSKEEP: I just want to be clear on this because we're listening to people say words that do not mean what the words actually mean. Bringing the wars to a conclusion does not mean that. It means the opposite. The wars go on. Bringing the troops home does not mean that. It means the opposite. Troops stay, but some troops do come home, which is a thing that officials said they would do when conditions allow. What did Acting Secretary Miller say about conditions on the ground that allowed the troop cut?

BOWMAN: He said nothing. He took no questions, Steve. And before he spoke, a senior Defense official, who insisted on being unnamed, repeatedly refused to talk about the specific conditions leading to these cuts. The bottom line is this - the president campaigned on getting troops home. He's doing it. And officials are not being honest that this is fulfilling a campaign pledge. It has little to do with the deliberate, reasoned reductions that the military wanted.

INSKEEP: Although it sounds like they're also not being honest about not fulfilling the campaign pledge. The president campaigned on bringing troops home, and he's saying he's doing it but not quite literally doing that. Is that correct?

BOWMAN: No, that's right. Remember, he said I want - they should all be home by Christmas. That's clearly not going to happen. And he's going to go down to 2,500 five days before the new administration comes in. So, yeah, he's basically saying the wars are over; I'm bringing the troops home. And that's not true.

INSKEEP: What does all this mean for the incoming Biden administration, which takes over January 20?

BOWMAN: Well, probably not too much. The remaining troops can focus on counterterrorism, which is what Biden wants. And he said he'd like to keep a few thousand troops in Afghanistan for that purpose. The sense is that he and his advisers will be deliberate, hold the Taliban to the agreement and not just make a knee-jerk announcement as we see here.

INSKEEP: When you say hold the Taliban to the agreement, there is this peace process going on. The Taliban are being pushed to be a little more cooperative with the Afghan government. Is that right?

BOWMAN: No, that is right. They don't see that government as legitimate. But again, this agreement calls for the talks with the Afghan government, reduce violence in the cities and also break with al-Qaida. Those two, again, have not happened.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman, who's covered Afghanistan for many years. Tom, thank you so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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