DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Tonight, President Trump is set to address the nation on what is next for the war in Afghanistan. This is a prime-time address on a subject that has long been on the mind of Donald Trump. Before he ran, he advocated withdrawal. Then, early in the presidential primary campaign, he reversed and said troops probably had to stay.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place. We had real brilliant thinkers that didn't know what the hell they were doing. And it's a mess. It's a mess. And at this point, you probably have to because that thing will collapse about two seconds after they leave, just as I said that Iraq was going to collapse after we leave.
GREENE: Now, since becoming commander in chief, Trump has said that the generals ought to decide about troop levels. But he has criticized the top U.S. general there right now over the continued slow pace of the war. Now let's talk to Aaron O'Connell. He's a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and an Afghan veteran. He is also the editor of the book "Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts And Minds In Afghanistan."
Professor, welcome to the program.
AARON O'CONNELL: Thank you very much for having me.
GREENE: What are you expecting from the president tonight in this address?
O'CONNELL: Well, I expect he will probably endorse the military's recommendation for about a 5,000-person troop increase for trainers for the Afghan army and police. And I expect he will probably also loosen the restrictions on air power that President Obama put in place in an effort to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The military's been advocating for both of those things for about a year. And I think that President Trump will give them what they want.
GREENE: These sound like small moves. Is that fair?
O'CONNELL: That is a fair statement, yes. Nobody thinks 5,000 more troops is going to end the war in Afghanistan. For context, we have about 8,400 American troops there now. And at the height of the surge in 2011, we had 100,000. So adding 5,000 more won't end the war. The hope is that it will buy the Afghan government a bit more time to bring the Taliban to a negotiated peace, or at least to halt the loss of momentum and halt the Taliban advance.
GREENE: Well, speaking about ending the war, I want to ask you about winning the war, if that's something that we might come to, at some point. Back in June, the secretary of defense, James Mattis, told Congress, quote, "we are not winning in Afghanistan right now." Is that a fair assessment? Is he right?
O'CONNELL: That is a fair assessment. The war has been in a stalemate since at least 2011 - some would say a stalemate sliding towards failure. But I would caution us against thinking we can win the war in Afghanistan. It's actually part - our efforts there are part of a much larger war between the Kabuli elites and rural Pashtuns. It's been going on since before Afghanistan was founded in 1747. So I don't believe we can step in and win the war for them.
And in fact, that hasn't been the strategy for some time. President Obama's surge was meant to halt the momentum. And the entire war strategy for the remainder of his presidency was to empower the Afghan government to fight the war on its own by increasing the training to the army and police, and by increasing advisory efforts to the government to reduce corruption and bring it into an inclusive governing model.
GREENE: So isn't there a reality facing every president who has dealt with this - President George W. Bush, President Obama, President Trump - that it would be a very difficult message to come before the American people in an evening address and say this war can't be won. This is actually part of a larger, nuanced conflict that goes back generations. I mean, could a president do that?
O'CONNELL: That - probably not, but there are things he can do. And so I think the American people would like very much to hear something we have not heard yet from this administration, which is a diplomatic strategy to end the conflict. We don't make peace with our friends. We make peace with our enemies. And I think, thus far, in the first six months of this administration, what we've seen diplomatically out of the Trump administration borders on strategic malpractice. We don't even have an ambassador...
GREENE: Why do you say that?
O'CONNELL: Well, we don't have an ambassador in Kabul yet. We don't have an assistant secretary for the region who could actually sit down and broker deals. The State Department is hemorrhaging talent. And because of this, there's no way to actually set up a diplomatic apparatus that brings in partners from the region, that brings in the neighbors and uses the considerable leverage the United States has economically and diplomatically to bring this war to an end.
GREENE: Why would that work? What's the - what is your argument that a diplomatic option would be, at least, the most effective thing to try?
O'CONNELL: I guess there's two arguments. The first is, no one thinks there's going to be a military solution. So if you cannot bomb your way to victory, it's best to start talking. And we've known this about the Taliban since at least 2011. Even at the height of the surge with 100,000 troops, the Taliban thought they were winning. And they think they're winning today.
So the - since that - since the military, heavy-handed approach of just trying to get the other guy to give up isn't working, then it's always best to start seeing how you can strike deals. And the Taliban requires and lives off of the support it gets from Pakistan. We provide Pakistan considerable amounts of money, and aid and support both for fighting terrorism and for other matters. And it's pretty clear to me, given the fragile state of the Pakistani economy and political apparatus, that we could deploy that leverage.
But here, again, what we've seen so far is real inconsistency. In the first weeks of the Trump administration, they released millions of dollars in counterterrorism payments to Pakistan. A few weeks later, they just decided they will no longer give counterterrorism payments to Afghanistan for the same reason the Obama administration halted them - namely, for progress against the Haqqani network and the Taliban.
GREENE: So it sounds like diplomacy is not something you're looking for in any large way from this administration.
O'CONNELL: I would like to see it. Unfortunately, we don't have the structures in place yet because the president has pretty much tried to outsource the decision on the war to the military and is seeking only a military solution at this point, from everything I've heard from him.
GREENE: Aaron O'Connell is an Afghan war veteran and an associate professor of history at the University of Texas in Austin. Thanks so much for taking the time. We appreciate it.
O'CONNELL: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.