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Richard Armitage Weighs In On President Trump's Afghan Strategy


President Trump laid out his strategy in Afghanistan last week. It was light on specifics, but it's expected that 4,000 more troops will soon be deployed - this 16 years into America's longest war. Our guest host Ailsa Chang spoke with someone who was there in the beginning - Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush. Armitage says President Trump's speech didn't address a few big problems.

RICHARD ARMITAGE: We can train Afghan soldiers again. We can equip Afghan soldiers again. But what we can't do is make the Afghan government worthy of their sacrifice. They're not willing to die for that government. Nowhere in the president's speech do I see that the government of Afghanistan is in any way, shape or form going to be able to stand up on its own.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: So you think the administration's decision to deploy even more troops to Afghanistan is a mistake?

ARMITAGE: If I knew what they were going to be deployed for, I might have a different view. For instance, if I thought that they were going to be used as a counterterrorism platform both in Pakistan for operations there and in Afghanistan, that would make some sense while we then simultaneously started moving other troops out. But since that was not addressed, I can't take that point of view.

CHANG: Are you saying that the U.S. military should leave Afghanistan completely, or it should at least leave a counterterrorism force in place?

ARMITAGE: I think the bulk of the military presence should go. A counterterrorism force remaining in place makes sense politically and practically in terms of protection of our homeland. But nothing in putting 4,000 more troops in is going to address the central problems of the Afghan government.

CHANG: I'm assuming you were pleased at least to hear the administration wants to put more pressure on Pakistan. I mean you famously threatened to bomb the country after 9/11 if they didn't become a real counterterrorism partner.

ARMITAGE: That's true. The Pakistanis say that. I didn't quite make that threat. I've wanted my whole career to be able to make such a threat. But not being the only nationally elected leader, I was unable to do so.

CHANG: How did you persuade them to become a counterterrorism partner?

ARMITAGE: I asked Secretary Powell to call General Musharraf, who was the president of Pakistan at the time, and basically give it to him general to general. And he did, and we got for several years fairly good cooperation. And then it dropped off.

CHANG: Would it be more effective to just directly target areas the U.S. thinks are safe havens for terrorists in Pakistan instead of pursuing some drawn-out diplomatic approach with the country because, as you say, it's fallen apart before, that diplomacy.

ARMITAGE: First of all, I think there's not a sufficient appreciation throughout our government of the difficulty of Pakistan. Can we hit inside Pakistan? My understanding from the press is that we have with drone strikes and things of that nature. But my understanding is that the real target is the so-called Haqqani network. And I think they've probably moved from Quetta to Karachi, which makes them a very difficult target in that teeming city.

CHANG: You were intimately involved in the run-up to the war in Afghanistan as deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell. The U.S. ended up sending a hundred thousand troops into that war. It poured hundreds of billions of dollars into it. If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

ARMITAGE: Let's remember what we went there for. Eventually we got the death of Osama bin Laden and those others. And it is the case we have not been attacked on our mainland since 9/11. So to some extent, it was worthwhile. What we did wrong is going to Iraq. And when we did that, we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan. Troop presence just kind of stayed on its own. That's what I'd like to have back.

CHANG: But weren't you involved in Iraq as well?

ARMITAGE: Yes, I was. I'm not trying to evade that responsibility. You asked me what I would do differently, and I wouldn't be in Iraq (laughter).

MARTIN: That's former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage speaking with our guest host Ailsa Chang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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