New Defense Secretary Makes Unannounced Trip To Afghanistan

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is in Afghanistan meeting with that country's new president, Ashraf Ghani, and discussing possible changes to the timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

We're going to start the hour today in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is planning to cut the number of its remaining forces in half by the years end. Is that the right strategy? That question loomed large during the new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's first overseas trip. As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, Carter kicked off the new job with an unannounced trip to Afghanistan this weekend.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Many Afghans worry that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is happening too fast.

DAOUD MURADIAN: President Obama is the first Commander in Chief in history of human kind, probably, that decides to end the war by calendar. The war is finished on the battlegrounds, not by calendar.

REEVES: That's Daoud Muradian from the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. The U.S. is having second thoughts about the drawdown. That much was clear when Defense Secretary Carter spoke at a press conference in Kabul Saturday alongside Afghanistan's president Ashraf Ghani.

ASHTON CARTER: President Obama is considering a number of options to reinforce our support for President Ghani's security strategy, including possible changes to the timeline for our drawdown of U.S. troops.

REEVES: The current plan is to roughly halve the 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan this year and pull the rest out in 2016. Whether this is slowed down will partly depend on Afghanistan's security forces. Carter, today, visited a military base in Kandahar and met American soldiers training the Afghan army. He praised their work saying Afghan forces are now strong and stand a chance of prevailing long-term over the Taliban.

Last year, though, the Afghan police and army suffered their heaviest losses to date, mostly from their main enemy, the Taliban. U.N. figures show there were also some 10,500 civilian deaths and injuries, up by nearly a quarter on the year before.

Muradian, of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, worries about the repetition of the geopolitical meltdown that followed the U.S. departure from Iraq.

MURADIAN: The situation in the Middle East is a very vivid example of the price of premature disengagement from a conflict.

REEVES: Amid the anxiety, there are glimmers of hope. Reports are flying around the region of moves to restart peace talks called off by the Taliban three years ago. These reports persist despite official denials. Afghanistan's President Ghani fueled hopes this weekend saying prospects for peace are better than they'd been in decades. Even so, there is a long way to.

ABDUL WAHEED WAFA: It's very, very, very hard.

REEVES: That's political analyst and journalist Abdul Waheed Wafa.

WAFA: We don't have consensus inside Afghanistan over accepting the negotiation with the Taliban and with the Pakistanis.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC NOISE)

REEVES: The people of Kabul have learned not to raise their expectations.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC NOISE)

REEVES: Gul Mohammed Sakhi's been polishing shoes here on the sidewalk for decades. He's seen his city changed by war. Money's poured in sprouting apartment blocks, malls and monster traffic jams. Offices and hotels have been turned into forts guarded by men with Kalashnikovs. Sakhi's pretty sure Afghanistan's conflict's not over, whether American forces stay on for longer or not.

GUL MOHAMMED SAKHI: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Sakhi says Afghans are often told there'll be peace but it never happens. You see, in Afghanistan, he says, your enemy never becomes your friend. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.