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Why The U.S. Has Continued To Fight In Afghanistan


Eighteen years into fighting the nation's longest war, the U.S. is trying to find an exit ramp for the 14,000 troops still in Afghanistan. Here's President Trump earlier this week in his State of the Union address.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Great nations do not fight endless wars.

MARTIN: U.S. delegates have been trying to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban. But what happens to the fight against terrorism, which was the entire reason for the U.S. invasion in 2001? NPR's David Welna has this report.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Twelve years ago, George W. Bush, the president who first ordered troops into Afghanistan, was speaking at an American Legion convention. He explained that the U.S. was still fighting in Afghanistan years after toppling the Taliban regime because of all the terrorist groups holed up there.


GEORGE W BUSH: Our strategy is this. We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America.

WELNA: Earlier this week, I spoke with John Nicholson. He's the retired Army general who recently stepped down as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Nicholson thinks what President Bush said about why the U.S. was in Afghanistan still holds true today.

JOHN NICHOLSON: The point here is that a presence in the region with a willing partner, as we have with the Afghans, I believe, does give us the ability to keep pressure on these groups and their sanctuary areas. And this degrades their ability to attack us at home.

WELNA: Al-Qaida's presence in Afghanistan has faded. But according to Nicholson, 20 other terrorist groups operate there or just across the border in Pakistan. Nevertheless, in his State of the Union address, Trump left no doubt he plans to cut back U.S. forces in Afghanistan.


TRUMP: As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troops' presence and focus on counterterrorism. And we will, indeed, focus on counterterrorism.

WELNA: Some who've served in Afghanistan say the U.S. counterterrorism efforts there may have only made things worse. Aaron O'Connell is a former Marine who was on President Obama's National Security Council.

AARON O'CONNELL: The military has used a metaphor saying, we have to have these kind of violent approaches to, effectively, mow the grass. We know we can't kill every terrorist. But if we keep the pressure on, then it will keep the terrorism weeds from growing. I think it's more like pouring water on the grass or fertilizer on the grass.

WELNA: What's more, the Taliban's principal demand in these negotiations is the withdrawal of all U.S. forces. Elizabeth Threlkeld was a U.S. diplomat in Pakistan who's now with the Stimson Center. A U.S. counterterrorism force staying on in Afghanistan, she says, would need...

ELIZABETH THRELKELD: To have buy-in not just from the current Afghan government but from whatever future government might take shape, including, potentially, the Taliban, that those troops would be welcome and would not be seen as this foreign, invading force that some in Afghanistan perceive them to be now.

WELNA: Air Force Major General James Hecker of the joint chiefs told Congress this week there is hope the Taliban will counter a growing presence of the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Afghanistan.


JAMES HECKER: If we have a united Taliban with the forces that we've been building up along and they choose - big if, right? But if they choose to take on ISIS, I think there is a time in the future where we could see them keeping ISIS at bay.

WELNA: That amazes Karl Eikenberry, another former U.S. commander in Afghanistan who was later ambassador there.

KARL EIKENBERRY: There's many ironies to our entire time in Afghanistan. The fact that we're talking to Taliban about being a buffer or a shield against more extremist groups, indeed, is an irony.

WELNA: Or to paraphrase President Bush, the Taliban would be fighting them over there so we wouldn't have to face them here. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF AL 'TARBA'S "SILENT SMOKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.