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U.S. General Discusses Status Of U.S. Troops In Afghanistan


Late last evening, a U.S. military plane took off from Qatar and climbed into the sky over the Persian Gulf region. Onboard, an aide to General Kenneth Frank McKenzie placed a phone call to the United States. The U.S. Marine general had agreed to talk with us from the air about his recent visit to Afghanistan.

FRANK MCKENZIE: Hey, this is General McKenzie.

INSKEEP: Hi, General. It's Steve Inskeep.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sir, you are on the line with Steve Inskeep and Tom Bowman.

MCKENZIE: Hey, Steve, Tom. How are you guys doing?

INSKEEP: Tom is our Pentagon correspondent who sat in on our talk with the head of U.S. Central Command. General McKenzie oversees all U.S. military operations in East Africa, the Middle East and beyond.

MCKENZIE: So as we talk today, I'm returning from the Central Command theater. I've had an opportunity to visit 10 countries in about 13 days to make up for lost time. During the coronavirus crisis, we had trouble traveling.

INSKEEP: One of the stops was Kabul, where the general met with Afghanistan's president amid a fraught effort for peace. The United States, you will recall, made an agreement with the Taliban, which has been fighting U.S. troops since 2001. Now the U.S. is trying to push the Taliban to make peace with Afghanistan's government itself. What makes this harder is the Taliban's ties with al-Qaida and also the Taliban's support from Russia. U.S. intelligence reports accuse Russia of offering bounties for the Taliban to kill U.S. troops.

MCKENZIE: We have a narrow path to go forward. I think this path is still the only way to get to a negotiated peaceful end to the situation there. I believe that the government of Afghanistan is trying to do everything it can to get ready to conduct intra-Afghan dialogue, direct negotiations with the Taliban. And that's going to be an important thing. As a precursor to that, the Afghan government has committed to releasing 5,000 prisoners. And they're in the process of doing that now. They need to finish that release. That will be an important step.

The Taliban needs to release 1,000 prisoners that they hold of the government of Afghanistan. Then we need to go to a inter-Afghan dialogue where the parties are actually talking. You know, as part of that, the level of violence is still too high. The Taliban is still attacking Afghan forces across the country. They have scrupulously avoided attacking U.S. and coalition forces. But the attacks continue against the Afghan government forces and at far too high a level.

INSKEEP: We've been following some of this violence as you've been in the region, general. There were some dramatic attacks. The Taliban fired rockets on an Afghan city, Ghazni, where the Afghan president was at the time, for example. Do you think they are trying to gain some kind of advantage through violence?

MCKENZIE: I think they are, actually. And I don't think that's going to be helpful because that's a very fine line. And the government of Afghanistan, they're not going to take their people being killed in this manner without ultimately being forced to respond. So I think this is a dangerous path that the Taliban appears to be going down. It is not helpful.

INSKEEP: I've heard you refer to a narrow road, a dangerous path and a fine line. Is there a risk of this entire effort at a peace agreement falling apart?

MCKENZIE: I certainly think there's a risk of it. But I'll tell you, I also believe this is the closest we've been to a potential solution in all my time involved with this problem.

INSKEEP: General, as you know very well, Americans were very interested in learning of intelligence reports suggesting that Russia had offered the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. troops. I want to ask about that but also ask more broadly about Russia. And let's start broadly first. What do you see Russia's interests in Afghanistan being? What do they want to do?

MCKENZIE: So I think we need to look at our history a little bit. You know, Russia was defeated in Afghanistan. They invaded Afghanistan. And they had to leave Afghanistan. I think that weighs heavily in the Russian psyche. I also believe that Russia is concerned about the flow of militant Islam to the north. And they see that coming from Afghanistan. And they should be concerned about it. I think Russia is also - and I've said this publicly. And I'll say it again now. They're not our friend. And they don't wish us success anywhere. And where they have an opportunity to throw sand in our gears, I think they'll do that.

INSKEEP: What is their known, definite involvement with the Taliban? They've been supplying arms for some years, right?

MCKENZIE: Sure. So I think they have provided moral support to them. I think it's possible they have provided other support as well. What I have not been able to have proved to my satisfaction is that they put bounty on U.S. forces. I have received that briefing. It worries me today because I take the safety of our men and women and our coalition partners in Afghanistan very seriously. So I dug into that. I sent my intel guys back to do more digging. It's not a closed issue. It's an open issue. And we will continue to look at that.

INSKEEP: What would be necessary to keep Russia from playing a counterproductive role in your part of the world?

MCKENZIE: You know, in Syria, we think we've actually got a very straightforward deconfliction mechanism with them. So if we have problems with them, generally speaking, we're able to work those out. It's a little less clear in Afghanistan because, you know, Russian forces, uniform forces, aren't actually there. Anything that's Russian there is going to be covert and undercover and is going to be much harder to detect. So I do believe they have an understanding of what our red lines are going to be. And I think they - and I think they do - and I hope that they respect us.

INSKEEP: To the extent that you're able to say in public, what are the red lines?

MCKENZIE: Well, I think, certainly, bounties on U.S. forces would be something dramatic and significant. I would just tell you that I haven't seen that proved to my satisfaction.

INSKEEP: General, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

MCKENZIE: Thank you very much. You have a good day. Take care.

INSKEEP: Please travel safely.

MCKENZIE: OK. Roger that. I'll hopefully be home in about - well, in about 18 hours.

INSKEEP: General Frank McKenzie speaking in the air yesterday. He is the head of U.S. Central Command. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.