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Why U.S. Engagement In Afghanistan Has Had Mixed Results


The U.S. war in Afghanistan is not over. This past week, President Obama said the U.S. will keep 9,800 forces there through most of 2016. At that point, the troop level will go down to 5,500 through 2017. This reversal comes after the Taliban seized the northern city of Kunduz in Afghanistan and held it for more than two weeks. It was the Taliban's biggest victory since the U.S. invaded that country 14 years ago. Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S. Hamdullah Mohib told us Afghanistan is a safer place than it was before the U.S. invasion, despite what happened in Kunduz.

HAMDULLAH MOHIB: We are winning, yes. The fact that they could take a city, but they could not win the hearts and minds - it's one thing to come in, attack and terrorize a place. It's another to withhold and have governance and be able to provide services to the people. In the last 14 years, many Afghans may have forgotten what it was like, the atrocities, before the international community helped us set up a democratic Afghanistan. Kunduz was a good reminder for them on what it could be like. We don't want to return - no one wants to return to those days.

MARTIN: And that's the message the Afghan government has been conveying for years, that America's investment in this country is worth it because schools are open, there's a free press, a democratically elected government, better access to health care. But at the same time, the Afghan government maintains that if that U.S. support goes away, those gains may be reversed. Again, Ambassador Mohib.

MOHIB: It's a better, more secure, more prosperous country than was 14 years ago. I know that in the news it's always about bombs and the insecurity and the Taliban taking over our city, but we also want to show the face of what Afghanistan looks like now, the improvements that have been made. And they wouldn't have been possible without the support of our partners, so thank you.

MARTIN: That's the view from Afghanistan. Now an American diplomatic perspective. I spoke with the former ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, to understand how, after more than 14 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in American aid, Afghanistan is still so vulnerable.

A key component of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, as you know, has been to build up Afghan national security forces so that U.S. forces could draw down and the Afghans could take over. Billion of dollars have been spent on this effort over more than a decade. Why have there been such mixed results on this?

RONALD NEUMANN: Partly because many of those dollars and effort have not been spent over a decade. For one thing, the Air Force, which is desperately needed - we've trained the Afghans to fight with an Air Force. We did not begin to build an Air Force until 2010. We only began to enlarge the Army in 2010. So it's been a five-year effort to double - more than double - the size of the Army and the police. And I think that these targets of being done by now were always a bit unrealistic for the higher level. They've reached the goals in terms of troops, but building logistic system, medical evacuation and a whole Air Force in five years was never a realistic prospect.

MARTIN: Is it just a resource issue or is there a problem with the quality of the training itself?

NEUMANN: There have been some problems with the training itself. There is a big problem in the police with the politicizing of the police force. There are a lot of things the Afghans have to step up to, and we shouldn't be writing them a blank check. And there are problems of unreality in the - just the length of time it takes to build a modern logistics system, which we did not even start in 2010. We maxed out all training facilities in order to put infantry in the field. So we really didn't begin to build logistics, Air Force, medical support, artillery, until 2011.

MARTIN: When you think about what this country might be in another 10 years, lay out for me the best and worst case scenarios.

NEUMANN: The best case scenario is the Afghan cities and major roads being largely secure with some residual violence and terrorism, particularly in the countryside, but the Afghan forces able to manage it with probably American financial support and a small number of advisers at the senior levels. The worst case is the Afghan government continues to have too much corruption, too much short-range fighting for power. The United States pulls out too quickly, terrorism and instability increase and it becomes both a physical base for insecurity projecting toward Pakistan and northern into the Stans. And it also becomes a psychological rallying ground for ISIS on the basis that God is with them and they've defeated the second superpower, the Russians having lost there in the first Afghan war.

MARTIN: Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann. He's now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. He recently returned on a trip to Afghanistan. Thanks so much for talking with us.

NEUMANN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.