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Republican Congressman Mike Coffman Reacts To Trump's Afghanistan Speech

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Before Donald Trump's Afghanistan speech, Republican Congressman Mike Coffman of Colorado, a member of the House Armed services committee and an Iraq War veteran, said what he wanted to hear - new rules of engagement that would permit U.S. forces to fire on the Taliban, a lifting of the cap on U.S. forces in Afghanistan and no more time limits announcing when the U.S. would start drawing down troop numbers.

Well, Congressman Coffman joins us from Denver, Colo. Thanks for joining us today.

MIKE COFFMAN: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And it sounds like the speech we heard the other night was very much the speech you wanted to hear. Is that fair?

COFFMAN: Well, as an Iraq War veteran, I can tell you I'm very opposed to nation building. And it was great to hear the president's opposition to nation building and a more realistic approach to Afghanistan. I think the war has been mismanaged, been under-sourced forever. I don't think we should have been there in the first place. But the reality is we are there, and we need to extricate ourselves from it. I do think that we've got to bring them to the negotiating table. And I like that the president mentioned that there is a path to a negotiated settlement...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

COFFMAN: ...That could involve the Taliban in governance.

SIEGEL: He described that as a pretty distant, remote prospect for Afghanistan, though.

COFFMAN: Well, I - but I think that is the only path that we have. And I don't think he wants to be overly optimistic about that possibility in terms of what signals he sends to the Afghans. So it was - one, it was a fist, and that is that we're going to be aggressive. And the other one was an olive branch in saying that there is a path.

And it reminds me a little bit of Richard Nixon during Vietnam where he wanted to extricate U.S. forces from Vietnam, but the North Vietnamese were not interested in coming to the negotiating table. And he did a fairly aggressive bombing campaign in 1972 that bought the negotiating table that was able to extricate the United States from Vietnam.

SIEGEL: We've been at this for over 15 years. And as President Trump acknowledged, people are weary of such a long war without victory. What do you say to someone who says we've been hearing about successes in training more Afghan troops for years; we've been hearing about the possibility of a settlement for years; whatever could have been done in Afghanistan would have been done if possible by now; let's cut our losses?

COFFMAN: Well, I think - I mean that's a pretty compelling argument. The fact is we shouldn't - we should have never have gone in the way we did in the first place. I do think what the Bush administration did initially was brilliant. We were attacked by al-Qaida. They planned and coordinated their operation from Afghanistan, for which the Taliban controlled much of the country. And when we asked the Taliban to turn over Osama bin Laden, they refused to do so. But instead of going in in a big way, we supported the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban forces that drove out the Taliban and al-Qaida. And I think we made a horrible mistake in pushing them aside and superimposing a political process on this country that has not been working.

And so we've made a lot of mistakes. Their rules of engagement certainly is one that I mentioned. Having a time-based schedule where the president - Obama said, we're going to put in 30,000 new troops, and we're going withdraw them in 15 months - well, you can't - I mean to send that signal to the Taliban is just - we're going to waste out.

SIEGEL: I think the argument for the time limit - whether it was 15 or 18 months, I thought it was - was that it would put pressure on the Afghan government to get its act together because they knew the U.S. would be leaving. It didn't work out very well. It was also a message to Americans that we're not going to be forever in Afghanistan. What's a realistic message to Americans? Should we expect that 10 years from now there could be still several thousand U.S. forces occasionally engaging in firefights with various folks in Afghanistan?

COFFMAN: I think the question is, will the change of the rules of engagement - will these changes bring about the kind of military pressure that will bring the Taliban to the negotiating table?

SIEGEL: Yeah.

COFFMAN: If not, we shouldn't even go forward.

SIEGEL: But just to understand you in terms of how happy you were at hearing no nation building - if I understand you properly, it's, if there is a stable regime in Afghanistan or even a partitioned country with two stable regimes in Afghanistan that is prohibiting anyone from hatching terrorist plots against us, that's success. What - how democratic, how progressive, how well-educated those countries are is another matter altogether.

COFFMAN: I think that's an accurate assessment. I do think there's an element of cultural imperialism in American foreign policy. And that became the basis of our initial policies in Iraq and Afghanistan in that sort of the rest of the world really wants to be like us, and if only given the opportunity, they will be like us. And having served in Iraq with the United States Marine Corps, that couldn't be further from the truth.

SIEGEL: Congressman Coffman, thanks for talking with us today.

COFFMAN: Always good to be with you. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Mike Coffman, Republican congressman from Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEPTH AFFECT'S "DANI GUIMAUVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.