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Will U.S. Troop Drawdown Hurt Afghan Mission?


Now let's get the view from American troops in Afghanistan. NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, has been embedded there for the last several weeks.

And, Tom, first of all, where are you now in Afghanistan?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Renee, we're at Bagram Air Base, just outside of the capital of Kabul. And yesterday, we were at a combat outpost called Forward Operating Base Salerno in the eastern part of the country, with Army soldiers. And that outpost was maybe a dozen or so miles from the Pakistani border. And a couple of weeks before that we were with the Marines out in the southwest part of the country.

So for the past month or so, we've basically been in areas where there's the toughest fighting and also the largest concentration of American troops. So we've spoken to quite a few Marines and soldiers, and got a pretty good cross-section of opinions.

MONTAGNE: All right, so the president wants 10,000 troops out by the end of this year. That's basically the next six months. Based on what you've been hearing these last few weeks, what will that mean for the mission there?

BOWMAN: Well, Renee, at this point we don't know exactly what it will mean for the mission. We don't know what kind of troops that we're taking out, but almost everyone we've talked with - from sergeants to generals - say you really should not take out combat troops. They talk about the progress so far, in pushing out the Taliban, in setting up combat outposts.

BOWMAN: They say that success is somewhat fragile and that they're worried about taking out troops at this point. They're worried about losing the momentum and so forth. So that's why they don't want to lose what they would call trigger pullers.

MONTAGNE: Well if they are not, then, losing combat troops, who does come out?

BOWMAN: Well, most of the people we talk with here, say they should take out support troops first. And support troops could be anyone from construction battalions to engineers, maybe military police. And I'm told the army in the eastern part of the country where we were, they've already sort of war gamed this, and they believe they can reduce small numbers of troops from most of their units and that way they can achieve the thousands of cuts the president is looking for.

And as I mentioned, I'm at Bagram Airbase at this point. And also at Kandahar Airfield where we've been in the past, each of those places has somewhere in the order of 25,000 to 27,000 troops. So you could look to places like to reduce some sort of support troops.

MONTAGNE: How though, now, does that affect the military strategy, as in what do commanders lose the ability to do?

BOWMAN: Well, one thing that we've been seeing in the past month or so is commanders are pushing their troops to the outskirts of areas they've been fighting, setting up patrol bases, combat outposts. What, they say, taking the fight to the remnants of the Taliban they're seeing in some of the areas.

So if you do reduce troops, you might lose the effort to set up more patrol bases, more combat outposts or take troops to areas where they haven't been before, the U.S. troops or Afghan forces, so that could be a problem for them.

MONTAGNE: And the White House is making the case that Afghan National Security Forces will be able to pick up the load as Americans leave. You've been out on patrol with those Afghan soldiers. Can they take over, in your opinion, for their own security in the coming months?

BOWMAN: Well, it's still somewhat of a mixed bag. There were some Afghan troops that were really pretty squared away. They could do patrols on their own. We were at one place the other day, there was a military operation with the soldiers and the Afghan forces were sort of held back in reserve, and they noticed some people milling about in the woods and they went and kind of rolled them up and tried to find out what they were doing.

But in other patrols we've been on, the Afghan soldiers almost are along for the ride. It's almost like soldiers bringing along a Boy Scout troop, some of them kind of wander off into mine fields, some just sit by their trucks and they're really not focused on the mission. So again, it's really a mixed bag, but most of the people we talk with here, most of the American solders believe that in the next two years they'll really be able to handle the security duties in a much better way and hopefully take over all the security duties by the end of 2014.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. He's at Bagram Airfield just north of Kabul, Afghanistan.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.