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White House To Review Plan To Pull Troops Out Of Afghanistan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So what are the options as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meets his counterparts by video conference? NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has covered the Afghanistan war for many years and is on the line once again. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So we just heard the head of NATO say there, in effect, that it doesn't matter what the U.S. would like to do because the Taliban haven't met the conditions for the U.S. to withdraw. That's what he says. What's the Biden administration think?

BOWMAN: Well, all we heard yesterday, Steve, from a defense official is violence must go down, but not much more about the way ahead. There is a sense with people I talk with in the military and on Capitol Hill that the U.S. and NATO will not pull out all troops by the end of April because, again, the Taliban is not holding up to its side of the agreement. But again, no final decision right now. We expect maybe something next month.

INSKEEP: The previous president just wanted to get out. And, in fact, he even tweeted in some of the last weeks that he was still able to tweet that the troops would be out by Christmas. It was clearly a priority for him. Do you have a sense of what the priority is for the Biden administration and what experts think about it?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, there was a congressionally mandated study that was just completed. And, you know, they would like to see - according to the study, they'd like to see troops remain and extend this deadline. Retired Marine General Joe Dunford, who commanded in Afghanistan and served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, of course, took part in this study. And it suggested extending that withdrawal date to give the peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government a little more time. And he painted a bleak picture if all troops leave. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH DUNFORD: Here's what we know. If we walk away, we'll leave behind chaos, if not civil war. If we take advantage of the opportunity we have right now, then there is at least the prospect of achieving that end state, even as we recognize how difficult it will be.

BOWMAN: Now, Dunford said there's a real opportunity to work with regional powers, including China and India, as well as Pakistan and maybe even Iran, to come up with a good settlement and one that could include continued international assistance. And he said, Steve, that a continued military presence by the U.S. and NATO could actually help that along, including continuing to train and assist the Afghan army. The U.S. can't, General Dunford said, just simply hand a victory to the Taliban.

INSKEEP: Well, suppose the U.S. doesn't and they decide to stay. How might the Taliban respond to that?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, if the Americans decide to stay, the Taliban could say you're reneging on the agreement. They could start attacking Americans. They have not done that to date. And we could just go back to the old days where the U.S. strikes the Taliban, the Taliban retaliates. And, of course, that could just lead back to open warfare and, maybe, back to a time we had more and more U.S. casualties. The hope, Steve, is the Taliban will eventually be willing to, you know, abide by a peace deal because they want international recognition, international aid. But then, again, it could just be more warfare, 20 years of it now, and that could just continue.

INSKEEP: You know, I've given that some thought lately, that this September 11 will be the 20th anniversary of September 11. And it sounds like the U.S. is going to be involved in Afghanistan for a while to come.

BOWMAN: No, I think that's right.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.