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U.S. Needs A Political Strategy In Afghanistan, Flournoy Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will be meeting with the Senate in a closed session today to discuss the country's strategy against the Islamic State. Mattis is also leading a review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The release of that review has been delayed. But here's what Secretary Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM MATTIS: We're not winning in Afghanistan right now. And we will correct this as soon as possible. I believe the three things we are...

GREENE: Michele Flournoy is well-steeped in foreign policy dilemmas. She served as under secretary of defense for policy under President Obama. She's in our studios this morning. Welcome back.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Thanks, David.

GREENE: So has the U.S. lost the war in Afghanistan?

FLOURNOY: I don't think we've lost. But I think commanders on the ground tell us that the war is stalemated. So the U.S. does have an enduring interest in preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists. So we do need to re-evaluate our strategy and our commitment there.

GREENE: You've written that the Taliban controls more territory right now in that country than at any time since 9/11. That's striking.

FLOURNOY: It is striking. The truth is though that the Afghan forces are in the fight and doing better than they have before. But they need our help. They need some additional support for training and advising forces, for fire support, for counter terrorism assistance. But most of all, we need a political strategy. We need to be putting pressure on outside countries like Pakistan that are providing support for the Taliban.

And ultimately, we need to create pressure to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. This is not a war that can be won on the battlefield.

GREENE: Are you getting the sense that those are the kinds of options that the Trump administration is contemplating?

FLOURNOY: I certainly hope so. You know, the president has delegated authority to Secretary Mattis to determine troop levels. The key though is that the White House really can't absolve itself of responsibility. We need a political strategy to end this war, not just military force buildup.

GREENE: There were some reports of private contractors, potentially even a company run by Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater, somehow being involved, getting involved in Afghanistan. Could that be, I mean, radical as it may sound, a good option?

FLOURNOY: Private contractors can provide important support in logistics, base security, that kind of thing, even helping to train Afghan forces. But they are no substitute for a U.S. military presence. And what we saw in Iraq was the dangers of a precipitous withdrawal. We don't want to see a repeat of that in Afghanistan.

GREENE: But is there an argument that given the situation in Afghanistan and given that the war is not being won, at least in the words of the defense secretary, that you need something dramatic like that, radical as it could be?

FLOURNOY: Well, again, I don't think they have the same capabilities as the U.S. military. So I think contractor support to U.S. military forces makes sense, but they really aren't a good substitute.

GREENE: I want to turn to Russia now. We now know that President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had this additional conversation during the dinner hour at the G-20 summit in Germany. I mean, I covered the White House. There were times when world leaders would get together, have private meetings and, you know, we wouldn't know what took place.

But there's a lot of scrutiny of this meeting right now. Are you concerned about that?

FLOURNOY: Well, you know, it wasn't unusual in the sense that pull-asides, these sort of informal meetings, happen all the time on the margins of summits. What was unusual are two things. First, that the White House did not read it out. They didn't acknowledge it. They weren't transparent about it. And second, of the 19 leaders that President Trump could have chosen, having already spent more than two hours with President Putin, he chose to go sit with Putin again, not China to talk about North Korea, not close allies like Japan or Australia or our European allies in NATO.

So I think that's what was unusual about it.

GREENE: Are you saying there's symbolism that's important here, I mean, in terms of how other world leaders and other countries might react to seeing Trump and Putin, you know, talking longer than they were scheduled to?

FLOURNOY: Yes, I think it's just odd given all that the G-20 has to deal with that Trump would choose to spend a third hour with Putin rather than working the North Korea issue with China or some of the other key economic issues with other allies.

GREENE: Michele Flournoy is co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, a frequent guest on our program. Thanks for coming back. We appreciate it.

FLOURNOY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.