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Fallout From The Turbulent Week In U.S. Foreign Policy


President Trump's dismissal of national security adviser John Bolton highlighted differences on some life-or-death policies.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, John wasn't in line with what we were doing. And actually, in some cases, he thought it was too tough what we were doing. Mr. Tough Guy.

INSKEEP: Let's examine one big issue on which they apparently differed. President Trump came close to bringing the Taliban to Camp David the other day. He was considering an agreement that would begin the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. John Bolton didn't seem to like the idea. And the president dropped the plan for the meeting.


TRUMP: Talks with the Taliban are dead.

INSKEEP: Now Bolton is gone, but the problem remains - how, if at all, to resolve an 18-year-old war. Critics of the administration's plans included Richard Haass. He is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

RICHARD HAASS: The basis of the agreement seems to have been that there would be an initial American troop withdrawal from roughly 12 or 13,000 down to about 8,500, that there would be the likelihood of further withdrawals and even a complete withdrawal over the next year to 14 months. In exchange, there would be something of a cease-fire, where the Taliban would at least stop attacks on the United States. What was obviously left uncertain is what would have happened in the aftermath of a full American withdrawal.

INSKEEP: Because what you described can be seen as the U.S. doing something permanent - it would be hard to send the troops back politically once you withdrew them - in exchange for something temporary, the Taliban saying, we won't attack for the moment.

HAASS: Indeed. The parallels were drawn to the Vietnam negotiations, where at the time in the mid-'70s, the United States essentially negotiated an American exit from Vietnam. And two years later, the North Vietnamese took over the entire country. And the concern here was that once the United States had left the Afghan government that we have been associated with ever since it was created in the aftermath of 9/11 18 years ago, that that government would ultimately not be able to sustain a long-term political military effort against the Taliban.

INSKEEP: Was there a case to be made for this deal if the main priority was getting U.S. troops out?

HAASS: Well, if the goal was to get U.S. troops out, then that would be the explanation or rationale for the deal. But no one should confuse that with peace. No one should confuse that with bringing about a better Afghanistan. No one should confuse that with one of the other goals of the agreement, which was to get the Taliban to commit not to support terrorists who could carry out actions against the United States. And the Taliban either could have allowed it or they simply could have been too weak to have prevented it.

INSKEEP: Were you essentially on the same side as John Bolton on this, thinking that this meeting was a bad idea?

HAASS: (Laughter) Well, that's one way to put it. Yeah. My view is that the United States should be looking for what I would call an endurance strategy in Afghanistan, not an exit strategy. For me, an endurance strategy would be a long-term but small military presence, perhaps half or two-thirds our current size. What we should probably also be doing is expanding the level of our military and diplomatic and economic support for the government.

And this, to me, is something that American foreign policy has done literally for decades. We're still in Europe. We're still in South Korea. We're still in Japan. The goal of American foreign policy has never been to withdraw all troops in areas where we have interests and where there are threats. Rather, it has been to have sufficient troops in those areas to either deter those threats or to meet them and protect our interests. So I saw Afghanistan in that light rather than as a place we should rush to get out of.

INSKEEP: What would you have the president do about Afghanistan given the current situation today?

HAASS: What I would have the United States do is, essentially, for the time being, give up on diplomacy. I don't believe it can work given the nature of the Taliban and the fact, by the way, that the Taliban still enjoy a physical sanctuary in the neighboring country of Pakistan. Instead, what I would do is have a small but long-term U.S. armed presence in the country. And I would look for ways through economic and military aid to buttress the Afghan government to avoid a situation where Afghanistan would again become a territory from which terrorists could launch global strikes.

INSKEEP: Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations. Always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

HAASS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.