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Ash Carter Says U.S. Is Considering A Slower Exit From Afghanistan

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When it comes to Afghanistan, the line out of the White House has been clear and consistent. U.S. combat operations are over. U.S. troops are coming home. And the Afghans are in charge. But this weekend, the new U.S. secretary of defense flew to Kabul and said that might not be the case.

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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASHTON CARTER: President Obama is considering a number of options to reinforce our support for President Ghani's security strategy, including possible changes to the timeline for our drawdown of U.S. troops.

MARTIN: Joining us now from Kabul is Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analyst Network. Thanks so much for being with us, Kate.

KATE CLARK: Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: Has President Ashraf Ghani said he wants the U.S. to keep a larger military footprint in Afghanistan?

CLARK: His basic attitude has been very American military-friendly unlike the previous president, President Karzai, who, take in the latter years, was extremely critical and hostile to the American military presence. Ashraf Ghani, one of the first things he did was get the military agreement signed with America, which has allowed the continuing operations. And he recognizes that Afghanistan needs ongoing military support.

MARTIN: Afghan security forces are supposed to be in charge now. Are they?

CLARK: They are indeed. There are basically two ongoing international missions here. There's NATO. That's a strictly non-combat mission involved in training support to the Afghan forces. And then there's a special counterterrorism American mission, which has more latitude. That's also supposed to be largely supporting, but we do know that the American Special Forces have been out on mission. And it seems that it's not just the U.S. Army but also CIA that's been involved in partner operations. It's quite difficult to get a sense of the scale of those, though.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask you because there are reports that the threat landscape, so to speak, is changing in Afghanistan. The head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, told a Senate committee recently that there are concerns that ISIS has infiltrated parts of the Taliban and has been able to recruit members over to their effort. How has that complicated the security situation?

CLARK: We had one senior former Taliban commander going over to ISIS. And he was killed almost immediately in a drone strike. Apart from that, we've had a few really, really minor, disgruntled former Taliban who had usually been kicked out for criminal activities, occasionally because they were Salafists. Mainly, they've been across the border in Pakistan. I do think that reading is entirely exaggerated. And even with the major command who went over, Rauf Khadim, it was very much ISIS lights. They didn't want to bother people about religious differences. They weren't brutal. They didn't fly black flags because they didn't want to upset people. I mean, he was acknowledged by ISIS center as their man in Afghanistan, but you wouldn't really have noticed if you hadn't been told. And most of the reports, frankly, are local officials or even national-level officials who want to try and drum up either money or armed forces to go to their areas or to somehow suggest that Afghanistan should remain a priority for, you know, the big powers and that the threat of ISIS means that everyone should be still involved in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: But you're saying that clearly there is still a desire to have U.S. military forces on the ground. Afghans are not anxious to see those troops leave.

CLARK: Obviously there are Afghans who want them to leave, and some of those are fighting. There are lots of Afghans as well who don't really like the foreign troops but really, really understand that they are absolutely necessary at the moment. And also necessary is the continuing financial and military support, so the money that goes to pay for Afghan soldiers and police. So the foreign support is crucial still to the war.

MARTIN: Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analyst Network joining us from Kabul. Thanks so much.

CLARK: Always a pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.