AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The Trump White House starts its first week without chief strategist Steve Bannon, who left Friday. That means President Trump won't have Bannon at his side as he prepares to speak in prime time about a major foreign policy topic. He will address what the administration calls the path forward in Afghanistan tonight.
It's America's longest war ever, starting after the 9/11 attacks when the U.S. ousted the Taliban from power. And now we are joined by NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley and national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly to talk about the options in Afghanistan and the departure of Steve Bannon. Good morning to both of you.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning. Hey, there.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.
CHANG: So, Scott, let's start with you. How different will this White House actually be without Steve Bannon?
HORSLEY: Well, the staff shake-up and the departure of Steve Bannon is just one of the changes we'll see. While the president was away, they made some extensive renovations on the West Wing, including a new cooling and ventilation system.
HORSLEY: And I think it's safe to say Trump and his staff will welcome a little bit of fresh air after what was a none-too-restful vacation...
HORSLEY: ...Including all of the fallout from the president's own controversial comments on that deadly white supremacist rally last weekend in Charlottesville, Va.
CHANG: Now, on Afghanistan, Bannon was thought to be pretty influential in the White House. He was against sending more troops to Afghanistan, right?
HORSLEY: Bannon described himself as an economic nationalist. And so he was wary of anything that smacked of nation-building overseas. That would certainly include any sort of large-scale troop buildup in Afghanistan. He, in fact, advocated for outsourcing some of the U.S. military effort there to contractors.
It's not clear, though, just how much of a factor Bannon was in the president's Afghanistan decision. Certainly by the time of the big retreat at Camp David last Friday, where that final decision was discussed, Bannon was already on his way out the door.
CHANG: That's right. Mary Louise, let's turn to you. Catch us up on where things stand in Afghanistan now. We've seen more than 2,000 U.S. troops die there, as well as hundreds of other NATO troops and many more Afghans. We have been winding down there. How much lower now are the U.S. troop levels there compared to earlier in the war?
KELLY: Sure, so at the moment, there are about 8,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And for context, back at the height of the surge - so think back to 2010, 2011 - there were about 100,000 U.S. troops there. So we're less than 10 percent of that. Back at the height of the surge, there were also about 40,000 allied troops there, fighting alongside the U.S. troops. And even with that, it wasn't enough to decisively defeat the Taliban and bring all this to an end.
And now here we sit in 2017, as you mentioned, thousands of lives lost, many billions of American dollars spent. And the Taliban is back in control of about half the country. That's according to the most recent report from the U.S. special inspector general in the country. And that's why you hear this described as a stalemate. We heard Defense Secretary Jim Mattis testify over the summer and say the U.S. is not winning.
CHANG: So if that's the case, if there is a stalemate, what options does the U.S. have in Afghanistan right now?
KELLY: There's a whole range of options. The one we think the president may be settling on, the most likely option that we're going to hear tonight, is the modest increase option. So we said there's about 8,500 U.S. troops there now. This would be meaning sending another, say, 4,000, 5,000. That would allow U.S. troops to continue advising and training Afghan troops, creating a space eventually for some kind of political settlement.
CHANG: All right, well, turning to Scott, before President Trump even became president, he would often call for decreasing our presence in the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, right? So this is kind of a shift for him.
HORSLEY: As a presidential candidate, and even before he started running, Donald Trump was often critical of the money that the U.S. had spent on its wars, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, wars that Trump argued had left the region less stable than it was before, while also draining resources that he thought could have been used more effectively here at home. We should say, though, that since taking office, Trump has been more muted in his criticism. He's been typically very deferential to the military. And he has left a lot of the decision-making to folks at the Pentagon or closer to the battlefield.
He actually authorized the deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan some months ago. He has also greenlighted the use of whatever weapons the military thinks are appropriate, including, rather famously this spring, the use of a massive bomb on a tunnel complex used by ISIS troops near the border with Pakistan.
CHANG: So, Mary Louise, if it looks like Trump might end up escalating the U.S. fight in Afghanistan instead of de-escalating it, what can we hope for as the outcome? I mean, 4,000 troops doesn't sound like much.
KELLY: It doesn't. And nobody thinks that's going to turn the tide. Again, the hope is that it allows U.S. troops to hold the line, create some space for a political settlement going forward. I mean, among the things that President Trump will be hoping for is not to become the third U.S. president to pass this war on to whoever succeeds him in the White House.
I actually - I put the question you just asked me to John Allen a couple of days ago. John Allen is the general who led U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan at the height of the surge, 2011, 2012, 2013. And his advice chimes with what we just heard from Scott. Trump should listen to his advisers with combat experience. Here's what he said.
JOHN ALLEN: If he listens to them, he can be the president that stabilized Afghanistan and brought us, ultimately, the success that we want. It's not going to happen next week. There will be no decisive, Napoleonic battle that we can all point to as the day we won. But we can certainly arrest the downward spiral.
KELLY: So that's General John Allen. And he's talking there about charting a path towards a day - a distant day, maybe - but a day where this longest war in U.S. history will someday wind to a close.
CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly and Scott Horsley on President Trump's scheduled speech tonight on Afghanistan. Thanks very much, both of you.
KELLY: You're welcome.
HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.