19 and a half years after the War in Afghanistan began, President Trump is moving forward with a plan to draw down the number of American forces there. The longest U.S war in history began October 7, 2001 when the U.S. and allies drove the Taliban from power. The Islamic extremist group had allowed al-Qaeda to operate and plan the September 11 terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. I recently spoke with Senator Tom Cotton who is on the Armed Services Committee. He served in Afghanistan while in the Army in 2008.
Sharyl: Can you summarize for people who don't know a lot about all this history? What have we done in Afghanistan and what are we trying to do now?
Senator Tom Cotton: So the most important thing we did in Afghanistan was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. We toppled the Taliban and we broke up the safe havens that Al Qaeda and other terrorist organization had created there and it's a remarkable accomplishment for our military. But now, over 19 years, that land, especially the land on Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which still has the world's highest concentration of foreign terrorist organizations, has not been used to plot and launch an attack against the United States like we saw in 9/11. We've worked to train the Afghan security forces and help stand up the Afghan government. In the end, the only way Afghanistan is going to have stability is for Afghans to negotiate and compromise with each other. The government on the one hand, Taliban, on the other hand, tribes are mixed in there as well.
Sharyl: What was the number of troops and what does it pull down to?
Sen. Cotton: I don't want to get into specific numbers because I don't think those are publicly released. I won't get into them. I could, but I won’t.
Sharyl: I heard it's been publicly said we're leaving behind like 8,600. Does that sound right?
Sen. Cotton: I think that's in the ballpark.
Sharyl: But at one point at its peak did we have six figures?
Sen. Cotton: Yeah, at one point at its peak we had over 100,000 when President Obama surged troops in there in 2009 and 2010. So the scale of course is much, much smaller now, but it's still a big commitment and it's not a commitment that we want to continue indefinitely. We don't want to have to keep our troops there forever to support the Afghan government. Our interest is ensuring no matter what the final political outcome looks like, that Afghanistan is not used as a launching ground for terrorist attacks against the United States again.
Sharyl: I take your point that for 19 years it has not been used as a launching point for terrorist attacks. But is there something to be said about the fact that after 19 years and all the billions that we've spent and all the time we've spent there that they are not closer to something we would more agree with in terms of a government that looks something like a democracy?
Sen. Cotton: Yeah. So I think we have made a lot of progress there and they are closer to a viable political solution that will protect our interests, closer than we would have been immediately in the aftermath of 9/11 but I think it's reasonable to say that we took a detour that hasn't produced the results that were promised to the American people, something that was going to produce a government that was more like Denmark or the Netherlands without appreciating all the differences between Afghanistan and those parliamentary style democracies and that's the American people do not want us to continue to send tens of thousands of troops around the world to try to create new constitutional democracies.
They want us to use our troops to keep our country safe. That's the mission that we've been focused on more concretely over the last few years, just like we were in the first few years in Afghanistan. It was the middle years in which you might say that we took a bit of a detour. Right now what we're focused on is protecting the lives of Americans and making sure we're not attacked again from Afghanistan.
The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban Feb. 29, 2020 agreeing to end U.S. military involvement over 14 months. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced plans to reduce US aid to Afghanistan by a billion dollars.