More Afghans Are Calling For Peace, Gen. John Nicholson Says
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The head of the Islamic State in Afghanistan was killed in a U.S. airstrike over the weekend, which was welcome news for the United States and also for the Taliban for a different reason. The war in Afghanistan is now America's longest. It has lasted 17 years. And about 15,000 American soldiers are there now to support Afghanistan's government forces.
Maybe no American soldier knows this battleground better than Army General John Nicholson. For just a few more days, he is the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. And he spoke with Rachel Martin from Kabul about his outlook for the country, describing more and more Afghans calling for peace.
JOHN NICHOLSON: Now you've got civil society, peace activists, women's groups, the political opposition, truly a universal call for peace. And to some extent, the Taliban are responsive to that. And most recently - and they eat a lot of message from the Taliban emir - he referred to a specific paragraph on negotiations with the United States, and he talked about an end to the war through political negotiation. So these kinds of messages coming from the Taliban are new. And we've not seen those before in the 17 years of war.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
But critics will point to that as the problem, that the Taliban right now is in peace talks with the U.S. government, not directly with the Afghan government. I spoke with former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker a couple of weeks ago. And I want to play a clip from that interview.
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RYAN CROCKER: What it does is put the Taliban really on a - if not a legal plane with the United States, certainly symbolically. They are talking about the American withdrawal and the circumstances of that withdrawal. We are there at the invitation of the Afghan government. They're not in the room. So if we withdraw, to whom do we hand this over to?
MARTIN: Is it a problem that the Afghan government is not involved in these talks?
NICHOLSON: The U.S. has been clear that this will lead to an Afghan-led peace process. We've been very clear that we are here on a conditions basis. Indeed, I think this is one of the factors that's brought us to this point. This is what has created some of the diplomatic pressure that has got the Taliban willing to begin this peace process.
We'd like to see a lowering of violence. We'd like to see a reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government so they resolve their differences politically. We'd like to see the Taliban renounce their connections to al-Qaeda. These are some of the demands that have been discussed in past years. And I think these are some of the things that'll be discussed going forward.
MARTIN: Earlier this month, a suicide bomber went into a building in Kabul where students were preparing to take university exams. He blew himself up and killed dozens of those students. You know this very well. But this wasn't the Taliban. This was ISIS. They're not party to these peace talks at all.
NICHOLSON: Right. So that's one of the important reasons why we're still in Afghanistan, and this is to maintain pressure on these terrorist groups that threaten not only the Afghans, but the region and the entire world. So ISIS, al-Qaeda and 19 other terrorist groups are operating in this region. One of the reasons they're able to operate is because the Taliban provide an environment that is friendly for them.
MARTIN: So you have to create an incentive for the Taliban to put pressure on these insurgent groups.
NICHOLSON: The Taliban cooperate with some of these groups. They put pressure on some of these groups. So the concern we have is the recruiting that goes on. We do see members move between the groups. So ISIS-K did not exist three years ago. They...
MARTIN: What's the K stand for?
NICHOLSON: I'm sorry - Khorasan province, so ISIS in the Khorasan. And they recruited from some of these other groups. So the degree to which we can reconcile with these other groups, get them to lay down their arms and rejoin society reduces the recruiting pool and reduces the environment within which these groups can grow.
MARTIN: Do you think the Afghan security forces will ever be capable of making that happen, or is the U.S. going to have to have a military presence on the ground there indefinitely?
NICHOLSON: First off, this is the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Secondly, this is where the terrorist attacks on our homeland emanated from. The Afghan security forces are incredibly brave and courageous. They need our help, though. This is a tough fight. We've seen progress in the last couple of years, in particular the growth of their high-end special forces, the growth of their air force. And these two components taken together are making a significant difference on the battlefield. They're doing over half of the airstrikes themselves, for example.
I would also add that the reforms they're doing internally - the retiring of older officers, the professionalizing of their force - it's a new army. It didn't exist when the war began. And really, it's an army we began building in earnest back in 2008 and '09 at the beginning of the Obama administration.
MARTIN: Army General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He is set to leave his post there in a matter of days. General, thank you so much for talking with us.
NICHOLSON: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.