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What The Afghanistan Deal Means For U.S. Troops


President Obama is back at the White House today, after his quick trip to Afghanistan. During the few hours he was there, the president signed a 10-year security agreement with Afghanistan's president. The deal outlines - in very broad strokes - plans for a continuing U.S. role in Afghanistan, but the deal was short on specifics. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with U.S. troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and he joins me now to talk about some of the practical questions raised by the new security deal. Hi there, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Audie. How are you?

CORNISH: Good. So this new agreement means that some U.S. troops will be staying in Afghanistan for years, even as most of them come home. But do we know how many U.S. troops would remain under this agreement?

BOWMAN: Well, the president and White House officials didn't talk about specific troop levels, Audie. But what I'm hearing from military officials is that their planning figure now is roughly 25,000 troops that would be commanded by a three-star general. And clearly, the Americans would ask NATO for contributions, troop contributions. But since the Americans already supply roughly 75 percent of the troops here, you could expect most of them to be Americans.

CORNISH: What exactly would be their responsibilities? What exactly would these troops be doing?

BOWMAN: Well, the main job of the troops would be to be training Afghan forces. They would continue that effort they've been doing for years now. And the other part would be Special Operations Forces, like Green Berets, for example, and they would go out on counter-terror missions with Afghan forces. There's still a lot of fighting going on here, much of it being led by American forces. There's some big sweeping operations going on in the eastern part of Afghanistan now. So the Green Berets would be key to continuing the fight against Taliban or al-Qaida after 2014 any remnants of fighting.

CORNISH: Tom, let's talk a little bit more about the Afghan forces. What are we hearing about the quality of Afghan troops at this point?

BOWMAN: Well, the Afghan forces have a lot of hurdles to overcome in the next two years. There's still a very high illiteracy rate. The Americans are trying to train the Afghans up to - for the soldiers to a first-grade level and the officers to a third-grade level. One officer told me that a lot of these soldiers cannot only not read or write, but many can't even count. And the U.S. tries to get around this in some novel ways. I'll give you a good example. They actually draw a rectangle in the dirt for commanders who can't tell how many soldiers he has or should have. And the Americans tell him that, listen, if the soldiers standing at attention fill this rectangle in the dirt, you now have a full complement of soldiers.

The other thing is attrition. It's still very high; in some cases, double what the Americans would like to see. And there's also a lack of junior leaders, sergeants, the noncommissioned officers who are really the backbone of any army. The Afghans also have trouble with logistics, supplying themselves in the field, and then also such things as medevacs removing the wounded from the field.

And then finally, their air force - actually, their air force is really - will be just a number of helicopters and cargo planes. But they don't expect that to be up and running until 2016. So there's a lot of help they're going to need in the coming years.

CORNISH: So, Tom, this idea of handing over security to the Afghan forces once the U.S. combat mission is over, is it realistic given what you've just described?

BOWMAN: No. It really isn't realistic at this point. And they have a couple of years to do more work with the Afghan forces to try to get them up to speed. And one of the things they're doing is creating these small American training teams now - about 14 to 18 soldiers - who will be working with larger Afghan units - several hundred Afghan soldiers. And the whole point of that is to push the Afghans into the lead, make them do the operations pretty much on their own. I'm actually going to go out with one of these training teams tomorrow just outside of Kandahar, and I'll let you know how it goes.

CORNISH: All right, Tom. Best of luck. Thank you for talking with us.

BOWMAN: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: NPR pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. He's speaking to us from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.