RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The arrival of ISIS in Afghanistan has ratcheted up the stakes there, and it's one more point of pressure on President Obama to maintain the current level of American troops, now about 10,000, until he leaves office. That is likely to be argued by the new commander taking over in Afghanistan soon, the 17th one. His name is Lt. Gen. John Mick Nicholson, and he has several years of Afghan experience. This is what Gen. Nicholson said about Afghanistan at his confirmation hearing last week in an exchange with Sen. John McCain.
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JOHN MCCAIN: The security situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating rather than improving. What is your assessment?
JOHN MICK NICHOLSON: Sir, I agree with your assessment.
MONTAGNE: And joining us is NPR's Tom Bowman, who's made numerous trips of his own to that country. Good morning.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now the current commander of Afghanistan - that's Gen. John Campbell - he appears before the House Armed Services Committee today for an update. Do you think he'll agree about this deteriorating situation?
BOWMAN: Well, Renee, I'm guessing he'll put a better face on things. Last fall, he told this committee it was a tough fighting season. He talked about a, quote, "a tenuous security situation in Afghanistan" and also what he called an uneven performance of the Afghan forces who are now leading the fight. Now, Gen. Campbell has been talking about options he provided to the president, and I'm told you could see among these options more U.S. airstrikes to push back the Taliban in key areas and also perhaps allowing U.S. Green Berets to work with Afghan forces on more occasions closer to the front lines.
MONTAGNE: OK, well, troops, also - U.S. troops were supposed to drop from the current 10,000, as I was saying, to roughly 5,000 by the end of this year. That is the end of President Obama's time in office. Do you think that'll happen?
BOWMAN: Well, you know, that seems less likely now with ISIS growing there and the Taliban, you know, surging forward. Gen. Nicholson, who will take over as the next commander, told senators that if U.S. troops dropped to 5,000, it'll be harder to help the Afghans fight the Taliban. Most of the American troops, of course, are working inside bases. So if you drop to 5,000 officials, say, you just won't have enough U.S. troops to get out in the field or provide the needed airstrikes, for example. But there's frustration on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, Renee. You know, when will this end? And military leaders say the Afghans still need help on things like logistics and supply, also building up an Air Force which could take, they say, five or six more years.
MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, what does ISIS add to this mix?
BOWMAN: Well, ISIS adds, you know, another security problem. I'm told a lot of these Taliban fighters have switched jerseys, as they say, now fighting with ISIS. There are estimated one to 2,000 ISIS fighters in eastern Afghanistan, so it's adding to the problems. There's no question about it. The U.S. are using airstrikes to take out ISIS. But it's a growing problem, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, that they're going to have to deal with.
MONTAGNE: All right, well, Tom, thanks very much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.