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Putting Afghan President Ghani's Comments In Context


Now, as we were talking with President Ghani, Tom Bowman was listening in. Tom is NPR's Pentagon correspondent. He has spent a lot of time reporting on Afghanistan, reporting in Afghanistan. He's in our studio now. Hey there.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: We heard President Ghani lay out a real specific goal there - having his security forces control 80 percent of the country in four years. Have we heard that before? Is that new?

BOWMAN: We have not heard that before. Right now the government controls roughly 60 percent of the country. And that means about one third of all Afghans, or 11 million people, are living under Taliban control or in contested areas with the government. It's mostly in the south around Helmand and Kandahar.

KELLY: Is it a realistic goal that Afghan security forces would control 80 percent of the country in four years?

BOWMAN: Probably not. People I talk with say Ghani is being overly optimistic. Others say he will struggle to make that goal of 80 percent of the country under government control.

KELLY: This is people you're talking to as you make the rounds here in Washington?

BOWMAN: Absolutely. That's right. But they do say, well, at least, he has a plan. That's a good thing.

KELLY: That is progress.

BOWMAN: But, clearly, Afghanistan has a huge number of problems. There's corruption. There's lack of leadership. There - the illiteracy rate is very high. Roughly 70 percent of the country is illiterate. And that makes it difficult for what Ghani hopes to do.

He wants to increase the number of commandos, the high-end fighters. He wants to increase the number of pilots and mechanics in the air force. But these are, again, high-end jobs that require literacy. And to do that will be quite difficult, people I talk with say.

And here's the other thing - a lot of people don't have faith in this government. We had Richard Armitage on this show a few weeks back. And he said...

KELLY: The former U.S. deputy - deputy secretary of state?

BOWMAN: That's right, under Colin Powell. And he basically said the problem is a lot of these soldiers are not willing to fight and die for this government.

KELLY: How would you go about even measuring whether the Afghan government has met this goal in a few years time?

BOWMAN: Well, it comes down to are you - the area now under Taliban control - are you taking that back and are you holding it? Now, again, there's been a lot of American support - a lot of airstrikes, artillery strikes to help the Afghans. But can they hold it on their own? And also, he says doubling the number of commandos. They're roughly 17,000 commandos.

KELLY: Right now?

BOWMAN: Right. We've been out with them in the field. They are very good fighters. They're very squared away. But doubling that number currently at 17,000 is going to be a great challenge.

KELLY: A big challenge.

BOWMAN: In the air force, as well, they only have a few aircraft. And that's going to be hard to really increase that, as well.

KELLY: That's NPR's Tom Bowman giving context there for our interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.

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