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Afghanistan Veterans Discuss Trump's Strategy


President Trump started last week with a teleprompter speech laying out his goals in Afghanistan.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America's interests are clear. We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America.

MARTÍNEZ: He gave few specifics.


TRUMP: We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground - not arbitrary timetables - will guide our strategy from now on.

MARTÍNEZ: But senior U.S. officials did tell NPR the U.S. is expected to send about 4,000 additional troops. Now, we wanted to know what those most invested in the conflict think of the president's plan. So we called up two veterans who have served in Afghanistan. MJ Hegar joined us from Round Rock, Texas. She served three tours in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2009.

MJ HEGAR: I was a lieutenant and a captain, a combat search and rescue helicopter pilot. We were covering the medevac mission for the Army.

MARTÍNEZ: Elliot Ackerman writes for Esquire. And he took time from his vacation in Montenegro to talk with us.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I served in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011. I was a captain in the Marine Corps - special operations officer - where I served as a team leader advising Afghan Special Operations Forces.

MARTÍNEZ: Elliot, let's start with you. Now, we heard some of the president's speech there. He also said that his instinct - his instinct had always been to withdraw from Afghanistan but that he's changed his mind after careful consideration. Now, Elliot, as someone who has been there, what do you think of his decision to stay?

ACKERMAN: I think pulling out at this point really isn't an option, particularly with the lessons of pull - the pull-out of Iraq so fresh in our minds. I agree. You know, the security vacuum that would be left in Afghanistan would be unacceptable and would eventually prove to be an existential threat to not only the U.S. but to the West, as it would become a haven for many of these terrorist organizations.

MARTÍNEZ: MJ, what about you?

HEGAR: I do agree that arbitrarily pulling out without, you know, any measure of stability that we're leaving on the ground behind us does create a vacuum for, you know, allowing terrorist organizations to blossom. But I would argue that it's much more complex than that. We need to consider the worldwide environment and the things that we can do as a country and our administration can do to try to create an environment in which terrorism does not thrive.

MARTÍNEZ: Elliot, put us in your shoes. You're there in Afghanistan. And you know that there's a timetable. Does it feel different if we all know exactly when you guys are supposed to be out of there?

ACKERMAN: Sure. I mean, you know, I served in Afghanistan exclusively in special operations. And a significant component of our job was sitting down with the local power brokers who we were trying to get to support the Afghan government. And you are trying to convince them that their interests and the interests of the people they represent will be best taken care of if they support the Afghan government and the U.S. And so it's very difficult to have those conversations when they can look at you and say, but even your president says you're going to be gone. And there's a very famous axiom that existed in Afghanistan that the Taliban would often bandy about. The Taliban would say to Americans - they'd say, you know, you all might have the watches, but we have the time.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, I want to ask you both about something else President Trump said, something that a lot of people who know the history of conflict in Afghanistan say is pretty much at the heart of the whole thing. And that's nation-building.


TRUMP: We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.

MARTÍNEZ: Elliot, is the president right here? Should we be less focused on nation-building and more focused on fighting terrorists?

ACKERMAN: You know, I believe should the U.S. be primarily in the position of building roads, trying to tell the Afghans exactly how to organize their systems of government - no, I would agree that that type of nation-building is outside of our capabilities to effectively do. You know, where it gets dicey is when we talk about the internal affairs of Afghanistan. There is a semblance of our tacit agreement of saying that these are people who we can work with in terms of their general value systems. Now, there's a lot that goes on in Afghanistan that's very, very difficult for Americans to stomach, I mean, for instance, particularly their treatment of women.

MARTÍNEZ: MJ, is nation building and fighting terrorists - are they intertwined? Can they be Separated? Can you do one without the other?

HEGAR: Well, I mean, I agree that we shouldn't be trying to make other countries look like us. But I do think that investing some in infrastructure, especially in things like schools - a lot of people talk about roads. But I think that those things are incredibly important for playing the long game. For example, if we're just speaking specifically about Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban trying to keep women from going to school - I think that that is the type of thing that we have to fight. And you have to fight those things with more than just traditional troops.

MARTÍNEZ: I read the transcript of President Trump's speech. And in that transcript, he made reference to defeat them, defeat the enemy four - five times. And he said the word when six times. So I want to know from both of you, both veterans of the war in Afghanistan, what does winning in Afghanistan mean to you? Let's start with you, MJ.

HEGAR: I think that's so difficult. And that's kind of what I was hoping to see from the president's speech - is what are him and his team, with all of their intel reports that I don't have in front of me and all of their minds put together - what does victory look like? I think, you know, an educational system that everybody is free to go to - I think that free elections where, you know, we used to have to, you know, stand up rescue operations during elections because of the violence and because of the people who would be targeted. So I think free elections, free of violence is important. And, you know, I'm not really sure what to say about the rest. I was really hoping to see that from Trump's administration.

MARTÍNEZ: Elliot, winning in Afghanistan - what does that mean to you?

ACKERMAN: Well I think, you know, one of the things I learned in my experience there and in covering wars is that, you know, wars can be fought for many, many, many reasons. And winning isn't always one of the reasons that wars are being fought. And I don't know that Afghanistan is a war that we are fighting anymore necessarily to win it. And we are likely to see a continued and enduring U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan for, I think, decades to come. And there has yet been an American president who will level with the country that this is the type of conflict we are fighting.

MARTÍNEZ: Elliot Ackerman and MJ Hegar are veterans of the war in Afghanistan. Thank you for joining us.

HEGAR: Thanks for having us on.

ACKERMAN: Thanks for having us.