ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This incident and others are causing a lot of debate in the U.S. about why we remain in Afghanistan. Is there something yet to be gained there, or has the U.S. squandered any goodwill that it had? Might it be best to pull out sooner than planned, as some Republican presidential candidates are now advocating? Well, today, President Obama said he stands by his Afghanistan policy.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Make no mistake, we have a strategy that will allow us to responsibly wind down this war. We're steadily transitioning to the Afghans who are moving into the lead, and that's going to allow us to bring our troops home.
SIEGEL: Zalmay Khalilzad is the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and to the United Nations, and he joins us now in the studio. Welcome.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, it's nice to be with you.
SIEGEL: The New York Times reported today that there was discussion within the Obama administration about accelerating the withdrawal from Afghanistan. What exactly is it that would not be gained if our troops did get home sooner from Afghanistan than already scheduled?
KHALILZAD: Well, if that can happen without increasing the risk, of course, that will be desirable. But I believe that we still have things to do there. Al-Qaida has been weakened, but they're not finished yet. We still have work to do there. We also don't want Afghanistan to return to the chaos of the 1990s that led to the rise of the Taliban and a rival of al-Qaida and the use of al-Qaida of Afghan territories. And we believe, our commanders believe and the administration believes that the Afghans are not in a situation in terms of the capabilities of their forces to take on full responsibility themselves now.
SIEGEL: But acknowledging that there would be a risk of chaos in Afghanistan after U.S. withdrawal, if the discussion is really about whether that withdrawal should be almost entirely complete in 2014 or 2013, is there any significant difference there? Aren't we having the same risks by saying we're getting out within a couple of years than saying we're getting out in a year?
KHALILZAD: Well, there's one little difference, Robert, and that is that in 2014 we'll give the lead for security to the Afghans. And we'll withdraw most of our combat forces, but we are negotiating with the Afghans for a residual force to stay to support the Afghans if they need it and to do training but also to be able to do counter-terror operations. So the idea of a total withdrawal by the end of 2014 is not the policy of the United States at this time.
SIEGEL: Well, what are the - seriously, what are the odds that Afghanistan will not return to a chaotic situation after the U.S. leaves Afghanistan?
KHALILZAD: Well, I think if the U.S. completely leaves Afghanistan and soon, it's inevitable, in my judgment. But I think if the U.S. leaves responsibly, as the president said, with the Afghans trained to take on the responsibility and with some residual U.S. and coalition forces staying in a support role, there is a chance that a better outcome than chaos and return to Taliban and al-Qaida would be the result.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you about something that struck me. I don't know how it struck you. The Taliban, in putting out a statement after this mass murder by the American soldier, said, you know, they should bring this man to justice, and they shouldn't claim that he's mentally ill because that would be an excuse that they're sending lunatics over to fight the war in Afghanistan. I thought that that was actually a fairly sophisticated complaint by the Taliban. This didn't seem to be, you know, just some raw tribesman from the caves putting out press releases, but a pretty sophisticated enemy that we're fighting in Afghanistan.
KHALILZAD: Well, no doubt. I mean, they have been around for a while now, and they're not the Taliban of the 1990s.
SIEGEL: They are not the Taliban of the 1990s.
KHALILZAD: And I think that one of the things we'll like to do is to see if there's a political settlement that will accelerate the withdrawal of the United States. And there is some small signs of progress in that direction, but clearly, as we are fighting and wanting to talk, they're fighting as well as wanting to talk.
SIEGEL: As well as wanting to talk.
KHALILZAD: And peacemaking is as difficult, Robert, as war. And they're all trying to take advantage of the circumstances created by this incident to their advantage. So - and that is not surprising.
SIEGEL: Ambassador Khalilzad, thank you very much for talking with us.
KHALILZAD: Well, it's very nice to be with you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Zalmay Khalilzad, who's now with Gryphon Partners in Washington, D.C., is the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, as well as to Iraq and as well as to the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.