RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Now, to the war in Afghanistan. NPR's Tom Bowman is just back from a month-long reporting trip in Afghanistan. He was out with U.S. troops and Afghan security forces trying to get a sense of how those Afghan forces are doing, since the U.S. is going to be bringing home more than 20,000 troops at the end of the summer. So, the question is: Will security gains last after the Americans leave? Tom is here in the studio to talk about what he saw. Good morning.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Tom, you started off your trip embedded with U.S. forces in the southwestern part of the country, Helmand province, right?
BOWMAN: That's right. An area called Marjah. And Marjah was really a no-go zone for Americans and Afghans two years ago. And the American sent in thousands of Marines to pacify this area that was really a nest of Taliban insurgents and also drug traffickers.
MARTIN: So, what's it like now? What did you see?
BOWMAN: Surprisingly peaceful. It's one of the few parts of country I could go and take off my combat helmet and walk around this marketplace. And one of the reasons it is so peaceful is because there are thousands of government troops there - both Afghans and Americans. And I wanted to get some sense of how it really is going over there. So, I talked to some people in a marketplace, and let's listen to what they said.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through Translator) We have really good security. There is nothing going on. It's good. We are good. We are living in peace.
BOWMAN: The Americans can go home?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) Yeah, they can leave.
MARTIN: So, he said they can leave.
BOWMAN: That's right. He said the American Marines can go home. But the key question, not only in Marjah but through the country, is can the Afghans take over and handle their own security once the Marines and the soldiers leave. That is the key question. We don't know the answer to that yet, but they seem pretty confident in Marjah.
MARTIN: OK. So, that's the story in Marjah. From there though you went to Kandahar. This has historically been a stronghold for the insurgency. What's going on there right now?
BOWMAN: Well, the Americans are pushing out into the areas southwest of Kandahar City. They're getting a lot of resistant. There are a lot of roadside bombs around there. They've only been there a little over a year, still a tough fight there. But in the east, hard up against the Pakistan border is another place we went. It's called Ghazni. And that is very, very dangerous. It's really Dodge City there. Ghazni straddles the main highway in the entire country called Highway 1. It links Kandahar City to the capital, Kabul, and also supply lines for the Taliban going into Pakistan. This is a key area they have to pacify. It's very, very dangerous.
MARTIN: So, Tom, you mentioned this - the key to U.S. strategy really is getting Afghan troops to the point where they can take over security when U.S. troops are supposed to leave. From what you saw in these places, is that realistic?
BOWMAN: There's no question the Afghan forces are getting better. I've seen their increase in numbers and competence over the last several years. And they're getting out there and they're fighting. But they have some serious problems; problems of leadership, problems of supplying themselves in the field. The illiteracy rate is very, very high. They're trying to get soldiers up to first-grade level, officers up to third-grade level. And a lot of them can't even count. So, one general told me, listen, what we do is we draw a rectangle in the dirt and we tell a company commander: The soldier you're supposed to have should fit into this rectangle standing at attention. If you filled that rectangle, that means you have the soldiers that you need. And I ask a lot of the Afghan soldiers as well. I said, can you take over now for the Americans? And some of them said, well, listen, first of all, we need more equipment. We need what the Americans have. We need tanks and aircraft. And the Americans will tell you they don't need all the sophisticated equipment and technology. They just have the feel that they can do it on their own. But it's still a problem, that confidence that they don't have yet.
MARTIN: So, what's going on in the ranks of the American troops? They've been assigned to get the Afghans up to snuff in the next couple of years. Are they feeling that pressure?
BOWMAN: There's definitely a lot of pressure. I talked to an American colonel in the Ghazni area. He only has four or five months to pacify this area. In September, they're going to drop down about 800 soldiers from 3,000. And he says he feels that time pressure, that he's not sure that he can complete his task in the time allotted. The American military command in Afghanistan - I talked to the number two general over there, General Curtis Scaparrotti - they're going to drop 23,000 troops by September, and that'll bring them down to 68,000. And we talked about that. I said, can you continue to reduce troops below 68,000? Let's listen to what he had to say about that.
GENERAL CURTIS SCAPARROTTI: Personally, I would like to stay at 68k through that first part of the year. And then, again, we'll make an assessment then and we'll decide what we need, you know, looking forward.
MARTIN: So, it sounds like he's got a different opinion than the opinion coming out of Washington.
BOWMAN: Absolutely. A lot of people in Washington, particularly at the White House, would like to keep reducing troops into next year and maybe even more to the end of this year, another 10,000 troops. But General Scaparrotti and others there say we would like to keep large numbers of Americans into next year.
MARTIN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks so much, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.