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Up First For Secretary Of Defense Ash Carter: Afghanistan And ISIS


The secretary of defense is five days on the job, and already, he's signaling change. Ash Carter was in Kuwait today, where he called in senior military officers and diplomats to talk about the U.S. strategy for taking on the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

In a moment, we'll hear about another American ally in the region, Jordan. A brigadier general there tells us the use of special forces against ISIS is inevitable. First, though, Secretary Carter's travels and what they signal about possible changes in U.S. policy against ISIS and also in Afghanistan, the first stop on his trip. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Right now, the plan is this. The estimated 10,000 U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan will drop to 5,000 by year's end. But over the past few months, the Afghan government and some U.S. military leaders have been pushing the White House to slow that withdrawal. They're concerned about increased Taliban attacks. Secretary Carter confirmed in Kabul that the Afghan strategy is now under reconsideration.


ASH CARTER: President Obama is considering a number of options to reinforce our support for President Ghani's security strategy, including possible changes to the timeline for our drawdown of U.S. troops.

BOWMAN: Carter didn't tip his hand on how he'll come down on the troop issue, but defense analyst Seth Jones said his discussion of it is significant.

SETH JONES: Most people interpreted that the U.S. was essentially going to leave by 2016. I think the door is now open for rethinking those numbers.

BOWMAN: The Obama administration and is also seeing itself pulled evermore into the fight against the Islamic State, so Carter called a meeting of top U.S. military officials in Kuwait to talk about the strategy for defeating the group.

O'HANLON: He's going to try to learn as much as he can about the situation as he tries to develop and weigh options in his own mind before he presents them to the president.

BOWMAN: That's defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon. He and several other experts met with Carter last week. Right now, the U.S. is leading an air campaign against Islamic State forces in both Syria and Iraq. There are plans to help Iraqi forces retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State forces as early as April. Now the question is whether U.S. troops will be needed.

O'HANLON: Are we going to have to have forward air controllers? Are we even going to want to have some special forces on the ground with those air controllers?

BOWMAN: Do you think that'll be necessary?

O'HANLON: I think there's a very high chance that it will be, and I think Carter's appropriate approach in this time period should be to find out for himself what he thinks.

BOWMAN: Carter wasn't willing to say what he thinks about the possibilities of using U.S. ground troops against ISIS.


CARTER: I think we need to be convinced that any use of our forces is necessary, is going to be sufficient, that we've thought through not just the first step, but the second step and the third step. I want to make sure we've thought everything through.

BOWMAN: O'Hanlon said that Carter will have to consider how to deal with the conundrum facing his boss.

O'HANLON: On the one hand, president Obama very strongly opposes any kind of major U.S. war in the Middle East yet again. On the other hand, he has himself said we must defeat ISIS, and he's even at times talked about destroying it. And he has no viable proposition in place now for how he could do that.

BOWMAN: Carter may come back from Kuwait with a better sense of how that could happen. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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