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Peace Talks Must Include Afghan Government, Retired Gen. Nicholson Says


General John Nicholson came by our studios yesterday. He has the short hair you would expect of a soldier though he now wears civilian clothes. He recently retired from the Army, where he spent about six of the last 12 years in Afghanistan fighting a brutal, frustrating and often forgotten war.

Do you miss Afghanistan?

JOHN NICHOLSON: I miss the Afghan people and my comrades and feel very honored and humbled to have been able to participate in protecting my country over there for as long as I did.

INSKEEP: When he retired, General Nicholson was commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He was sometimes able to work and travel with his wife Norine MacDonald, who's an expert on Afghanistan.

Can you think of an occasion during your time in command where your spouse said to you, you're really screwing this up? You're missing the point here. There's something you need to do differently.

NICHOLSON: We dialogue frequently...


NICHOLSON: ...About the war, like any marriage.

INSKEEP: That is the most diplomatic thing I've ever heard said about a marriage. Please continue.

NICHOLSON: She enabled me to connect with certain groups of Afghans in a culturally acceptable way that I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise.

INSKEEP: That suggests the way Nicholson thinks about a U.S. deployment that has lasted almost a generation. President Trump is reportedly talking of withdrawing troops. His convoy is working to negotiate a peace deal with Afghanistan's Taliban. Nicholson thinks the U.S. should stay but also that the number of troops is not really the important question. The real question is how to get a more peaceful country, which often comes through talking.

Have there been moments in Afghanistan over the years when wherever you were was quiet enough that you could just go for a walk down the street, chat with people?

NICHOLSON: You know, early in the war in certain areas, that was certainly possible. In fact, many people talk about, from 2001 to 2005, there were parts of the city where you could do that - in Kabul and elsewhere. I spent most my time in the provinces of Afghanistan. And when you were in a village under the hospitality of those people, we felt relatively safe. But as soldiers, you know, we're always vigilant.

INSKEEP: But you raise an interesting point. You, as a foreigner, as an American, could come and say hello to an Afghan, who might even in principle hate foreigners, might even be a Taliban guy. But if you step across the threshold, you were able to sit down and have a conversation.

NICHOLSON: There were Taliban. There were people who flipped sides during the war. There were Taliban that came in and lived in Kabul. I mean, the Taliban when they started were a movement that was against the anarchy of the civil war and against warlords and and against corruption. And they were viewed positively initially, you know, by the Afghan people. But, of course, over time, their brutal practices and their harsh interpretation of the Quran, you know, led to the Afghan people rejecting them.

INSKEEP: So let's talk a little more about the Taliban since, as you know, General, the Trump administration has seriously talked with the Taliban, achieved some of the steps on the way to a peace agreement, according to Zalmay Khalilzad, the ambassador who is in charge of the effort. Do you look at the Taliban and think, these are people I can deal with?

NICHOLSON: They need to be a part of the solution obviously, so a lowering of violence is critical to the country. And what we saw last June was the Taliban were able - they declared a unilateral cease-fire. When that happened, what we saw was the soldiers of the Taliban and the Afghan soldiers actually came together. They met in mosques. They met in streets. You saw moments where they said, why are we fighting each other? So in this context, the Taliban fighters in rank and file and the Afghan rank and file of the Army, I believe could live together. Clearly there's protections - you know, for human rights, for children's education, for women's rights - that need to be preserved as this goes forward. But this is the conversation that must occur. This is why this has to be an Afghan conversation, not a U.S.-led process. It has to be an Afghan-led process.

INSKEEP: But how will that peace - if it includes the Taliban, if it includes what we would consider extreme groups or groups with extreme views, how will it respect human rights?

NICHOLSON: Well, this is the importance of the negotiation. I think there are different people within the Taliban, just like there are within, you know, any group. And you find moderates. You find hard-liners. And I believe that they too are tired of war. I mean, their public line is one thing. But in private, they too are tired of war. And so I think many of them would like to see their own daughters go to school.

INSKEEP: Suppose the president called you up, which seems very plausible to me given, your expertise and says, listen, John. You know, as I said in a CBS interview the other day, I'd like to get out of foreign wars. Fourteen-thousand troops are there. What's a number I can safely take out now? If he asked you that, what's your answer?

NICHOLSON: I think that managing wars by timelines and troop numbers is not the proper strategic approach - that we need to look at that conditions on the ground, the objectives we want to achieve and then let those guide us on the level of resources we need, to include troop numbers and to include time commitments. I would offer examples from Korea, Germany, Bosnia, where the presence of international forces has led to enduring peaceful conditions. We know what the cost of war is. What's harder to calculate is the cost of failure. And if we were to fail in Afghanistan, then I think the cost would be much greater than even the costs that we've experienced so far.

INSKEEP: Adam Smith, the new Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was on the program the other day and said he was wondering - not quite endorsing but wondering if - while a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would be very bad, maybe, he thinks, staying would be even worse.

NICHOLSON: I would respectfully not agree with that approach. The - again, it needs to be not about troop numbers and timelines but about what are the conditions we're trying to achieve. If we saw an extended cease-fire or if we saw a peace settlement that involved the Taliban competing in the elections for political leadership, if we saw protection of human rights inside the country, then under these conditions, our security interests would be protected.

INSKEEP: I bet that as a commander, you spent a fair amount of time thinking about those who were killed under your command.


INSKEEP: Are you convinced that those who continue to be killed from time to time in Afghanistan are dying in a good cause and in the interest of the United States?

NICHOLSON: Yes. I believe our presence in Afghanistan is protecting our country. It's protecting our allies. And it's helping the Afghan people. So I do believe that we're protecting our country by being in Afghanistan. And I do believe that if this were not the case, then we should not be there. We need an end to this war that is worthy of the sacrifice and investment that our nation has made there.

INSKEEP: General Nicholson, thanks for coming by.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.