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Congressman Adam Kinzinger Says Withdrawing Troops From Afghanistan Is The Wrong Call

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After 20 years of war, there is no consensus over whether U.S. forces should stay in Afghanistan. President Biden's decision to withdraw American troops by September 11 seems to have as many critics as it does supporters. A week before Biden made his announcement, I talked with a man who launched the initial attack into Afghanistan after 9/11, former President George W. Bush. He's got a new book out titled "Out Of Many, One: Portraits Of America's Immigrants." And you'll hear more of my interview with him tomorrow. But today, we wanted to bring you some of our conversation about Afghanistan. One of the immigrants he painted for the book is named Roya Mahboob, a woman who immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan.

GEORGE W BUSH: Her family had fled to Iran because of the Taliban. And she came back from Iran and became a computer programmer and one of the few in the country - women computer programmers. And she then taught. And she became well-known in the sense that she helped educate many, many women. And then the Taliban found out about her, started threatening her. And she left. She didn't leave happily, I might add. I mean, she loves her family and loves her country. But she couldn't operate in an environment where she was threatened all the time.

MARTIN: I asked him if he was worried about the future of the women still in Afghanistan.

BUSH: Absolutely. I am because the sad truth is if we're not there, women will suffer. And people say, what makes you say that? I said, well, they did before. I mean, the history of the Taliban was one of brutalizing women. And, yeah, I'm deeply concerned about it. I hope the United States keeps a presence there. But in order for that to happen, it needs to be clearly explained why it's important. I think if leaders stand up and say, do you want Afghan women to suffer unspeakable harm? The answer across America would be, no. We don't.

MARTIN: But as you know - and this is the uncomfortable truth - that wasn't the objective of the war after 9/11. The objective was to oust the Taliban. And then...

BUSH: That's right.

MARTIN: ...The mandate grew. Did it get too big?

BUSH: It did. No. I don't think so. I think we - I think it doesn't require much of our presence to help, you know, stabilize the country and protect women. But it's - yeah, no question about it. I mean, it - get rid of the Taliban. And reduce the al-Qaida threat. I just happen to think the mission of helping women in Afghanistan, at the same time denying sanctuary to would-be terrorists, is worth the cost.

MARTIN: That was former President George W. Bush on why he thinks U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan. Illinois Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger served in the U.S. Air Force and flew missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like former President Bush, he believes U.S. troops need to stay. I spoke with him yesterday. At least 2,300 U.S. military personnel have died in Afghanistan since 2001. The U.S. has spent several trillion dollars there over the last two decades. Why is pulling out of Afghanistan the wrong call?

ADAM KINZINGER: Yeah. I think we have to look at the kind of forest here and not just the trees. A couple of things - first off, there has been success in terms of the mission changing in Afghanistan. You no longer have 100,000 U.S. troops carrying the bulk of the operations. We've always said we want the Afghans to do the bulk of the fighting. And we want them to be able to govern themselves. Well, 96% of combat operations are done by the Afghan military. We are there to train, advise and assist them. It also gives us the ability to continue to fight counterterrorism operations there.

And I think it's also important to look at this and recognize this is not a - you know, for the United States and NATO - really, an ongoing hot war like it's been the last 20 years. This is really, in essence, a peacekeeping operation. And the last thing is, really, what's going to happen when we leave? And I think we all know. I think there's a recognition that the Afghan government is not in a place to hold. And it will more than likely fall or at least lead to much greater violence. And the result will be either we have to watch a massive tragedy unfold or probably more than likely, eventually, have to go back like what we had to do in Iraq.

MARTIN: So there's several things I want to follow up on - first of all, your suggestion that what's happening now is more akin to a U.S. peacekeeping mission. But as I'm sure you're aware, I mean, even in just the last year, there have been all kinds of assassinations of Afghan civilians, Afghan journalists. According to The New York Times and the United Nations, 902 pro-Afghan government forces have died since the 1st of this year. I mean, this doesn't sound like a peacekeeping mission. It's still a very active war.

KINZINGER: No. It certainly is. And from our end, though, it's advising and training the military. Again, when you look at - yeah, there's been a significant amount of casualties on the Afghan military. And yet they're still waking up in the morning and going and fighting because to them, this is a fight worth having. Our job isn't to carry out the bulk of those operations anymore. It is now to train and advise them, to basically stiffen their backbone - similar to the success we saw against ISIS, where we realized that a small American footprint can actually do a lot to strengthen the indigenous forces to fight for themselves, exactly the kind of model we want to do in counterterrorism and counterinsurgencies in the future.

So, you know, if we look at that and realize how bad that is, just imagine when the U.S. and NATO leaves - those numbers. You're going to see even more assassinations, even more people killed. You're going to see a complete reversal in women's rights and, potentially, the destruction of the whole country. I hope I'm wrong. And I hope, since the president's made the decision, I hope he's right. I hope everything I'm predicting that will happen will turn out to be incorrect. But that's not what history has shown. And I think it's important, too, to remember that the Afghan people want us there. Overwhelmingly, they want the U.S. and NATO there. They don't see us as an occupying force.

MARTIN: Couldn't there always be a looming threat, though? I mean, you're never going to have 100% certainty that a new kind of terrorist organization could emerge there. Are you arguing that the U.S. should keep a presence in Afghanistan in perpetuity?

KINZINGER: No. Certainly not. I want the U.S. out when we can get out. Yeah. I think you're correct. There is going to be a looming threat, probably, always and probably always changing and probably in many places in the world. That is the reality of living in a world where people can recruit now on the Internet. There's a lot of different information. But the one thing we don't want to see is to get to a point in which we basically have given up the fight or walked away. It comes back to us. And then it takes a much bigger commitment to keep ourselves safe. Sometimes - you know, the fact that we haven't had a big terrorist attack on U.S. soil can be seen as a reason to leave, when in reality, it's fighting the terrorists where they exist that prevents them from coming here in the first place.

MARTIN: But I guess we just - we can't ever know that, right? I mean, this debate is hard...

KINZINGER: No.

MARTIN: ...Because you can't prove a negative.

KINZINGER: Right.

MARTIN: Illinois Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. We appreciate it.

KINZINGER: You bet. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "RETURN TO TEXT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.