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After Years Of War, Trump Stands To Inherit Ongoing Conflicts


Among the many things that President Obama will be handing off to his successor this week are two wars. Obama came to office eight years ago vowing to end U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, President-elect Trump stands to inherit the nation's longest war in Afghanistan and renewed fighting in Iraq that has spread to Syria. NPR's David Welna has the story.


DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Earlier this month at a military base near the Pentagon, there was a farewell ceremony with lots of pomp for President Obama. General Joe Dunford, who will stay on as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hailed the commander in chief who gave him that job with a stark reminder.


GENERAL JOE DUNFORD: Mr. President, we've been at war throughout your tenure. That's a period longer than any other American president.

WELNA: And it's far longer than Obama would have wanted, but he reminded the troops that he's adopted a new approach to those wars that relies on local forces doing most of the fighting.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Not by letting our forces get dragged into sectarian conflicts and civil wars but with smart, sustainable, principled partnerships. That's how we brought most of our troops home - nearly 180,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan down to 15,000 today.

WELNA: Nearly 10,000 of those 15,000 U.S. forces are in Afghanistan despite Obama's earlier aim to leave behind only a small residual force. Some of those forces are there to fight groups the U.S. considers terrorists. Others are training and advising Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban. Last month at Bagram Air Base, General John Nicholson - he's the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan - portrayed that effort as going well.


GENERAL JOHN NICHOLSON: When you look at the performance of the Afghan forces this year, it was a tough year. They were tested, but they prevailed.

WELNA: Others who know Afghanistan well take a dimmer view.


JOHN SOPKO: It's basically playing whack-a-mole.

WELNA: That's John Sopko. He's the special inspector general for the U.S. in Afghanistan. Last week at a Washington military think tank, he delivered a stinging report portraying the Afghan security forces as hobbled by corruption and poor leadership.


SOPKO: So what we're doing is we're defining success by the absence of failure. At a minimum, they're playing defense and are not taking the fight to the Taliban.

WELNA: President-elect Trump will inherit a 15-year war in Afghanistan with no end in sight, says the Council on Foreign Relations' Stephen Biddle.

STEPHEN BIDDLE: The situation in Afghanistan in the rosiest possible, reasonable analysis is a stalemate, which can only be sustained if the U.S. Congress keeps writing multibillion-dollar-a-year checks to keep the Afghan national security forces in the field.

WELNA: And then there's Obama's war against the Islamic State. At his Pentagon farewell ceremony, the outgoing commander in chief portrayed it as a war being won.


OBAMA: These terrorists have lost about half of their territory. They are losing their leaders. Towns and cities are being liberated. And I have no doubt this barbaric terrorist group will be destroyed because of you.

WELNA: General Stephen Townsend is the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Last month at a fire base just outside Mosul, he defended what to many seems a slow-motion assault on Islamic State forces holding that city.


LIEUTENANT GENERAL STEPHEN TOWNSEND: Any army on the planet, to include the United States Army, would be challenged by this fight. And the Iraqi army has come back from near defeat two years ago, and now they're attacking this major city.

WELNA: At least 600 U.S. forces are now on the ground in war-ravaged Syria. They're mainly there to train and advise local forces to confront Islamic State forces. Some experts doubt that will work. Michael O'Hanlon is a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: We're losing. They're winning. And they maybe don't say it in quite those terms because they like the fact that we're still pulling the wool collectively over our own eyes. But the idea of defeating ISIS, replacing Assad and doing all this with a minimal American military investment does not add up to a logical policy.

WELNA: It's not clear how the next president will fight these wars. Trump barely mentioned Afghanistan during his campaign. The man he's chosen for national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, did tell NPR last summer that nations nearby Syria should be doing more there.


MICHAEL FLYNN: Where is the king of Jordan? Where is the emirs of some of these other countries? They need to actually stand up and internationally and publicly condemn this violent form of this ideology that is operating inside of their bloodstream right now. And I don't see it. And that's where the president of the United States needs to place a different set of demands on these guys.

WELNA: That president will soon be Donald Trump, who told a campaign rally in Iowa...


DONALD TRUMP: I would just bomb those suckers.


WELNA: And he will soon have the power to do so. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.