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U.S. Military Ordered to Plan Major Withdrawal from Afghanistan; Lindsey Graham: Leaving Afghanistan Too Soon Would be a Disaster; Trump: Government Shutdown Will Last Until Border Wall Funded. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired December 26, 2018 - 11:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:30:38] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: It is America's longest war, 17 years. That's how long American men and women serving in Afghanistan have been spending the holidays away from their families. That could be about to change. Last week, CNN learned that President Trump wants to see plans to withdraw about half of the nearly 14,000 troops that are serving there.

Last week, I travelled to Afghanistan with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. This was before we knew about the president's potential plans. Graham's mission was to convince the president that the fight is still worth fighting 17 years later.

I had an exclusive interview while I was there with General Scott Miller and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass.

I also talked with the troops, some barely old enough to remember the event that took America there in the first place.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LT. COL. KEITH BENEDICT, U.S. ARMY: We believe that we are here defending the homeland by preventing safe haven for terrorist organizations.

PVT. BRENNEN BLEDSOE, U.S. ARMY: The training we get, the mission we are on, I feel like I'm actually doing something for my country.

BOLDUAN (voice-over): Two different soldiers, two different stories.

Lieutenant Colonel Keith Benedict, he joined the military a month before 9/11.

BENEDICT: This is my fifth deployment, fourth to combat. I went to Iraq in 2006 to 2007 and then Haiti in 2010 and three times to Afghanistan.

BOLDUAN: Private Brennen Bledsoe was 3 years old when the 9/11 attacks happened. Now on his first deployment.

BLEDSOE: This is what I signed up for. As long as I have a good head on my shoulders and stay on my task, I'll be fine.

BOLDUAN: These soldiers say they know what their mission is. But now 17 years in, what about the overall mission? I asked four-star general, Scott Miller, the new top commander of U.S and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

(on camera): You have been in command for a few months now. You have seen other top military officials offer their assessment that things here are essentially at a stalemate. I want to know your assessment, working right now.

GEN. SCOTT MILLER, U.S. COMMANDER, COALITION FORCES IN AFGHANISTAN: This fight will go to a political settlement. These are two sides that are fighting against one another. One of them will choose a military victory. At this stage, I like how the Afghan national security forces are performing.

BOLDUAN: And 17 years on, why is the United States still here?

MILLER: This is ultimately about national interest, not just for the United States but it's vital national interests. On 9/11, terrorist groups came from here. Today, there are other terrorist groups that could affect external through Afghanistan and the homeland.

BOLDUAN (voice-over): Our exclusive sit-down came after General Miller briefed U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on a trip there to visit the troops.

(on camera): Ambassador, the political solution is the reality now. How do you get there?

JOHN BASS, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO AFGHANAISTAN: We have an opportunity today that we didn't have six or 12 months ago to see if it is really possible to achieve that political settlement that General Miller indicated is the only way the conflict ends. We don't know if we are going to be successful. I think what we have to see is whether the Taliban is interested in responding to the deep desire of the Afghan people for peace.

BOLDUAN: When you look at the over 17 years, over 100,000 down to just over 10,000 now, do you have enough? Can you be successful with the U.S. mission with even less troops?

MILLER: We have the resources we need. This is an Afghan fight. We provide support. We enable them. But, make no mistake, the Afghans are in the lead in this fight. You can see that through the casualty figures. But it's their fight now.

BOLDUAN: You mentioned 9/11. You were one of the first troops into Afghanistan after 9/11. Do you want to be the commander who ends U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan?

SCOTT: What I tell people is I really want to leave Afghanistan this time. And I tell this to the Afghan people. And it will be my last time as a soldier. What I would like to leave is a country that is peaceful and unified. That's a tall order, but that's what would be my hope.

BOLDUAN: Are you confident you can accomplish that?

SCOTT: We will keep working at it. We will keep supporting the political process and we'll keep supporting the Afghan security forces, all designed to support the political process. So I do see some pathways of hope.

[11:35:09] BOLDUAN (voice-over): Until then, it's another holiday season with U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, another holiday 14,000 servicemembers are spending away from their families, like Major Isaiah Thomason, a father of two with twins on the way.

(on camera): What is it like being away for another holiday?

MAJ. ISAIAH THOMASON, U.S. AIR NATIONAL GUARD: It's tough. With kids, Christmas is a lot more important to them so it becomes a lot more important to me. Missing their faces. Face Time helps a lot. But still, you can't make up for it.

BOLDUAN: How many Christmas have you been away from your family?

THOMASON: Oh, probably five.

BOLDUAN: You can't even count them anymore?

THOMASON: No. It's past counting now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BOLDUAN: My very best to Major Thomason and his family, and all the troops I met with over the holiday season.

It is important to remember that my interview with the general and the ambassador was all before the news broke that the military was being asked to draw up plans to cut U.S. troops in Afghanistan by half. It is still a possibility that the president could announce. This is before the announcement that the president is ordering all U.S. troops out of Syria. And 17 years later, and still no clear answer of what the future holds for Afghanistan and U.S. commitment there.

But we know it is now in the hands of President Trump and things could be changing.

So what could that future look like and what does that mean here at home? That question is more real than ever. That's coming up after the short break.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[11:41:13] SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I cannot stress enough to people back home that this is yet another Christmas that the soldiers are in Afghanistan. And the reason they are here is so you can enjoy your Christmas. They all know what would happen to this place if we left too soon. It would be an absolute disaster and the biggest winners are all the people who do not have our best interest at heart.

You are going to fight this war with radical Islam whether you want to or not. The question is, in whose backyard? I choose the terrorists' backyard versus America's backyard. I choose to do it with partners. The Afghans have been good partners. If you pull the plug here, you will never have a partner anywhere else.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: That was Republican Senator Lindsey Graham when I had an opportunity to follow him on a trip last week to Afghanistan. Right when we arrived back in the states, CNN learned that President Trump is asking the military to draw up plans to withdraw about half of the troops serving there. Graham believes a draw down too big and too soon could pave the way for another 9/11, his words explicitly.

Joining me now is former Army commander general of Europe and the General Army, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, and former senior advisor to the national security advisor under President Obama, Samantha Vinograd.

Thank you for being here. I really appreciate it.

General, you heard it there from Lindsey Graham. He really isn't pulling punches. He is not known to do that anyway. Specifically, when it comes to U.S. involvement overseas in Afghanistan, he is an ally of the president's on many fronts, but on this, he is clearly sending a warning to Trump, saying if you were to pull out of Afghanistan, he believes it would likely lead to another 9/11. What is your view on that? Do you agree with Lindsey Graham or do you think he is exaggerating?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think there's an argument to be made for that, Kate. This is a tough call. We have been in this war, as you stated, for 17 years. And by the way, thank you very much for bringing this back to the attention of the American people because most Americans have forgotten about this war. It's a tough call to determine whether or not we stay or go. Truthfully, war is the continuation of politics by other means. We have been continuing politics by different means for the last 17 years under an ever-changing political condition. And it's been all about numbers and missions and what the end state is. They have constantly changed over the last 17 years. And the commanders on the ground have been trying to execute the mission to the best of their ability. I think most commanders -- and I know I'm one of those that fought in these wars -- believe we wanted to keep the terrorists away from our shores. Afghanistan was a base. It was very clear why we went in there but things got muddled along the way. Right now, we do have a strategy as we had under President Obama. We have one under President Trump. Unfortunately, he is not adhering to his own strategy and what he is trying to attain in Afghanistan.

BOLDUAN: Sam, you have been involved. You have been in the discussions with the president in terms of the decisions. What is the cost benefit analysis? What needs to be considered that you hope President Trump is doing here even though we have reporting that is contrary?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: In the first instance, you weigh whether the strategy is working. President Trump, about 16 months ago, laid out a new strategy based on conditions for a departure rather than arbitrary timelines. The president himself said that a hasty withdrawal would have serious consequences for the American people because of the terrorist threats from Afghanistan. What is so curious to me about the withdrawal decision is the president's strategy is actually working in certain respects. Our troops on the ground in Afghanistan are there as a force multiplier for the Afghan national defense forces but are also there to lay the groundwork for a political negotiation with the Taliban. The Taliban had break through negotiations over the past several months. The president I hope the cost benefit Analysis, of course, he is weighing the cost of having troops deployed overseas. They can't be home with their families. They can't be used elsewhere. The benefit, when you look at the benefit of a continued U.S. troop presence, we have obviously securing Afghanistan so terrorist threats can't reach the homeland, while laying the conditions for environment where the talks can continue with the Taliban.

[11:45:45] BOLDUAN: General, you have a unique perspective on this because you were in Iraq during the drawdown of U.S. troops there. I wonder what you heard, since you speak military better than I do, when you heard General Miller and how you heard General Miller describe his level of confidence in the Afghan security forces being able to maintain their own security.

HERTLING: I'm going to again comment on what Sam just said because it is critically important. This was a condition-based strategy under the Mattis/Pompeo approach that they allow the president to buy into. It was condition based. The president has said he wanted to go away from President Obama using numbers or time phasing to get rid of troops. And the worst kind of things to do is exactly that is to use numbers or time. It has to be condition-based. We saw that in Iraq. Truthfully, it's very challenging, if we go from the strategic down to the tactical and the operational, just an arbitrary figure of 7,000 soldiers come home, 50 percent of the troops. For a commander on the ground, you have to figure out I now have a new mission to figure out what troops stay, what troops leave? How do I support the troops who are saying and how do I deliver beans and bullet and ammunition and all sorts of things? And how many helicopters do I need? What is the fighting force and what their mission is? We call it in the military, Kate, the troop-to-task ratio. General Miller will have to figure that out. First, I have to get a mission, if I'm General Miller, and then determine what kind of troops, the helicopter pilots, intelligence folks, logistics people, the on-the-ground fighters, the trainers. Do I have to configure to meet the package the president wants with only 7,000? And by the way, we also have our NATO allies to consider. About a third of the forces come from different countries in NATO, the Germans, the Pols, the Georgians. All of them are stepping up because we have asked them to as our allies. They are seeing us leave Afghanistan while the president is slamming our NATO alliances. It just makes it all very, very confusing for people who have fought alongside us for the last 17 years.

BOLDUAN: Let us see what decision the president reaches.

As you lay out, General Miller didn't have a difficult task when he took the job in September. His task could become more difficult and more challenging ahead. Let's see.

Sam, great to see you.

General, thank you so much.

Still ahead, shut down stalemate. How will it play out when Congress returns from the holiday break, which is tomorrow? We'll ask a former Republican member of the House for perspective. We'll be right back.

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[11:53:00] BOLDUAN: Day five of a partial government shutdown. That is where we are with Congress getting just back to business tomorrow. What is going to happen next? Republican Congressman Mark Meadows tells CNN this: "Little progress has been made in talks to end the standoff." So now what?

Joining me, former Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, Charlie Dent, now a CNN political commentator.

Little progress, I guess that's no surprise since everyone left town and then holidays, but still, in addition to Mark Meadows, Congressman, saying there was little progress, he also said the president is under no illusion the Democrats are finding the White House offers and demands for a border wall as acceptable. So what then, quite honestly?

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, this shutdown obviously is not going to end this week. I suspect it won't end until after there's a new Congress sworn in on January 3rd. What then, I think, will simply be this. Nancy Pelosi, one of her acts will be a pass a funding bill. Probably the very bill the Senate passed last week. Send it back to the Senate. That's likely what will happen. And then it will be up to the Senate to determine whether or not they'll pass the same bill again and send it off to the president. That's what I think will happen.

What's interesting, too, Mark Meadows -- I'm a friend of Mark Meadows, we serve together, we often disagree on policy. But he's actually -- he's usually not going to be part of a bipartisan deal. Many members of the Freedom Caucus don't do bipartisan deals well. But it seems the president is negotiating with people who aren't going to vote for the bill that will ultimately be signed the law. It's enough to make your head spin or explode just to hear that.

BOLDUAN: Because, to what you were saying, there was a deal. The Senate passed a deal, which was a short-term fund, the president was on board, and then reversed. And it makes me wonder, do you see a scenario where House and Senate Republicans just go ahead without the president's kind of approval, call his bluff on not -- on the fact he says he won't sign the short-term deal without more border wall funding and say -- and kind of play chicken with him?

[11:55:06] DENT: Absolutely. The Congress can simply just send a bill to the president and let the president make a decision. It's that simple. Now, if there are two-thirds, if there's a two-thirds majority in both chambers, they could override. I don't know if that would be the case. But force the president to make a decision. He's been very unclear where he stands. Initially, he was for the bill that the Senate passed or at least his administration was and then he reversed himself. So if I were Congress, I just send him a bill and then force him to decide one way or the other. It's really not that hard.

BOLDUAN: It's one of the strangest situations where the dynamic just hasn't changed. Literally, it's just no and no. I want the wall and no on the wall and it doesn't seem that anyone is talking. And I venture to guess no one will talk even when they get back in town tomorrow but we'll see together. We'll watch and wait. You'll have to bring me some perspective and keep my head from spinning.

Congressman, thank you for coming in. I appreciate it.

DENT: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Happening also right now, we are watching this. Wall Street trying to rebound after stocks took a beating on Christmas Eve. It's been down. It's now up. It's shaping up to be another wild day. We're going to stay on top of it for you, next.