Transcript: General David McKiernan Speaks at Council's Commanders Series
Transcript by Federal News Service, Washington, D.C.
FREDERICK KEMPE: Well, General, it looks as though we have a full house for you here.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Fred Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, and let me welcome you all to the Atlantic Council and this installment of our commander series, our commander speaker series, with General David McKiernan. Some of you have been to other events here in the commander series. I believe we brought some of the most impressive talent in uniform from both sides of the Atlantic here. That was the aim. Senior U.S. and European military leaders have used our stage to reach a larger audience. And because combatant commanders these days deal with so much more than where to put a piece of artillery or what target to hit, I think we’ve had some very interesting discussions. General McKiernan, we know that you’re dealing in a place where fighting drugs, building judicial systems, and dealing with safe zones is part of the task.
Among others we’ve hosted here in the past is a former boss of yours, General McKiernan, General Jim Jones, while he was Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and before he came here as chair of the Atlantic Council. We’ve also had two board members of ours speak here, Admiral John Bastiane (ph), and General McCaffrey. General Victor Renuart was here last year from NORTHCOM, and we also had your predecessor, General Dan McNeil, so we’ve had a good run of predecessors to you at this podium.
Afghanistan is at the core of our work here at the Atlantic Council. We’ve worked hard in Washington to raise the debate on these issues and we’ve done so also in Brussels. In early 2008 we published the report, “Saving Afghanistan: An Urgent Plea and Plan for Action.” That was followed up by Senate testimony by General Jones and it drew substantial attention and was supported on both sides of the aisle in Congress.
We’ve hosted Norwegian ambassador Kai Eide, the U.N. special representative in Afghanistan, and we’ve also launched an ambitious project that will recommend to the new administration a policy approach to U.S. relations with Pakistan. Finally, we will soon begin a project that looks at how we can mobilize nations to provide additional resources and capabilities into helping Afghans build their nation. We’re also working with Ashraf Ghani on a 10-year framework for Afghanistan, which recognizes that this isn’t a six-month problem.
We therefore are very pleased to welcome General David McKiernan to the Council to provide his views on the current and future challenges for ISAF and the U.S.
Let me just say one thing, and I don’t think I’m over-estimating or over-speaking here. You’re quite simply one of the most experienced and gifted combat commanders anywhere, commissioned out of the ROTC program at the College of William & Mary in 1972, and during the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom he commanded all U.S. and coalition ground forces. It’s a ground operation whose speed and initial success will be studied by military historians for some time to come. It was the longest and fastest armored assault in the history of warfare, thrusting from the Kuwaiti border to the center of Baghdad, a straight-line distance of 540 kilometers, in only 16 days of fighting. I think Michael Gordon – Michael, are you around here? If one’s read Michael Gordon’s book, one might also draw the conclusion that you had a somewhat earlier surge in mind in Iraq thereafter.
Let me leave it at that and turn over to General McKiernan, and welcome to the Atlantic Council, General.
GENERAL DAVID MCKIERNAN: Thank you very much. When you talked about battling narcotics, and rule of law and judicial systems, I thought you wanted me to come talk about Afghanistan. But I am going to talk about Afghanistan. I very much look forward to this opportunity to be here with you this evening. One of the things when I first arrived to Kabul that I didn’t think we were doing very well was strategic communications, the idea of being able to get our themes and messages and perspectives out to a variety of audiences, whether they were the people of Afghanistan, whether they were the government of Afghanistan, the region, troop-contributing nations, or Washington, D.C. I said we’ve got to, as leaders, we’ve got to go engage all these different audiences and make sure that they understand our perspective of what we’re trying to get done here and how we see things.
You might have thought it’s an opportunity for you, but this is really an opportunity for me tonight as a key leader to engage with a lot of big thinkers here in Washington about where we’re at in Afghanistan, and perhaps where we will be here in a few years.
There are a lot of strategic reviews going on right now, a lot of studies. I’m not adding to that, but I am going to try to give you some themes that I think will be helpful to think about as we continue this campaign in Afghanistan. So I’ve got about 10 or so slides with really some images of Afghanistan, and on each one there’s really a theme or message or an idea that I’d like to talk about for just a few minutes, and then I’d be happy to take questions from you. I hope everybody can see these pictures over on the right.
The first thought here is, and it’s a thought that you might say, why does he have to tell us this? But I do have to tell this in a variety of audiences in terms of strategic communications, and that is the fact that we are at war in Afghanistan. It’s not peacekeeping. It’s not stability operations, it’s not humanitarian assistance, it’s war. It’s a counter-insurgency, sometimes that can get very kinetic. An example of the up-armored Humvee here over in eastern Afghanistan. It’s some very difficult terrain. But it’s also a battle for ideas. I daresay that you would not have seen that image 10 years ago in Afghanistan, of three young women sitting behind laptop computers. I’m not sure if that’s a school or district center or where it is, but you wouldn’t have seen that image 10 years ago. So it is a war in Afghanistan that’s being fought along several different lines of operation, and it’s being fought kinetically, and probably more importantly, in terms of ideas and perceptions. Next.
I also would tell you that, blinding flash to the obvious, Afghanistan is not Iraq. While they are both counterinsurgency campaigns for a military leader, there are – having served in both theaters – there are huge differences that I find between Afghanistan and Iraq. The images here, each of them tell a little story. You can’t see it very well, but this is a group of young children in a cemetery where there are many Taliban buried, and they are flying kites. It’s really kind of an image of hope for that country. But this is a country that is marked by poverty. By any metric Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. It has very harsh geography. It has a lack of physical resources. It’s land-locked, it has a literacy rate that at best is estimated to be about 35 percent, and I question even that percentage because sometimes just the fact that somebody supposedly can write their name makes them literate. Not true. It is personified by this young girl here, whose father if he’s a farmer earns about $250 a year. She does have opportunities in the future, but very poor country.
What I have found in Afghanistan that is the resource that is most lacking is human capital. So when we try to assist the expansion of legitimate governance, or we try to assist and facilitate reconstruction or development projects, when you turn around and try to find the human capital in Afghanistan that is capable of being village mayors, or running a budget, or supervising a contract, or civil service, you do not find that in Afghanistan. Those that do have that education by and large left Afghanistan, and it’s going to be a generation or generations of education before that human capital is developed again.
It’s a very strict Islamic country in many areas, with traditions. It has an army, and I’ll talk more about the army in a few minutes but it has an army of soldiers that are very, very good soldiers. Whenever I go around Afghanistan, I always travel with the chief of the Afghan army, a guy by the name of Bismullah Khan, and we always stop and try to talk to soldiers in every location. I always ask them, no matter where they’re from, why did you join the Afghan army? Almost to a man, they joined the Afghan army to serve the idea of the country of Afghanistan. They didn’t join it for educational opportunities, they didn’t join for the pay. They joined to serve their country.
It’s also a country that has a deep tradition of fighting. I’ll talk just a minute about a culture of violence. But it is a country where men pick up Kalashnikovs at various times during the year for a variety of motivations and engage in violent activity. For a whole variety of reasons there are approaches that we should study and apply from one theater to the other, not only from Iraq to Afghanistan but Afghanistan to Iraq as well. But there are many complexities. I find Afghanistan a far more complex environment than Iraq, so there are differences. Next slide.
I spoke to this a minute ago. It is really a country that has seen a lifetime of violence. Seventy-five percent of the population of Afghanistan is under 30 years old. If you’re under 30 years old in Afghanistan, you have known nothing but constant war your entire life, from Soviet intervention to today. So the vast majority of people know nothing, but these images that you see here – you know the more well-known figures. Hekmatyar Gulbuddin, Mullah Omar, if still alive. This fellow here is Bakri Mohammad, who is part of an organization called TNSM, fighting on the Pakistani side of the border in the tribal area of Bajaur, as we speak, a fellow by the name of Commander Nazir, who operates also out of Waziristan, Pakistan, who facilitates fighters north into Afghanistan.
Part of this culture of violence is this image right here. That is a drug lab. It’s not a very sophisticated thing. It’s barrels that you can take poppy and water and a few chemicals, and over time, with very unskilled understanding, you can transform that poppy into opium and then into heroin, and with a little more technical expertise into crystal. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of those drug labs dotted around the countryside that are also part of this lifetime of violence. It funds the insurgency. It is the single largest financial contribution to the Taliban. So it is a country and a culture where men pick up weapons.
I like to refer to the Taliban as taliban with a small T. Those that pick up weapons and fight for the Taliban because they’re either unemployed, they’re fighting for intra-tribal reasons, they’re fighting because their family is intimidated, they’re fighting for reasons of power, a variety of localized reasons to the Taliban with a capital T, those that perhaps fight for ideological reasons, such as the fellow in the center here. Next slide.
Back to the idea of a complex environment. One of the ways that I find Afghanistan as a military commander the most complex is in terms of human terrain. And I’m convinced that I could spend the next 20 or 30 years in Afghanistan and I would not understand the tribal connections in that country beyond a very superficial level. Over 400 major tribal groupings in Afghanistan, each one with sub-tribes, family connections or kells (ph), often rivalries within villages or between valleys. A very complex environment. The traditional largest ethnic groups of Pashtun or Tajik or Uzbek or Hazara or Kuchi, very much different, and within each of those tribal groupings you have to be very careful about tribal approaches because for every tribe that you support, you are disadvantaging other families and other tribes and they know that, whereas you might not know that.
There are areas of this country that aren’t marked very well. This is one of the better-marked times in history of the border between what is today Pakistan and Afghanistan. That is a picture along the Duran line, taken in 1919. We don’t have that good markings on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan today for the most part.
Lastly, the complexity. This fellow in the middle is very interesting. He is the district governor in a place called Musa Qala in northern Helmand. His name is Mullah Salaam. He’s former Taliban. Now I say “former” in quotes. I’m not sure how much former he is, or how much today he is, but that is local leadership in Afghanistan, it’s the leadership we need to work with. When you go back and look at the human dimension of literacy rates, of tribal connections, of history, that is local leadership that we have to work with for a successful outcome in Afghanistan. Next.
I find Afghanistan to be very much a contrasting country between the urban part of the country, which is about 30 percent of the population. These are the large areas of Kabul or Kandahar city or Herat or Mazur-i-Sharif that you should not walk away from those cities thinking that’s all of Afghanistan because the other 70 percent, very harsh terrain, very poor, local suras are the way of communicating and socializing in that rural area. I always look at a picture like this – and this fellow is probably seeing a dentist for the first time in his life. I’m not sure that’s a dentist, but he’s somebody that is working in his mouth, probably for the first time in his life. And sometimes we’re not very good about telling that story.
For example, to date this year coalition medical caregivers have treated 140,000 Afghans, either as in-patients or on med-reps or as outpatients – 140,000 Afghans. Next slide.
Now into my kind of lane as a NATO and as a U.S. commander, I’m working the line of operation of security, and I’m there working in support of and with, partnering with Afghan national security forces. I will report to you that the army is on the right path. The Afghan army has good soldiers. We are developing that army from scratch. It is well trained, it is well led. We are developing systems in that army such as fire support, such as logistics, such as mobility. The Afghan army can pick up a battalion and move it from Kabul to somewhere else in the country largely with their own aircraft. They have the Afghan Army Air Corps, for those of you in the Air Force here. Army Air Corps, good idea to remember. (Laughter.) I said that for General Wald’s consumption there.
We have a longer way to go with the Afghan police. You know policing in that part of the world is not a respected profession. There is a large degree of corruption, of a lack of basic policing values. Police used historically as a means of local strongmen, local power brokers to gain additional income. So we have programs such as the Focus District Development program, where we take police out of the district. There are 390-plus districts in Afghanistan. We’ve only done this with 42 districts to date. But we take the local police out, we take them away for some period of time to intensively train them, to instill some values, to mentor them. We bring in national police to work in that area while they’re gone, then we re-insert them with police mentoring teams. We have found that that’s been largely successful. We’ve had lower numbers of security incidents. We’ve had lower casualties of all kinds, and so it’s a program that needs more resources, it needs more assistance from the international community, but it’s a proven program that will continue into the future.
This picture down here looks like a scene out of the movie the “I, Robot,” but that’s actually the entrance examination for the Afghan National Military Academy. That’s about 2,500 applicants that have shown up for an eight-hour test, and they sit outside in those chairs, take a written test, take a physical training test, take some other tests, and at the end of the day about 300 of them will be accepted. So about 2,500 show up, 300 accepted. There’s not a problem recruiting for the Afghan national security forces.
We work in an international coalition environment, so I have soldiers and marines on the ground, as well as airmen and sailors. And by the way, I would tell you when you look across Afghanistan we have a very joint effort from the United States military. The farthest out provincial reconstruction team is in a place called Farah. It’s in the extreme western part of Afghanistan, borders Iran. It’s commanded by a female Navy pilot, and I guess probably two or three years ago if somebody asked her, would you be leading a provincial reconstruction team at the end of the earth in Farah, Afghanistan, that probably wouldn’t have been something she looked at, but she does it extremely well, and in fact does it as well as anybody I’ve seen do it there.
We also have contributions from some other 39 nations in terms of military manpower, some as small as a handful and some several thousand. The helicopter is our truck, is our horse to get around Afghanistan. With the distances about the size of Texas and the geography of Afghanistan, the helicopter is absolutely essential for our enabling capabilities.
Then this image down here to the right is really meant to show partnering. This is in a place called Arghandab. If you remember back in June of this year the Taliban staged what turned out to be in propaganda terms a very successful event. In terms of actual operational impact it didn’t have much impact, but that was the Sarposa prison breakout in Kandahar. If you picked up the press the next day, the newspapers, you read about the Taliban massing outside of Kandahar city ready to move in and reassert Taliban control of Kandahar city. None of that true, by the way. But there were some couple of hundred Taliban in the vicinity of a place called Arghandab to the west of Kandahar city. The Afghan army flew a battalion from Kabul down in the net 24 to 48 hours, with ISAF help. This is a picture on a balcony. Bismullah and, the chief of the army, General Mangell, the chief of the police, and we’re discussing operations there at Arghandab conducted with Afghans leading. Killed 200 to 300 Taliban. No civilian casualties. Moved back in with the army. The army had to stay there for a while, eventually replaced by the police. But that was the only spike in Taliban activity following the Sarposa prison breakout. So Kandahar didn’t fall and is still a pretty thriving city today. Next slide.
I like to say that this is not about Afghanistan. This is a regional problem with insurgency and it’s a global problem with certain terrorist organizations, but it will also require a regional approach to get to regional answers, and specifically I look at Afghanistan and Pakistan as a regional problem set. This is a picture of a recent tripartite we did between the leadership of the Afghan army. This is General Kiyani and, at that time, his operations officer General Pasha, who today is their director of ISI in Baghram, Afghanistan, with Afghan army leadership and myself.
When I got to Afghanistan this time, full time in June, we had not done a tripartite commission meeting for seven months. We’ve now done three of them, and Kiani will come to Kabul next months for the fourth one. We’ve started from talking to each other to today we coordinate tactical level operations along the border by Bajaur, where the Pak frontier corps military are conducting operations, and the 101st in the province of Konar. We exchange frequencies, we exchange intelligence. We have a Predator feed going down to the one border coordination center at Torkham Gate, that’s looked at by the Pak military, Afghan military, and ISAF. So we are coordinating on various levels. I’m not saying that there’s perfect symmetry and synchronization on both sides of the border, but there is – I am cautiously optimistic. And we are doing things today on the ground that we weren’t even talking about five or six months ago. I think that’s a good news story.
The Frontier Corps needs a lot of help in training and equipping to conduct security operations in the tribal areas, as well as the Pak military, which has largely historically been a very conventional army. It is now readjusting, like other armies have done, to be able to conduct counter-insurgency operations. So it is a regional approach. Next slide.
I thought this would be of interest to you. As I go around to different provinces and different localities in Afghanistan, I always try to gauge if I were an Afghan, what would I say winning means in Afghanistan? I mean, I could say it is COM ISAF is the future of NATO, or regional stability, or affects homeland defense. None of those would mean much to an Afghan. But when I ask Afghans, what does winning mean to you? What’s success in the future, it generally runs along those three lines there. A sense of security, where they can move about their own country, whether it’s their own valley, or drive from Kandahar to Kabul, or see family across the border or across the Duran line, whichever you’d like to refer it to, in the tribal areas. They want a government that they can trust that will meet their expectations, and they are willing to defend and die for it. And they want some progress and some hope for their families. Not a lot, not as much as we would want, but they want to sense some progress for the future.
Democracy is not about voting just because they want to elect their own government. It’s about voting because there’s something in it for their future. Next slide.
So I always like to say that this campaign is not going to be decided militarily, and that’s difficult sometimes for a guy in uniform to say. It’s not going to be decided militarily. We’re not going to run out of bad people in Afghanistan that have bad intentions, and we’re not going to kill and capture so many of these bad people that it’s going to break the will of all the insurgent groups that operate in Afghanistan. Ultimately it’s going to be people that decide that they wanted a different outcome in Afghanistan. It’s going to be a political outcome. Whether that forms like a super Jirga here on the top, whether it’s in our own nations, whether it’s a local sura or meeting – and this is a very oral society, by the way. This is a society that if I showed them images like this, well, they’d be interested in the pictures. But if I showed them PowerPoint slides, I wouldn’t last 30 minutes, 30 seconds, 30 nanoseconds with an Afghan audience. It’s a very oral society. You have to tell stories. You have to communicate your ideas orally to have any credibility at any level, from President Karzai down to this local sura.
This is an interesting picture here. You can’t see it too well but that’s a voter registration center in one of the provinces. I think that’s Badakhshan up in the northeast. But we have started voter registration in Afghanistan, four phases, started in October. It will last past the first of the year. It’s meant to take the zero-four voter database, and if you don’t have your card, or if you reach the age of 18 or you move back to Afghanistan, you can come into a voter registration center, have somebody vouch for your existence, your name and what you think your age might be, and what village you’re from, and you can have your picture taken, have a thumbprint, and you can register to vote in national elections next year to re-elect, for the first time in the history of Afghanistan, a president. And to elect provincial councils.
I would report to you that voter registration has started. Phase one is complete. Fourteen provinces, 261 voter registration centers, all of them opened except two. Only one was attacked, and the estimates are over 1 million voters registered. We’re into phase two, which is 10 more provinces, so that’s 24 out of 34 provinces. The major cities of Herat and Mazur-i-Sharif and Kabul. It’s been going on now for a little over a week. Already about a quarter of a million voters are registered.
I’m not saying this is the prime example of democracy in the world, but this is a successful voter registration so far. There are people that are going to vote, and we’re going to have an election. I’m not sure exactly what day it will be next year, but it will happen and it will be a sign of progress in the future of Afghanistan. Next.
Those few in here that know me from before know that I’m kind of – Michael, how are you doing – a glass is half-full guy, and I am a glass is half-full commander in Afghanistan. I don’t say that everything is moving at the tempo that we want it to, and that we’re achieving all of our objectives, because we’re not. The people in Afghanistan do not feel secure in many areas in the south and the east. They don’t feel like they have freedom of movement. They are dissatisfied with their government. But on the other hand, the vast majority of the people in Afghanistan do not support the Taliban, they do not wish the Taliban to re-emerge in power in Afghanistan. And they accept the presence of foreign forces on their soil to help fight for their security. Now that’s not just me saying that. That’s polling data that’s been taken from across Afghanistan. So the glass is half-full.
This is a picture of a police supervisor paying his policemen. You say, what’s so special about that? Well, that’s new in the history of Afghanistan. Before, the payment would come through different levels of corruption, and by the time the money actually got down to a policeman, there was very little of it.
This is international forces training police, training army. This is a place called Kajaki dam, which we hope some time in the next few years will quadruple at least the hydroelectric power that’s provided to the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Nimruz, and provide electricity and power that will assist in the development of agricultural products and irrigation systems, et cetera. It’s still going to be a fight to do that. We still have to secure the areas to distribute that power from Kajaki dam, but we’re committed to doing that.
Education. I don’t have to tell you that the estimates are over 6 million Afghans go to school today. That number was in the couple hundred thousand back in 2001. It is still, and will remain, a largely agricultural society, but the glass is half-full. There is progress in many areas of Afghanistan. There are places where security allows freedom of movement, where there is some governance at the local and district and provincial level that is in the right direction and it’s positive for the future.
There are areas where socio-economic programs are taking place, where reconstruction and development are occurring. Now there are a few places where all three of those come together, and there are still many areas of Afghanistan, as I said before, where people do not feel like they have freedom of movement and they don’t see a better future for their children, and they don’t get to go to school because the schools are intimidated, burned, teachers are not allowed to teach, or curriculum is changed to be what the Taliban would like it to be. So this is a very uneven campaign, but at the end of the day the glass is half-full. The reason first and foremost I say it’s half-full is the people of Afghanistan are absolutely worth fighting for, and they want a better future. They want basic security and a better life for their children. They do not want any of these syndicated insurgent groups in power in Afghanistan. Next.
I’m on the last couple of slides here. I do think we are constantly assessing what works, what doesn’t work, what needs to change, not just with military operations but with all the lines of operation, whether it’s governance, whether it’s socio-economic, whether it’s regional to local. And it’s about employment, it’s about being able to communicate. This is a place called Balam al Gab (ph) up in the province Badghis, where we just delivered a bridge. In fact, we didn’t deliver it. We had the local sura decide that they would provide security to bring this bridge to Balam al Gab. Now we’re not sure if that local security is all for the right motivations, but it was local security that did it.
So my message here to the elders was, this bridge is literally a means to have a better future for your families. This can bring back certain agricultural products. This can bring schools, this can bring better governance to your area, but you are responsible to protect this bridge. You’re the first line of defense. And if ISAF puts it in, this kind of military bridge, ISAF can remove the bridge too. That got their attention. That’s the kind of bottom-up, community-based approaches that need to occur. This is not all about – in fact, very little about the future of Afghanistan starts in Kabul. Much more so it starts locally and works up.
I like this picture. This is a picture of the Afghan army and the Afghan police talking to a group of local influencers, and that’s exactly what you want – Afghans in the lead talking to Afghans for their own security. Next.
So the last slide here, the so-what of all this. I would advocate to this audience that there has got to be – we have to stay committed to the region and to the people of Afghanistan. In some cases I think it requires a greater commitment on the part of the international community. And I don’t mean just sending people in uniform to provide better security. Whether it’s donor contributions, working with the police, whether it’s working counter-narcotics, we have to get to a tipping point where there’s enough capacity and capability inside Afghanistan where the international community is in the background. We’re not there yet, and it will be some years before we get there, I believe.
Better governance is a big part of this. It starts with the president, it goes down to the local level, and it’s government that must be accountable to the people. It is a regional context. I’ve mentioned Pakistan, but the region, the Afghan neighborhood is certainly larger than that. It includes India, it includes, China, Russia, Iran, and it’s I think very important to remember that it’s a bottom-up approach. This is a country that historically has had very little central government, but it’s a government with a history of local autonomy and local tribal authority systems, value systems, that I think will be part of the future of this country as well.
So I look at pictures here, and I always like to finish with this little picture here. This is a young, good-looking American general here. That’s me. This is Bismulla Khan, the Afghan army chief. And in the middle is a district governor in the province of Ghazni. Now I’m down in Ghazni a couple of months ago and I’m visiting the U.S. battalion and they’re about ready to exchange with a Polish battle group for the security lead in the province of Ghazni, and on the way back to Kabul I stop by another location because we want to visit a U.S. company, infantry company, a Polish infantry company, and a platoon of Afghan soldiers. So we’re landing in this little place called Four Corners and they get the word that the district governor would like to come talk to me, meet me. I said, great.
So he wasn’t there, we started our meeting, and about 30 minutes later this fellow comes rushing in with a lot of dust on him and he said, general, I’m sorry, I’d have been here sooner but I had to get out of a firefight. So this governor was in the middle of a firefight. I thought, well, maybe his security team had a little trouble. But I found out how well resourced this district governor is. He’s been the district governor here in Ghazni for two years. He’s not originally from that area or that tribe. He’s from Kandahar. He has a huge annual budget, $400. He gets a car provided by Kabul but no gas money, so he pays for gas out of pocket. He has that many people working for him – zero – and he’s been doing this for two years.
So I say, governor, are things better than they were two years ago? And he said, absolutely. Two years ago transiting across my district was about 1,000 Taliban. Today there’s still Taliban but it’s about 200, and people are taking their produce to the market. Children are going to school. I thought, if you have that kind of leader – and maybe there’s only one of them in that district of Ghazni, but I find pockets of this all over Afghanistan – that if you have that kind of human capital to potentially work with, the glass is half-full, that Afghanistan will turn out much better than we found it if the will of the international community remains strong.
So that’s my story. I’m sticking to it. That’s my last slide, and let me stop there. I think I’ll entertain questions here, unless they’re hard ones.
MR. KEMPE: Thank you, General McKiernan. That is the reason that we started this series, to get someone from the field to give us a feeling in rich detail of what it’s like on the ground, and then to put it in a larger perspective for us at the same time. So thank you very much for that.
Before we get into questions, and we have a tight half-hour where we can take questions from audience – I’m going to ask the first – but I want to tip my hat first of all before we get started. First of all, Sahb (ph) has been supporting this series. I want to thank Ambassador Henry Liligram (ph), who’s here, and Sahb, without which we couldn’t do this series. And he’s brought a guest tonight too, who is one of the great men of Europe, Peter Wallenberg. It’s an honor to have you with us, sir, and it’s an honor to have Jacob Wallenberg on our advisory board as well. It’s terrific to have you here.
I also want to tip the hat to Jim Townsend, who runs the international security program here at the Atlantic Council as vice president, and his action officer, Magnus Nordenman. And Jim really leads our work on Afghanistan here and they have stood up this program. So that’s enough for the shout-outs.
Let me just go to one of the things you said regarding Pakistan. We’re doing things today on the ground that we weren’t even talking about four or five months ago. You outlined a little bit what you were doing. Can you talk a little bit about whether you can measure that success in fewer cross-border attacks?
And Michael Hayden was here last week, head of the CIA, and he was saying that the bulk of the threats that he’s feeling here – actually he said all of them – the threat was stretching back to FATA. How big of a deal is it for you? A, are you actually able to measure a reduced threat through what you said has been happening with Pakistan? And, B, how much of your problem is there?
GEN. MCKIERNAN: I think first of all the increased level of violence that exists in Afghanistan, one of the reasons, one of the primary reasons for that is the fact that these militant sanctuary areas in the tribal areas, whether it’s FATA, Northwest Frontier Province, or Baluchistan, have deteriorated over the last several years and have allowed insurgent groups almost freedom to maneuver back and forth across a very porous boundary to Afghanistan and Pakistan. So they are directly related to increased violence levels in Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan.
I think that in my short six months there I have seen a shift in thinking at the senior levels in Pakistan that this insurgency is a problem that threatens the very existence of Pakistan, and that they have to deal with it perhaps in ways that they didn’t contemplate a few years ago on their side of the border. So I see a willingness and a capacity, although they have a long way to go to conduct counterinsurgency operations on the Pak side of the border.
I cannot tell you yet that there is a cause and effect. In other words, their operations in Swat or Bajaur or Dir or Mohmand have had an effect on the Afghan side of the border with less materiel or less fighters or less command and control, but we’re starting to see some early indications that as long a we continue the collaboration and the coordination of operations on both sides of the border, we will see a cause and effect, both ways.
The other thing, if I could, I would tell you, I had a very good key leader engagement about three nights ago in Islamabad, and I had the opportunity, at the invitation of Ambassador Patterson to sit around her residence and talk to a group of about 70 parliamentarians from Pakistan, and we have a lot of work to do on the non-kinetic information perception side to work with leaders in Pakistan.
A couple of the questions I got were, why did you Americans come to Afghanistan when it was so peaceful before you got there? So I had a long – tried to answer that in a long way. And then another one was, we understand that you’ve invited a thousand Indian soldiers to serve in Afghanistan by Christmas. Now, some of you are looking at me like you believe that but, no, that’s not true. But we have a lot of work to do in a regional approach, working with Pakistan – not just military-to-military, but civilian to civilian and military to civilian as well.
MR. KEMPE: Thank you, General. Let me go first to General Wald, and if you could – even though I did identify you, if you could identify yourself.
Q: Chuck Wald, a former colleague of Dave’s. Very complex, excellent description. I think it’s the best I’ve heard. And to me you’ve described somewhat of a strategy already, but my question is I think the command relationship is potentially almost as complex as the problem you have. And as usually works, when personalities work together, it works. So I’m sure it’s working. But I would like to hear your ideas, your thoughts on the complexity of the command relationship you live under and how the NATO part of that is working.
MR. KEMPE: And I would say you and General Petraeus, how does that work? And then also how does that work together with NATO, as General Wald –
GEN. MCKIERNAN: Okay. Well, first, Chuck, you’re still my colleague. Up to about a month and a half ago, I didn’t exist as a U.S. commander. I was COMISAF NATO and I did not have command of U.S. forces – all U.S. forces in Afghanistan. I had those U.S. forces that had been chopped to a NATO command, and that was probably about 60 percent of U.S. forces.
It worked because of – as what Chuck said – of human interaction and relationships and teamwork, but it wasn’t a command and control arrangement that lent itself to unity of effort. And so the thinking which I endorsed was to really combine two roles: COMISAF under a NATO ISAF mandate where I work back through SACEUR, and then commander U.S. Forces Afghanistan were, in essence, all the conventional forces in Afghanistan have an operational relationship to me and I can apply those assets across Afghanistan so I have an OEF – Operation Enduring Freedom – U.S. mandate and line of command as well.
Now, that means I have to figure out where I have to adjudicate between those two mandates, but I would rather do that at my level than at a lower level than me. So there is a greater unity of effort in Afghanistan between NATO ISAF and U.S. or OEF mandates. There’s still two mandates in operation in Afghanistan but greater unity of effort.
MR. KEMPE: Thank you. I see a question here.
Q: General, Thank you. Jeff Steinberg with EIR. I understand that recently there has been a change in the NATO rules of engagement which puts more focus on the opium aspect of the war in the country, and I wonder if you could elaborate a bit on your earlier comments about the role of the opium trade, and also how do you deal with the fact that there is a certain element of the opium business that’s part of the historical culture of Afghanistan?
GEN. MCKIERNAN: Let me start off by saying that I look at the insurgency in Afghanistan as a nexus of insurgency. And so I look at a syndication of a large number of insurgent groups. The Taliban is the principal group, but there are certainly several other that operate regionally and are facilitated by a global organization, al Qaeda. But mixed into that nexus of insurgency is a culture of corruption, of criminality, of traditional smuggling operations and narco-trafficking.
And so, by anybody’s estimate, the heroin trade out of Afghanistan last year was the number-one financial input to the Taliban. So when I look at the narco system, not only do I see something that keeps Afghanistan from developing its government and its socioeconomic progress, but I also see – just like my predecessor did, I see Kalashnikovs, IED materiel, facilitation of fighters, buying influence, et cetera. So it’s part of the insurgency. And there hasn’t been a change to ROE, but what the NATO ministers talked recently about was the need to more aggressively deal with, as a military objective, in an interdiction basis, the narcotics trade.
So quite candidly, where I can make the connection between narcotics, personalities or facilities and the insurgency, then I can treat that as a military objective and always try to operate in support of the Afghan government, but where necessary treat those personalities as kill-or-capture targets or interdict those facilities so that they don’t provide support to the insurgency. And so we are opening up the aperture, if you will, and trying to send the message that we won’t tolerate the narcotics system and it’s connection with the insurgency.
Q: How new is that approach, brand new?
GEN. MCKIERNAN: It’s not brand new because under our existing NATO mandate and operations plan we can support the government of Afghanistan to a certain degree in counter-narcotics activities, and wherever it’s a question of force protection we can deal with it, but this perhaps opens up the aperture a little bit to make a more broader interpretation of the connection between counter-narcotics facilities and personalities and the insurgency.
Q: Thank you. General, I’m Pam Hess with the Associated Press. A couple of weeks ago or a couple of months ago we got word out of the latest National Intelligence Estimate that Afghanistan was considered to be in a downward spiral. At CENTCOM they were a little bit more optimistic and called the situation stagnant, but that’s not good because that ends of favoring the adversary. You seem to be on a different page from that. Can you explain that daylight?
And you also mentioned the reelection of the Karzai government, but at the same time a lot of Afghans are dissatisfied with that. Are there any options for them or is he the only game in town?
GEN. MCKIERNAN: Well, I’ll take the second question first. There is an option that will happen in 2009, the national election. I’m not sure who the other candidates will be, but there will certainly be a national election held next year.
I have found over time that it’s dangerous to get wedded to a particular phrase about a campaign – downward spiral or stalemate or stagnant or whatever. I see lots of spirals in Afghanistan. Some of them are spiraling upwards, some of them are spiraling downwards, and some of them are just kind of staying in the valley.
So it is a very uneven campaign and there are areas especially in the North and out in Herat, and some areas in Regional Command East where I see the spiral upwards, where there is a better set of conditions today than there were a year ago or two years ago. But I see other areas such as Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgon, Nimruz where conditions either aren’t improving or they’re certainly not improving fast enough for anybody’s liking.
So I don’t particularly – I haven’t seen the final NIE, but I’m not sure I would agree with the term “downward spiral” to categorize Afghanistan as a whole.
MR. KEMPE: Right here.
Q: Thank you. General, I’m Nick Spicer with Al Jazeera English. Could you give me your point of view on what President Karzai has said recently about talking with the Taliban Mullah Omar? Is that a good idea? And if so, going back to your “small t, capital T” idea, which Taliban?
GEN. MCKIERNAN: First of all, I think that – as one of the images I used and the theme with it is that ultimately this will be a political solution; ultimately people will decide to stop fighting and come together for a better future. So I think the idea of reconciliation, or whatever term we want to use – and that’s a very Western term, not an Afghan term – but the idea of reconciliation, the idea of fighters putting down their weapons and agreeing to support a legitimate constitution of Afghanistan I think is a very powerful incentive. It’s something that ought to be pursued.
What I tell my military chain of command, however, is that the military doesn’t engage in reconciliation talks or discussions. That’s an Afghan lead; it must be an Afghan lead. I think in the “small t, capital T” analogy that the idea of reconciliation at the local level of local fighters, or local influencers potentially is a very, very powerful metric in Afghanistan. The more prominent names such as some of the figures I showed on that one image of Hekmatyar Gulbiddin or Mullah Omar or others, I’ll leave that to the political leaders of how important that is to try to reconcile those who, on record, seem to be fairly irreconcilable.
Q: Michael Gordon, New York Times. General, one of the reasons the surge had such success in Iraq was the outreach to the Sunni tribes, which was reinforced by the infusion of U.S. forces. And of course there has been a lot of talk here about taking that lesson and trying to apply it in some way in Afghanistan. You mentioned the complexity of the tribal system in Afghanistan, the risks of empowering one group at the expense of the other. Do you think any sort of tribal initiative in Afghanistan has the potential to be the kind of game changer there that it was in Iraq? And how would you go about it specifically? How would you try to operationalize this in an Afghan context?
GEN. MCKIERNAN: I think what does have great merit, great potential is similarly a bottom-up, community-based approach to security. I don’t like to call it tribal engagement because of the complexities that I talked about, that as soon as you engage one tribe and incentivize it for security or representation or whatever reason, in the environment that I’ve seen in Afghanistan, you tend to disadvantage other tribes, and it’s not a good chemistry.
What I do think has great merit, great potential is a community outreach program that takes an area – say a district – in Afghanistan and brings together the leaders of that district, whether they are tribal elders, whether they are mullahs, whether they’re religious scholars, mullahs, whatever, in a shura, allows them to select a committee to represent that community and then have the government of Afghanistan, with support from the international community, provide that committee the wherewithal, the authority and some resources to help not only provide security but represent that community from a bottom-up approach and incentivize it.
So, for instance, if it provides better security, better single voice of grievance to the government, better freedom of movement for the population, then perhaps that’s an incentive for projects or other opportunities for that community. So it’s a bottom-up-based approach that not only affects the security line of operation but perhaps connects local autonomy with government and provides socioeconomic conditions for a better future for the people in that country.
So that’s a little bit different approach than the Sunni awakening or tribal engagement in Iraq, but the common part of it is it’s a bottom-up approach at the community basis.
MR. KEMPE: And do you take the lead in that? Let’s do another comparison to Iraq. There it’s pretty clear. You have the U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the commander at that time, General Petraeus. What’s the analogue in Afghanistan for NATO where there is not a real Ryan Crocker type with whom one would do so-called local or otherwise –
GEN. MCKIERNAN: Well, Ambassador Bill Wood and I, we try to be the best team we are, but there is a far larger span of international presence in Afghanistan, and there are certainly Afghan ministries and an elected president. So the short answer to the question is, no, I don’t take the lead in that. I try to support that, and there are several ministers that I’m in discussions with now specifically about a program like this, a community-based program where we can agree on the approach to this and then take it to President Karzai for his approval and then start it somewhere and let it be successful and let other districts see this program and see its success and say, we want part of that; we want the same thing. But it’s not an ISAF or U.S. lead; it’s an Afghan lead resourced with resource help from the United States and the international community.
Q: General, Jochi Dreazen from the Wall Street Journal. If I could ask you two questions, please, about the Taliban. First, when you have attacks take place in multiple parts of the country, are those disparate Taliban cells operating independently or is there some type of unitary command system capable of directing attacks throughout the country?
Secondly, you talked about the importance of building from the bottom up. Do you see any evidence of the Taliban trying to do roughly the same approach by putting in place local courts, other institutions of local governance?
GEN. MCKIERNAN: I do see the attempts in many areas by the Taliban to exert intimidation and exert control, and part of that in some cases they do try to have shadow governors or court systems, but they certainly do not bring with them any incentives to a community, any socioeconomic programs, any perks, if you will, for that community. What they do bring is fear and intimidation.
Your first question – there is, I think, a common misperception that a group like the Quetta shura will get together and have a meeting in the tribal area in Pakistan, finish it with strategic guidance that will somehow filter down to all the different Taliban organizations in Afghanistan and be executed by local commander. That gives the Taliban far too much credit for coherency at the operational and strategic level. They don’t have that.
What if find is the Taliban are very much localized, regionalized, syndicated. They have fault lines between different groupings inside the Taliban. They have difficulties getting resources from the tribal areas in Pakistan distributed to different areas in Afghanistan. Most of the senior leadership of the Taliban operates from safe havens in Pakistan. They don’t come across the border in Afghanistan because they don’t feel too secure, which is a good thing. That’s a good feeling of insecurity.
But I don’t see a coherency among these insurgent groups at the operational and strategic level. I see an insurgency that is largely localized, regionalized, cooperates sometimes, fights among themselves other times, and it not supported, as I said earlier, by the people of Afghanistan.
MR. KEMPE: So we actually have to be careful grouping them all under the title of Taliban because it makes us feel as though we’re dealing with something much more centrally controlled.
GEN. MCKIERNAN: Absolutely true. There are areas, for instance in the eastern part of Afghanistan, in the Nangarhar, Konar, Nuristan area where there are multiple insurgent groupings – the Taliban not even being the primary one in that area. So it’s a syndication.
Q: Andrew Pierre, Georgetown University. General, could you talk a bit about the allied contribution to ISAF? Secretary Gates has called for a greater European contribution, but with, let’s say, mixed results. You talk with your counterparts in the military in Europe. It’s a political decision in part, of course, in the European countries. We have a new administration which is going to have a new sort of approach to Europe, perhaps. And could you also say a bit about caveats and the extent to which caveats has remained a serious problem for you as commander?
GEN. MCKIERNAN: The short answer to both questions is they’re both challenges. We need greater military and civilian contributions – military and civilian contributions from the coalition. And I always like to engage in discussions with visiting representatives, political and military, from all those countries and say, if you don’t want to send an infantry company, then could you send somebody to work to develop civil administration in Afghanistan, or work with the police, or work with the counter-narcotics task force, or work with one of the various ministries? So there are a variety of ways that the international community can contribute to the effort in Afghanistan, but in military terms there certainly needs to be greater contributions across the coalition to assist the Afghan security forces to improve security.
Now, on the business of national restrictions or national caveats, what I quite candidly have said publicly – and I’ve said it privately to leaders – is when nations come with national caveats, there are two effects, neither one of which are positive. One is it limits the natural advantage that our coalition forces have over the insurgency. We have advantages in firepower, in speed, in command and control, in intelligence gathering, in mobility, but when we place restrictions on our forces, we reduce those natural, inherent advantages.
The second thing we do is countries that place restrictions on their militaries place their men and women at greater risk. It goes back to the very first slide – war in Afghanistan. If you put a young man or woman out from any one of those 40 countries with a loaded weapon in the middle of the night at a checkpoint, and they’re not sure whether the figures that are approaching them are local villagers, Taliban, foreign fighters that have been facilitated into the country by al Qaeda, and they have to apply their best judgment with a loaded weapon and you’ve placed national caveats on those soldiers, I would say, quite honestly, that you’ve placed those soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines at greater risk to operate in that environment. So that’s what I would say about national caveats.
MR. KEMPE: Two years ago about this time General Jones was sitting in that chair as he was about to leave as Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and he complained that he didn’t feel the mission was well enough integrated with the government of Afghanistan, with the international community, that there wasn’t enough of a comprehensive strategy among the main stakeholders. Is it better now? Has it changed a lot? Do you feel you have that now? And if not, what does it take to get it developed?
GEN. MCKIERNAN: I’m going to answer it from a military commander’s point of view. I think that the cooperation and coordination among the military contributions in Afghanistan, even given national caveats, has probably improved. Coalitions improve over time.
On the other hand – and I will leave this to political leaders, but I will simply say that I find many times when I engage leaders at all levels from different nations is they express to me a belief that their public opinion at home does not understand what their national interests are in that region, and I find that very unfortunate.
Q: Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News. What is your latest thinking on the need for a fourth brigade to be added? With the Obama administration coming in, what’s your expectation of how soon he as president will follow through on his campaign pledges to increase troop levels in Afghanistan?
GEN. MCKIERNAN: I have asked – we have an additional infantry brigade that’s been committed to Afghanistan and will be there in January. In addition to that I’ve asked for, over time, three additional ground brigades and other enables, to include aviation and ISR and logistics and so forth. And I think there is generally a feeling of support up through the chain of command and with political leadership.
The answer to your second question is I don’t know. Hopefully quickly, but I don’t know.
Q: Hi, General. Courtney Kube from NBC News. Colonel Spicer briefed us earlier this morning and he mentioned that with the additional pressure from the Pak military and the Frontier Corps and the Bajaur Agency, some of the Taliban leaders who may go into Pakistan this winter for safe haven will likely stay in Afghanistan. That could then lead to an increase, in RC East, in violence this winter. Do you agree with the assessment that there could be an increase in violence? And then can you talk a little bit about the assessment for RC South this winter, operationally?
GEN. MCKIERNAN: I think it’s hard to predict levels of violence. If operations that the Pak military and Frontier Corps conduct in the tribal areas mean that fighters remain on the Afghan side instead of returning to families or winter camps or support for insurgent groups on the Pak side, for the region that’s probably okay. And we’re going to try to close with and destroy or eliminate those insurgent groups on the Afghan side of the border throughout the winter. We are not going into a winter lowering of our tempo of operations. We’re going to seek out any sanctuary areas or areas where those fighters are located on the Afghan side the border and deal with them either very kinetically or in non-kinetic ways.
So, Colonel Spicer, in his area – he’s over there in the eastern part of Afghanistan in some very – in the most rugged terrain that you can imagine. He’s got soldiers that operate above 8,000 feet above sea level with full combat loads. For those of you who are downhill skiers, that’s twice the altitude that you ski at. So he is in some rough area, but if fighters choose to stay on that side of the border, he’s going to try to find them this winter and deal with them.
In the southern Afghanistan area, Helmand and Kandahar, quite frankly we do not have enough military forces there – international, Afghan army, Afghan police, border police – to have sufficient presence in southern Afghanistan to provide for adequate security for the people. Those are the additional U.S. forces I’ve asked for that would go into the south, and the west eventually, to provide better security to reinforce our efforts in the south.
MR. KEMPE: Thank you, General. Let me close with a final question before we all thank you. We, in January, published a report that was released at a press conference on Capitol Hill – Senator Kerry, Senator Coleman, so both sides of the aisle helped us bring this out – and we said, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan. We revised that a little bit later too, the international community is not winning in Afghanistan, because that was really the point. But my question for you is – and I’ve heard you on this, that you’re more half full than half empty.
On the other hand, I think by sounding that in January we got some people to pay some attention and realized they had to do something more. You have an Obama administration coming in saying that Afghanistan has to be a greater priority. Would you say now – would you still say or should we still say the international community is not winning in Afghanistan? And I want to – it’s not really to lure you into saying it; it’s more to say if you get just the help that you’re getting now and the level of cooperation, which you said was not sufficient in terms of all the political actors and stakeholders acting together. Does the trend line end in a winning fashion? And the nice thing is you’ve defined it for us today – what a success, sense of security, trust the government and willing to defend it – and you also set a bit of a goal for yourself, which is a tipping point where Afghans can take that over themselves.
So this is all well-defined. If we stay on the current trajectory we are now, without a great deal more help, without a great deal better cooperation and coordination, do you get there?
GEN. MCKIERNAN: I think that – I mean, that’s a very difficult question to try to give a predictive answer. I think we do get there, but I think we get there and it takes much longer, it comes at a much greater price in human suffering and resource expenditure. The article was a good article and did have – it did create a lot of debate and a lot of, I think, positive response, but frankly Afghanistan has been an economy of force effort over the last few years. So it is perhaps – we have perhaps a window of opportunity to apply more resources as a United States and as international contributions. But the first sentence of any analysis I would rather say the people of Afghanistan are winning or losing, or whatever we want to say. It’s not – to me it’s not about NATO or the international community; it’s about the region and the people of Afghanistan and the government of Afghanistan, and we’re there to support that.
So I go back to a fundamental belief that the people of Afghanistan will win because they reject the Taliban and they reject the insurgent – radical insurgent groups that want to either replace the government in Afghanistan or make it so weak that it serves their own purposes. But the question is how long will this take for the people of Afghanistan to win? I have had historians tell me that the average time it takes for a successful insurgency or counterinsurgency operation post-World War II is 14 years – the average – successful. Now, I’m not saying we’re going to stay in Afghanistan for 14 years. I’m not saying anything about years, but counterinsurgencies historically take a while to sort out, and I think the application of greater resources, not just military but across the board, comprehensively, will help the Afghan people get to winning in Afghanistan quicker.
MR. KEMPE: Thank you, General McKiernan. On behalf of the audience, let me thank you for doing a couple of things. First of all, let me thank you for your service and also for the people who serve you and serve the forces in ISAF. Second of all, thank you for – I think everyone will walk away from this evening feeling that they learned a lot, even some in the room who have been following this for a long time. And I think we only get that kind of knowledge when someone comes from the field here, and so this is absolutely critical, it’s absolutely necessary, and we thank you for taking this time, and we invite you back whenever you’re in town.
GEN. MCKIERNAN: Okay, thank you very much.