Radio Interview with Lt. Gen. Eikenberry and Michele Norris of NPR Radio
NORRIS: Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry is the commander of the Combined Forces in Afghanistan. He joins us now from the Pentagon.
General, Tony Blair is putting pressure on the U.K.'s allies to send more troops to Afghanistan. Why has it been so hard to get other countries to commit to this?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Well, Michelle, I know that NATO last year had come to an agreement about what level of troops and various kinds of capabilities and equipment would be needed in Afghanistan this year. They're at the level of about 85 percent right now of fulfilling the requirements that they had committed to. And there's a major summit coming up here next week in Riga, in Lithuania, that will be attended by the NATO heads of state. And there's a hope that at that summit that there'll be additional commitments that are made.
But I would tell you, from serving as a commander on the ground in Afghanistan, that it's essential that NATO as an alliance does fulfill the requirements. They're needed militarily. The commander on the ground of the ISAF, the NATO International Security Assistance Force, NATO ISAF, General David Richards, United Kingdom, head of the NATO mission, he has been pressing very hard to have those commitments made and fulfilled. And I support all of his judgments.
NORRIS: General, David Richards says that NATO needs at least 2,500 more troops. Is -- even with that, is that enough?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: I think as I look at the threat that NATO is facing this year, Michelle, looking ahead to next year, I believe that those forces, as I see the campaign evolving over the coming year, would be adequate.
NORRIS: With -- in the campaign in the coming year, I assume you're talking about the resurgent Taliban. How does NATO deal with the resurgent Taliban, both in terms of the insurgents' military strength, but also the Taliban's ability to exploit a sense of frustration among the Afghan people about security and frustration over the slow pace of reconstruction?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Well, the Taliban extremists, it's fair to say that over the course of this past year during the spring and the summer and fall of 2006, that there are certain areas of southern Afghanistan, southeastern Afghanistan where they have stronger capabilities and they have more influence than they had, say, a year ago at this same time. At the same time, it's also critical to remember that, where we are in the campaign of Afghanistan right now, that it's not a question of in any area of southern Afghanistan or southeastern Afghanistan a stronger Taliban that's pushing out against a well-established government presence; that five years since the fall of Taliban the campaign has very much been one to strengthen the government of Afghanistan, build its security forces, to try to extend economic reconstruction and development and social services. And there's been extraordinary gains that have been made, but we have to remember against what? Against very low baselines.
Back in 2001, you have a 20 percent literacy rate in the country, you have the absence of an Afghan National Army and security forces. You simply have the presence of the brute, dark ideology of international terrorism and their Taliban allies. Against that baseline, the government of Afghanistan with considerable international assistance help, with considerable U.S. help, has extended its influence, but there's still remains parts of southern Afghanistan, southeastern Afghanistan, parts of central Afghanistan where the government is still trying to advance its presence. And so it's into areas where the government has not had a firm presence than in some places Taliban extremists, narcotraffickers have filled vacuums.
And so I remain confident that as I look at the NATO presence on the ground, as I look at the commitment of the international community with the 64 nations that most recently in London with the London Compact Agreement pledged over $10 billion of assistance for Afghanistan over the next five years, that there's momentum in Afghanistan, there's areas where there's continue to be intense fighting, there'll be conflict, but in the main over Afghanistan, I see continuing presence -- continuing progress.
NORRIS: You said Taliban extremists filled a vacuum. Is it possible that the allied forces took their eye off the ball, that by focusing on the physical and economic reconstruction in the country, that you didn't pay enough attention on dealing with the Taliban and the possibility that they might come back, that they may actually rebound stronger than ever.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: No, I think that if you look, Michelle, at the areas where Taliban has gained some strength over the last two years that there's a variety of factors at work there. We are against a enemy that operates on both sides of international borders, and they're very adept at finding seams and finding areas for where they can establish sanctuary and safe haven.
But at the same time, once again, if you look against the baseline of what we began with in 2001 in Afghanistan, that at that time there was absolutely no national army, there was no national police force, there was no government presence. So the challenge for the Afghans and the challenge for the international community has been one of not dealing with a strong enemy. It's that there's a weak state, and the campaign remains one of trying to strengthen the state.
But Michelle, to have tried to be strong throughout Afghanistan at one time, a country that is one-third larger than the size of Iraq, that has a larger population than Iraq, that has a very forbidding topography -- it has the Hindu Kush that runs through the center of the country, a mountain range that's about one and a half times the height of the Rocky Mountains -- to think that you could put forces everywhere around that country and then establish that kind of presence to be strong everywhere -- there's simply not enough troops in the world to accomplish that mission. So --
NORRIS: How do you win this conflict?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Well, you win it, I think, by continuing to work very hard along the lines that we're operating. You have to keep in mind that the campaign in Afghanistan is not the campaign that will be won by military terms alone, on military terms alone. The military can help create the conditions for success in Afghanistan, but the military cannot win the campaign.
And what's going to be essential is to go back to what took us into Afghanistan, to remember that Afghanistan in 2001 was a country of which 90 percent of the land was dominated by international terrorism and their extremist Taliban allies.
Our mission, when we went in, in late 2001 with Operation Enduring Freedom, about five years ago, was to defeat the international terrorist regime. And in the main we've been extraordinarily successful.
The second mission that we had was to throughout Afghanistan help change the conditions of that country so that it would not be a breeding ground and a safe haven for international terrorism. And that, as we found over time, is -- has a very important non-military dimension. In fact, it's mostly a non-military campaign. That is helping to establish better governance, extend the social services of education and health, to develop the economy of the country.
And that's a set of tasks that require an extraordinary amount of time, patience, presence and perseverance. If you look back to where we were five years ago today, to where we are today, there has been great progress. In the governance aspects we've gone from a country, as I said, that was dominated totally by a very brutal, dark, militant ideology, feudal in nature. Where are we today? The country of Afghanistan has a very progressive constitution, it has a democratically elected president, it has a democratically elected parliament for the first time in Afghanistan's history. It's gone from a country with very few children in school to 6 million children in school; 2 million of them are girls. It's gone from a country that has had no respected security forces, now to a growing Afghan National Army and an Afghan National Police.
So in the end, our efforts here in Afghanistan to try to build capable government and to build a civil society for the Afghan people is one that we can't measure in terms of months or perhaps even a year or two, it's going to be a very long-term effort.
NORRIS: Now, despite the gains that you've expressed here, and also the optimism that I hear, I also hear you saying that despite your presence in the country, that there are still large portions of the country that you don't control, that the Taliban now completely controls.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: No, that's -- that is not the case. If we're talking about where Taliban influence is strong, Michelle, there's four provinces of southern Afghanistan, of the 30 provinces of Afghanistan, in which there are certain districts in which there is Taliban strong influence and presence. In southeastern Afghanistan there are several provinces in which certain districts do have a strong Taliban presence and influence. But these are areas, Michelle, where we're not talking about large urban centers. The areas I'm talking about are areas that are extremely difficult to get to; they're areas that are mountainous; they're areas that have very forbidding valleys or difficult rivers to cross to get into them. I've used the expression before in Afghanistan that wherever we are not, the enemy is. And I've used another expression: Wherever the roads end, that's where the Taliban begins.
So we're not talking about a Taliban that's pushing back against a strong, robust government of Afghanistan presence, we're talking about areas of the country where for hundreds, thousands of years, the government of Afghanistan has had difficult -- difficulty in influencing. And as we continue to get more international commitment, reconstruction work, the development of Afghan national security forces, the improvements of governance -- if all of those things continue to move forward, there'll be a month, there'll be a year in the time ahead in which the government of Afghanistan will extend into those far reaches and the Taliban extremist influence will be rolled back.
NORRIS: Many wonder why NATO and the Combined Forces have not done more to curb the poppy production which accounts for about a third of the Afghan economy. The crop is actually expected to be even larger and even more profitable this year. Why hasn't more been done to keep heroin production under control, since that seems to be the lifeblood for the Taliban, at least financially?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Well, the problem of narcotrafficking, Michelle, is an extraordinarily serious problem for future success of this overall campaign, the international enterprise and the hopes of the Afghan people.
I would say that if you were to look at several of the problems that Afghanistan is facing, we're facing with them right now that could spell real trouble for long-term success, clearly, you're talking about one of them, narcotrafficking. And then a link to that is the problem of the corruption of the government and the loss of confidence of the people over time that would obtain should the government not be able to deliver reasonable services and maintain the respect of the people.
With regard to narcotrafficking, the problem is massive. The problem is one that cannot be solved in a year or two years. If you look around the world in different cases of different states that have suffered from narcotrafficking, experience would tell you that it's going to be a very long-term effort that's required and have to be sustained in order for us to defeat this.
A good example is Thailand. Thailand, which began, by the way, with a much higher social and economic baseline than we face in Afghanistan -- the fourth-poorest country in the world -- it took about 20, 25 years of sustained effort in the case of Thailand with a lot of international help to beat the problem back. So in Afghanistan, we're not going to beat this problem in the next year or two.
The second point I'd make with Afghanistan is that if you look at the problem of supply and demand in Afghanistan, the country of Afghanistan produces about 90 percent of the world's poppy. It consumes far less than 1 percent. So there is a supply and demand issue that the international community also has to look at.
But in terms of what is the military doing, the military -- and this includes both the coalition and NATO -- has done a considerable amount of work to help support what is at the end of the day not a military problem; it's a law enforcement problem and it's an economic problem. We've done that through the provision of intelligence support. We've done support for law enforcement operations in terms of providing helicopter support when law enforcement operations have been conducted and medical evacuation help is needed, we do that. And we've also provided a good amount of assistance in terms of using our own planning capabilities to help our civilian counterparts in work with providing alternative livelihoods to the people of Afghanistan and to the farmers and in helping with providing planning support for efforts at eradication.
NORRIS: This is all very interesting, and I have many more questions, but I'm told that our time together has come to an end.
General Eikenberry, thank you so much for talking with us.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Thank you, Michelle.
MS. NORRIS: Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry is the commander of the Combined Forces in Afghanistan.
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