The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff warned this week that an already troubling situation in Afghanistan is almost certain to worsen. Admiral Mike Mullen said that "the trends across the board are not going in the right direction" and the country is likely to continue what a new intelligence report calls "a downward spiral."
Against that backdrop, and just hours before the release of a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that casts grave doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stop the resurgence of the Taliban, RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher spoke with U.S. Assistant Deputy Secretary for Southeast Asian Affairs Pat Moon on October 9. She asked him about reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government has entered into peace negotiations with Taliban insurgents.
RFE/RL: The Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Sallam Zaif, told Radio Free Afghanistan on October 7 that President Hamid Karzai's government could solve the crisis in Afghanistan if it could convince its U.S. partners that military action is not the right solution. He said that only negotiation will end the war, and that the Americans need to support this. What is the U.S. position on negotiating with the Taliban?
Pat Moon: Well, this is a decision for the Afghan government. The Afghan government will speak for the people of Afghanistan, not the United States. We, of course, are supporting the Afghan government, and we are very interested in reaching a peaceful solution in Afghanistan. But we look to the Afghan government to make these decisions.
RFE/RL: Does that mean that if Karzai decides to enter into formal, or informal, talks with the Taliban, the United States will support that? If so, how?
Moon: Well, I think any decision by the Afghan government would be based upon whether the Taliban or the other insurgent groups are willing to support the constitution of Afghanistan, whether they are willing to lay down their arms and return to their homes, and peace, and to support an effort that will lead in the [direction of the] best interest of the people of Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently acknowledged that at least part of the solution to the Afghan conflict must include talks with members of the Taliban who are willing to work with the Afghan government. UN envoy Kai Eide said this week that "the war has to be won through political means." Do those statements reflect where the United States is now in its thinking about the war?
Moon: I don't think there's any change. This is a counterinsurgency operation, and everyone understands that you don't win militarily in a counterinsurgency operation. Indeed, you have to provide good security conditions, so there's obviously a role for military forces, but what we want to do is to build our linkages to the Afghan people and [to] ensure that the Afghan government is providing services to all Afghan people, and that we can provide development assistance to the Afghan people. So this is the role that we're seeking to play there. We're not there to reach a military victory.
Winning The War
RFE/RL: That leads into my next question, which is your reaction to a comment made this week by the head of the French military, General Jean-Louis Georgelin. He told French television on October 8 that "there is no military solution to the Afghan crisis." And just a few days ago, the outgoing commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, told the "Sunday Times" that "we're not going to win this war." Carleton-Smith said, "it's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat." Does the United States agree with that position, or take a different view?
Moon: Well, as I said, we're not there to win a military victory -- [we're there] to provide the appropriate security conditions so that we can provide the government services and the development assistance to the people of Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Do you see these comments, and the reported meeting between the Taliban and people close to Karzai, as reflective of some sort of shift in what's happening in Afghanistan, in terms of strategy? Or is the media shaping that perception?
Moon: Well there has been an Afghan government reconciliation program for at least the last three years, which encouraged members of the Taliban to lay down their arms and to support the government of Afghanistan. And when they did that, they were given assistance and ID cards to prove that they were no longer members of the Taliban. And they were able to rejoin their families and return to their homes, under the supervision of their village elders.
This program has been effective in providing for the return of many thousands of former Taliban back to their homes and families. So reconciliation is a program, in fact, which has been going on for some time.
The latest talks are -- it's not entirely clear to me what all this is about. There seem to be different interpretations from different sources in the press. So I think we still need to see some clarity of what's going on -- in fact, most of them seem to be saying that there's not anything really going on.
RFE/RL: So there's nothing you can point to that's happening right now, or that will be happening in the near future, in terms of the United States working with, or reacting to, new developments?
Moon: No, but we will continue to support the efforts of the government of Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: And you don't have any idea what their plans are, in terms of possible future negotiations with the Taliban?
Moon: They will continue the reconciliation program that's been going on for some time. And in terms of all these press reports we see on the latest possible development, it's not clear that they are supporting that.
Reducing Civilian Casualties
RFE/RL: Moving to the topic of civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan, an issue that has soured many Afghans on the presence of foreign troops in their country. The most recent incident, in August, caused the death of several dozen civilians in Herat Province, including many children. Why does the U.S. military continue to rely heavily upon air strikes in its fight against the Taliban? And what is the U.S. government doing about compensating or helping the victims of so-called collateral damage?
Moon: The military forces -- both the U.S. and other international forces, and the Afghan forces -- put a very, very high value on minimizing civilian casualties. We don’t want any civilian casualties, and we go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, through our planning and other efforts to...try to limit the numbers of civilian casualties. This will continue.
Air strikes are an important military tool, and the vast majority of cases do not cause civilian casualties -- they in fact are aimed at the insurgents, and they do strike the insurgent targets.
So what we face now is a situation where we've seen some incidents where there were civilian casualties, and that we need to address that and our military commanders have made changes and are looking at further changes that they might be able to make to further minimize the possibility of civilian casualties. So it is a high priority for us and we will continue to work on trying to limit those casualties.
RFE/RL: Can you give me any specifics about what changes have been made already?
Moon: Not too many. But I can say I think that the effort needs to focus on greater cooperation between the ISAF [NATO-led International Security Assistance Force] and Afghan forces -- from the earliest phases of planning for operations through the actual conduct of operations.
RFE/RL: What about compensation amounts? Do you have any details of how much money has been set aside or already disbursed to victims of air strikes?
Moon: No, I don't. It's handled by the U.S. military in Afghanistan.