General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, spoke with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan (Radio Azadi) and Radio Mashaal in Brussels. The interview was jointly conducted by Gul Ayaz of Radio Mashaal and Omid Marzban and Saliha Ishaqzai Khalliqie of Radio Free Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: My first question is about the ongoing military operation in the Pakistani tribal belt. After the operation in the Orakzai Agency region, the Pakistan military claimed that they had regained control and cleared the area of insurgents. What can you tell us about any progress on the Afghan side?
General Stanley McChrystal: On the Afghan side, what we try to do is coordinate our operations with our Pakistani partners. I do that through meetings with [Pakistan Army Chief of Staff] General [Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani...in fact, I think there's one today, another operational coordination meeting.
The progress on the Afghan side depends upon where you are. In the north, in Kunar and Nuristan, we've had some increased violence recently -- some fighters, some additional fighters there. Part of that is due to the success of the Pakistanis, which is good because we will only succeed when we succeed on both sides. That's the key thing for people to understand. But we have made progress in Kunar and Nuristan over the last year.
We've just recently had some challenges. In the Khost bowl, further across from northern Waziristan, we've made a lot of progress. We've gone after key leaders in the [Taliban commander Jalaluddin] Haqqani Network, and we've been able to capture or kill a significant number in just the last 90 days. So we think we'll be able to make real progress, and violence has dropped in the Khost bowl recently. We have to maintain that progress in partnership with our Pakistani brothers.
If you go further south, which is really further across from Chaman and Quetta, our operations in the Helmand River Valley, we both worry that it would produce a significant crossing of fighters. We haven't seen that in big numbers, but we do see individuals move and move materials and things.
RFE/RL: Let's start with Marjah, Afghanistan. How satisfied are you with the results of the operation in Marjah, and what lessons have been learned for the Kandahar operation, which is ahead?
McChrystal: I am pleased with the operation in Marjah, what has been done, but I am not satisfied that it's complete. It clearly is not. It is a little more than 120 days since we conducted [Operation] Moshtarak. We have improved security. We have brought in the initial parts of governance, begun some development. There are bazaars open, there are schools open, there's more freedom of movement and agricultural issues. But the security is not complete yet.
I am not satisfied that we are able to protect Afghans from [threats], from murder, and from intimidations. So to me, it is only a work in progress. I would also tell you that in Moshtarak -- Nad Ali and Marjah -- we learned lessons. We did some things very well. We engaged the population and conducted shuras before we went in. We were extraordinarily careful to prevent civilian casualties. And although there were some, we were very proud of the efforts we did and the success in doing that.
At the same time, we know that security is not yet complete. So we are pushing ourselves harder there. We also know that the governance is incomplete as well. We had hoped to come in and have governance more credible, more rapidly. And yet, getting that capacity in, getting civil servants in, getting places to work, getting vehicles, getting all those things, hasn't gone as fast as we would like it to. And we use those lessons to help inform us in preparation for Kandahar as we take a deliberate look so that as we go into a similar effort to secure an area and provide those kinds of services in Kandahar city and around it, that we're better.
RFE/RL: Media reports indicate that the focus of the Kandahar campaign will be on improving governance. Do you think that it will be enough to force the Taliban from this strategic region? And, what would be the role of President [Hamid] Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai? [Ahmed is chair of the Kandahar provincial council.] Has he done anything to help you with the operation in Kandahar?
McChrystal: I don't think that simply improving governance is enough to help the people in Kandahar and the areas around it. I think we are going to have to improve security in the city. That is largely going to be a police function, but we are increasing the police significantly and partnering our forces with them.
In the areas around Kandahar, some of the districts are almost controlled by the Taliban. Zhari and Panjwai have a heavy Taliban influence. As you know, in the last hours, the Taliban murdered 38 Afghans in Arghandab and injured many more. So clearly, we have not gotten complete control of Arghandab, as well. So we are going to have to do a combination of security force operations to take back control of those districts for the Afghan people.
But then, as we do that, that will free up the elders and other leaders to participate in governance, because when they are under coercion from the Taliban, they can't. So security is part of the job, but then as we do that, we've got to create a series of shura and mechanisms to allow more inclusiveness in the government process. As you know, in recent years, the rise of a certain number of power brokers has made governance in Kandahar represent not all the people, and we have got to give an opportunity for the 10 major tribes in Afghanistan or in Kandahar, and even smaller elements, to feel like they've got a seat at the political table.
And then finally, we've got to help improve...municipal operations; the bureaucracy, improving electricity, improving garbage, all of those things for people, and all of those things have to work together. But it's a huge effort. All of the personalities in the city are going to have to help. Everybody's brother is going to have to help to make this work. And everybody's brother is going to have to do it in a way that is fair to other Afghans and that is contributing to success.
We have a number of people who are participating right now that do a very good job, but we are going to continue to increase our pressure for better transparency in our contracting, better control of things like private security companies, better inclusion of people in shuras, and that'll be part of our effort to help governance improve.
RFE/RL: Everybody's brother definitely includes President Karzai's brother. How effective or helpful has he been so far for the preparation of the Kandahar operation?
McChrystal: He is the lead on the provincial council, the chairman of the provincial council, and that body has been helpful in helping to define the problem. It has been helpful in beginning to move resources in, to set up shuras, like we've conducted one, and we'll conduct one in just a few days. So he's been very helpful in shaping those mechanism and processes as we move forward.
RFE/RL: There is mounting pressure on Pakistan to launch a large-scale military operation in North Waziristan. So far the Pakistani military has resisted this pressure, saying they are many fronts. What is your position on the military operation in North Waziristan?
McChrystal: There is not a large pressure from me to kick off operations in northern Waziristan. I speak to General Kayani frequently and in depth and we talk about each other's campaigns and syncing them. I've been very pleased and impressed with the work that he has done. He has a complex effort going in multiple areas: southern Waziristan, Orakzai, Bajaur, Swat Valley. So I am confident that his timing and his focus is good and it works well with ours.
I know that he struggles, as we all do, with the complexities of counter-insurgency and needs more help on the civilian side. We can do the "clear," all of us in the military can clear. But we need real participation with the "hold" and the "build." Things like rule of law, things like development projects and whatnot, and so I know that those are things that he is working on with the government of Pakistan, but also we, the United States specifically, and the international community, are also trying to help with. And I think that is appropriate.
RFE/RL: Last week, Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Salih and Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar resigned. But reports have said that President Karzai fired them. People are concerned about the security situation in Afghanistan and worried that the situation will get worse. What do you think?
McChrystal: I think that the departure of any two ministers in any government is not decisive. I think [Interior] Minister Atmar had been a minister for eight years in three different ministries. [National Directorate of Security Chief Amrullah] Salih for six years, I think, or seven. So they were in their jobs a long time. So natural changes, I don't think we should assume, are necessarily a problem because ministers change all the time in all countries.
Now, I do think the importance of appointing qualified and effective replacements is a key measure of the Afghan government, and so President Karzai's ability to do that will be another demonstration of his government's maturation, and I expect that he will that. But again, it will be a demonstration of capacity.
RFE/RL: After the peace jirga, President Karzai ordered a full investigation into the issue of prisoners in Afghanistan, which includes Bagram Air Base. How important do you think that could be for the reconciliation process in Afghanistan, and how acceptable could it be for you to release those [for whom,] as President Karzai says, there isn't enough evidence to keep them in?
McChrystal: It is not only acceptable, I think it's very important that we do that. Some months ago, we organized a task force we called 435, and its mission is to run detainee operations for Americans at the detainee facility in Parwan but also to transition that to Afghan control, which we expect to do on the 1st of March, 2011.
Already, Afghan partners are helping run that. The deputy of that task force is an Afghan officer, and so this is an incredible good-news story in that process. They have been conducting a series of detainee releases for the last, probably five or six months, where they reviewed -- a detainee review board, which is an Afghan-U.S. review board, which includes Afghan civilians brought in, as well, from the individuals in this village. They go though why he was detained and all the background, and we've released a lot of detainees already back to their villages around the country.
I think that's very important because I think the Afghan people have a perception that innocent Afghans have been detained and are being unfairly held. I am sure that that occurs some, but I think more importantly, we found people who may have done something wrong, but they are also appropriate to be released back to their village because their future behavior, we think, will be better. But it is key that that's an Afghan process that we do in partnership with them. So I think President Karzai's focus on getting innocent people released is appropriate, I think it's timely, and we support it. If someone is not innocent, then I think a decision is made based on how much of a threat they are to the society.
RFE/RL: Attacks on the NATO supply tankers are occurring frequently and only yesterday [June 9] one happened in the tribal areas a few kilometers away from the capital of Pakistan. Are these attacks hampering the NATO activities in Afghanistan, and what measures have you taken with the Pakistan government in this regard?
McChrystal: They, operationally, are not hindering our operations because with the help of the government of Pakistan, the vast majority, almost all of our logistics, makes it through Pakistan with no problems. So, our partnership with the government of Pakistan and the Pakistani military, particularly, has been very good in this. I do think that the attacks on those convoys demonstrates the shared threat we face, because although they were attacking NATO supplies, they were conducting an attack and they killed Pakistani citizens. So I really think it shows that we have a common enemy here and one that we need to continue to work together on.
RFE/RL: You have developed close relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. How do you appraise his leadership and the decisions he makes as the Afghan commander-in-chief?
McChrystal: I do have a close relationship with President Karzai and I'm honored to have that. To me, he is commander-in-chief of Afghan forces and the government and therefore, to a degree, although not formally, I think I work for him in helping his forces secure Afghanistan.
I've been pleased with the focus that he has had. I'm very pleased with the focus he has on securing Kandahar, with the clear intent he has to bring the government of Afghanistan -- not just the military, but all the aspects of capacity -- together to Kandahar. And that's why, as I said, we have traveled around the country together many times now, but we are now going to go for our second trip to Kandahar in a fairly short time, and I think this demonstrates his focus. So I'm very pleased by that, and I look forward to that outcome.
RFE/RL: While leading the joint special forces command in Iraq, you oversaw the demise of the Al-Qaeda network in that country. Do you think you have been successful so far in Afghanistan doing the same mission?
McChrystal: I was a part of an effort in Iraq that did have a significant contribution to that, and it took us a number of years of focused effort and partnership with a number of elements to do that.
I think that inside Afghanistan we are having that effect. We have increased our precision targeting against enemy leaders by about threefold over the last year. We will continue all of those operations, our partner Afghan-coalition force operations, and they are increasingly effective every day.
So I think we're protecting more Afghans. Clearly it's not perfect yet, because the murderer that got the suicide bomb into Arghandab-- I wish we had gotten him before. But I think we have gotten a lot of those murderers before they've done those operations. So I think that we are using a very effective process. It's a coordinated process, and I think it's going to make a big contribution as we go forward.
RFE/RL: Last month in Nuristan Province, a Pakistani Taliban leader, Mullah Fazlullah, attacked the government installations and reports suggested that he was killed. What do you know about the fate of Fazlullah, who is one of the most-wanted Taliban leaders in Pakistan?
McChrystal: I have seen that report. I have not been able to confirm that report. I would be pleased if that report was confirmed, because I think Mullah Fazlullah was not a helpful leader for Pakistan or for inside Afghanistan as well. So I look forward to getting confirmation of that.
RFE/RL: Regarding the Taliban and other insurgent groups, do you see them being defeated by the ongoing U.S. troops mission in Afghanistan?
McChrystal: I think that the Taliban and the other insurgents are an effective force in putting in improvised explosive devices, in conducting murder operations like they did in Arghandab. But when they tried to attack things like Bagram Airfield, they lost 16 insurgents and didn't get through the wire. When they try to do other militarily significant things, they have a more difficult time.
Most importantly, they are not popular with the people -- we know by polling, we know by talking to people -- they don't have a political narrative that convinces the people, although in some cases, they are operating with the support of people either through coercion or for other [reasons].
I don't think that the U.S. troop surge will defeat the Taliban. I think the people of Afghanistan will defeat the Taliban. I think that what we will do, in concert with all of the coalition and with our Afghan partners, is we will provide enough security and support to increase their confidence to resist the kind of coercion that the Taliban provide and to convince people in their villages and tribes that participation in that is incorrect, it's bad for Afghan society. So I think we help provide an enabler, an environment -- we say time and space -- for Afghanistan to grow back to what it was.
RFE/RL: The June 10 discussion with NATO defense ministers is mostly focusing on military budget cuts of NATO members. How is this going to affect your operation in Afghanistan?
McChrystal: The short answer is, I don't know yet, but each coalition soldier and each euro or dollar or whatever they spend in support of Afghanistan is increasingly constrained because of cuts and other financial challenges. So I think it makes their commitment and contribution to Afghanistan that much more a demonstration of what they're willing to do because it takes that much more from them. So I'll be watching for challenges in the days ahead, but I don't know what they are yet.