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Afghanistan: NATO's Top General Says Taliban Defeated

NATO's top military official, General James Jones, was in Afghanistan this week (11-12 August). After a series of meetings in Kabul with other NATO officials and representatives of the Afghan government, Jones paid a lightning visit to Camp Salerno -- a U.S. base in southeastern Khost Province. There, he spoke to a small group of reporters who accompanied him on the trip.

Camp Salerno, Afghanistan; 13 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In military language, General James Jones "wears two hats." He is simultaneously NATO's top military official and the top U.S. general in Europe.

Occupying both these offices, Jones is uniquely qualified to assess the international effort to stabilize Afghanistan. There are two military operations performing this task. One, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), is led by NATO. The other, Operation Enduring Freedom, is led by the United States.
"In terms of radical Islamic fundamentalism, Al-Qaeda and [the] Taliban reasserting themselves in this country -- it's over."

In an interview conducted yesterday at Camp Salerno, a small U.S. base close to Afghanistan's southeastern border with Pakistan in the troubled "Pashtun belt," Jones said both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have been decisively beaten.

Neither has been fully eradicated, but Jones said the size of the threat is now so small as not to present a real threat to Afghanistan's current government. "It is a fraction of what it used to be. And I will even go a step further, as I said [earlier during the visit] -- and I said that we should not ever even think that there is going to be an insurrection of the type that we see in Iraq here [in Afghanistan]," he said. "It's just not going to happen."

Jones said this does not necessarily rule out all possibility of civil war. But, he said, a return of Islamic fundamentalism is now impossible, although the risk of terror attacks remains high.

"In terms of radical Islamic fundamentalism, Al-Qaeda and [the] Taliban reasserting themselves in this country -- it's over. And we ought to understand that and not dwell on the fact that there's an explosion here or there, or an isolated attack -- we all know that in international communities when you have fragile governments that people are going to try to make their points in connection with a major event, like an election. But this is not going to topple the Karzai government, this is not going to prevent the election," Jones said.

Jones said he is "heartened" that nearly 9 million of Afghanistan's estimated 10.5 million voters have already registered to participate in the 9 October presidential elections.

Jones offered an analogy drawn from 1967, when he served as a platoon leader in the Vietnam War. He said the South Vietnamese appeared unwilling to make sacrifices for the freedom he said the United States tried to offer them. According to Jones, things are different in Afghanistan. "There is not enough money and there are not enough soldiers to mandate freedom," he said. "It has to come from within, and I'm optimistic by what I see in the eyes of the people in Afghanistan."

The 9 October elections are a key test. NATO decided at its Istanbul summit in June to temporarily raise troop levels in ISAF for the weeks immediately before and after the elections. The bulk of the increase will be made up by two new battalions. Jones said yesterday that the battalions will create a visible deterrent to possible attacks. But, he said, the main responsibility for securing the elections will rest with Afghanistan's own forces.

"My feeling is that the best way to use those battalions is to make them visible, to have them seen in and about the area, make sure that we do the smart thing in terms of presence, make sure that the Afghan people see that this is an Afghan election and not an American election or a coalition election -- in other words, the security of the polling stations or places where they're going to do this are in fact done as much as possible by Afghan forces with the help of the international coalition," Jones said.

Jones said ISAF is going to place the battalions in strategic places so that they can move quickly to counter threats across the country.

Responding to a question from RFE/RL, Jones said ISAF is alert to the possibility that the election may create rifts within the present administration which could lead to armed conflict. "Yes, I think that...all things are possible, the militaries' headquarters exist to plan for, to anticipate those things that could happen, worst-case scenarios, and be prepared to respond to those things," he said. "Obviously, we would prefer that it not happen, but you shouldn't be unprepared and you shouldn't ever have to say to yourself, 'Why didn't we think of what we could have done better?'"

Asked if ISAF would use force in such an eventuality, Jones said it would do so "if attacked." "One of the missions of ISAF is to support the process and help the integrity of the process, and if ISAF forces are attacked in that particular mission they'll respond with force -- we are we and that's part and parcel of what we do," he said.

Jones also took the opportunity to repeat his long-standing criticism of many of NATO's European allies for lacking the willingness to commit forces and money to jointly agreed objectives -- among them Afghanistan. He said specific restrictions put by some governments on their troops -- limiting their ability to move freely in a given theater of operations or to use force -- also undermine NATO's various missions.

Jones also revived the prospect of a merger of ISAF with Operation Enduring Freedom. He said this will depend on NATO's ability and willingness to extend its zone of security provision from Afghanistan's north to the west and eventually south and east. However, he said combat operations would in the foreseeable future remain the responsibility of the U.S.-led operation.