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Interview: ISAF Spokesman Brigadier-General Eric Tremblay

U.S. soldiers receive an ammunition delivery in Khost. Some 30,000 additional U.S. troops are headed to Afghanistan.
U.S. soldiers receive an ammunition delivery in Khost. Some 30,000 additional U.S. troops are headed to Afghanistan.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan spoke to Brigadier-General Eric Tremblay, the spokesman for NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, about the new U.S. security strategy and Afghan concerns about the timeline for troops to withdraw.

RFE/RL: First of all, I would like to ask you about the United States’ sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan and other allies pledging more than 5,000 troops. We would like to know, first of all, how many of these troops are under the ISAF command and what impact these troops will make in the operations and the mission of ISAF in Afghanistan.

Brigadier-General Eric Tremblay: The bulk of those additional forces, both NATO-U.S. but also NATO and other partners, will be directly under the command of ISAF. These troops will ensure that we accelerate and grow the Afghan national security forces, which is key for the Afghans to take charge of the security of their country, but also the bulk of those troops will ensure that we move on with the clear...strategy that we can protect more Afghans and we can deliver through the international community and through the Afghan government, governance, and development at the local level.

RFE/RL: You and General Stanley McChrystal have spoken about deploying these troops in populated areas, including cities and villages. That means that the troops will be more in touch with the people than before. Do you have any guidelines for these troops who are going to Afghanistan for the first time?

Tremblay: I think all these troops, either from NATO, NATO partners, or the United States, are trained respectively in their countries, but they also understand what are the practices on the ground, and we link them up with lessons learned on the ground so that when they arrive, they already understand what General McChrystal is trying to achieve, which is to protect the population and to separate the insurgents from the population.

Brigadier-General Eric Tremblay
In order to do that, you really need to listen. You really need to understand what the population wants. And at the local level, to understand...what is a tribal elder, what is the role of the mullah, what are the roles of the different elders and how to build relationships in order to understand what is going on. So all these troops and their commanders have been trained in conducting key leader engagements in order to get the essence and communicate with the Afghans in order to enable security, but also to deliver with them, with the international community, proper governance and development.

RFE/RL: Could this new strategy lead to a rise in civilian casualties, which is the biggest concern of the Afghan government and the Afghan people?

Tremblay: I think it’s a legitimate concern you bring forward, but on the other hand, we understand that we need to limit civilian casualties, because at the center of what we do everyday is to protect the Afghans, not only by words, but with actions.

So clearly, what we’ll do on the ground is reinforce some of the key cities, reinforce some of the key approaches, bring security with the Afghan national security forces in those villages and those communities, securing more of the roads in between those key cities, so we can further build up the economy of Afghanistan and generate more opportunities for the Afghans at the local level.

RFE/RL: The new war strategy involves training more Afghan troops to transfer more responsibility to them. But the thousands of troops being sent are almost entirely combat troops. What about the trainers who are going to teach Afghan troops? Isn’t there a shortfall there?

Tremblay: As part of the 30,000 there is a brigade [that will] act as trainers for the 5,000 pledged troops that are being discussed nowadays by the troop-contributing nations of NATO. Some of them...could also be observers, mentors, liaison team or police observers, so at the end, it’s about building the Afghan national security forces in terms of numbers, but also in terms of effectiveness. True better partnership, straight from the minister level down to the local level, at the squad platoon level. Where you live, you train, you build trust, confidence, and you deliver by protecting the Afghans.

RFE/RL: So you are saying that the number of trainers is adequate.

Tremblay: What I am saying is that there are different pledges that are yet to be confirmed by the NATO contributing nations, but there are certainly trainers that are part of the 30,000 American forces who have been directed to come to Afghanistan and to fight alongside the Afghan national security forces.

RFE/RL: According to the numbers ISAF has given, there has been a huge rise in insurgent attacks between 2006 and 2009, and the number rose by some 300 percent in 2009. Can you tell us the main reason behind this rise in attacks?

Tremblay: I think what we’ve seen is an insurgency that has gained momentum, where some of the resources involved to conduct the insurgency -- the funding, the equipment of all sorts, including ammunition, but also improvised explosive devices -- have been used as the weapon of choice to neutralize the efforts of the Afghan national security forces and the community.

What we’ve seen also, particularly in the south and the east, is an increase in the number of acts of violence, both what we can observe either through a surge of roadside bombs but also what is more difficult to observe and what General McChrystal calls “the silent war” at the local level, where there’s not a lot of Afghan national security forces, or the ISAF, yet, where the Afghans are either being intimidated or harassed by the insurgents in order to convince them to not support the government. As pointed out by General McChrystal, it’s a tough fight, the situation is serious. It’s going to be difficult, but we’re also very serious when it comes to achieving success.

RFE/RL: You’ve said there are between 20,000-30,000 armed Taliban insurgents who participate in attacks. Where do these insurgents get their resources?

Tremblay: It’s not like they can necessarily master and align 25,000 soldiers and hold ground and dig some trenches, so they’re using those forces asymmetrically, by conducting roadside bombings, night letters, intimidation, harassment at the local level. Some of those forces are Taliban... [and] some of them are just fighters who want the money. They need money and they’re not necessarily driven by Taliban theology but they’re more driven by surviving another day and having a source of income for the family.

I think it is key for us and for the government of Afghanistan to realize that, because as part of the reintegration, the government of Afghanistan but also the international community certainly welcome and will find the programs, the right programs to offer them alternatives, to go back to their tribes, to go back to their families and reintegrate into society.

So you have those Taliban who are fighters at the local level and then you have some of the commanders who have a bit more influence and power either at the district level or at the provincial level or at the area level. Some of them could have been...key commanders of some of the Taliban forces prior to 2001 who do not want to lose the influence that they have, either through the Taliban shura or some of the key influence they have at the local level because of the nexus between narcotraffickers and terrorism.

Some are really striving to exploit the seams and gaps at the local level of the Afghan society for their own good. Not for a cause, but for their own good.

So we’re also going to try with the Afghan government to reintegrate these individuals, because they have a role to play as part of the society if they decide to conduct their daily activities legitimately and go back to their tribes and perhaps join some programs where they feel they are adding to the community and they are supporting what most Afghans want at the end of the day, which is peace and a future for their children.

RFE/RL: Where do these militants get their financial resources and their arms and ammunition?

Tremblay: I think I’ll go back to the weapon of choice, and it’s the roadside bombs, and most of those roadside bombs are made with homemade explosives and...ammonium nitrate, which is quite available in Afghanistan and the region, because it is used as a fertilizer. So all the sub-products to make homemade explosives are almost readily available.

If you go from a historical perspective, Afghanistan is well known for the Silk Road, so it’s not surprising that there are lots of smugglers who know their way around in the area and who are going to bring some of those key [ingredients.]

RFE/RL: But who actually pays for this?

Tremblay: Well, I think that there’s the nexus of the drug [trade] -- the narcotraffickers -- with the protection at the local level that can be offered by the Taliban and sub-Taliban commanders, so I think probably, to some extent, that’s the source of cash for the insurgency. But I think we also need to [state] from a broader context, from a regional perspective, that there are also donors, international donors, who are also providing funding to the insurgency, either directly or indirectly.

RFE/RL: You’ve spoken about different groups of insurgents that cooperate with the Taliban. How are these groups coordinated in their attacks?

Tremblay: They’re not closely knitted as an organization. They certainly have an intent to conduct operations in order to attack the legitimacy of the government of Afghanistan, to attack the fact that there’s an international force in Afghanistan and to attack the fact that the international community is there and trying to help.

But in the end, it’s not like the insurgents have really good as [what] the international community and the government of Afghanistan is trying to do here. It’s not like they have a vision for Afghanistan which provides a future where education, the economy, the linkages with the international community are there. Their plan for the society, frankly, takes it backward. It doesn’t envision Afghanistan as a country taking its place regionally as a key player.

RFE/RL: The new troops will be deployed in the south and the east of Afghanistan, in the border areas with Pakistan. And there were concerns from [the] Pakistani side that these troops might force the Taliban to flee to the other side of the border, and attacks may rise inside Pakistan. What would you like to say to these Pakistani concerns? And will the troops be deployed on the border to prevent cross-border attacks?

Tremblay: Afghanistan is a beautiful but also a large country, and it has borders with many countries. And the geography doesn’t necessarily lead to an easy way to close those borders. I think there’s a reality here in terms of the difficulty to secure completely those borders.

But on the other hand, we can certainly recount that ISAF, NATO, with the Afghan military and the Pakistan military, are increasing coordination, understanding, sharing of intelligence, increasing border security coordination and also exchanging lessons learned when it comes to how to counter improvised explosive devices in order to improve coordination between Afghanistan and Pakistan, to increase security along the border, either through better intelligence, better surveillance, or just exchange of information between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So what we’re trying to do with the bulk of the forces is exactly what General McChrystal has said, which is to protect the Afghans where they are. And...there are obviously some key villages and communities along the borders, but most of the Afghans are in some of the key cities, approaches to those key cities, along the main roads and the highways leading into those keys cities. And this where 60 [or] 70 percent of Afghans are living.

Now, we realize that we need to reach not only the bulk of the Afghans living close to, as I have just described, key cities, approaches, villages, but some are living in remote areas, so there’s also an understanding on our part and the Afghan government that we need to link with those communities. And this is where the community defense initiative is trying to fill the gap by enabling at the local level neighborhood watches working under a shura of local elders and within their community [who] link up with the Afghan national security forces and coordinate them in order to improve security for those communities who are living in remote areas.

RFE/RL: President Obama said that in 18 months the withdrawal of U.S. forces will begin. This has raised fears that the Taliban may wait out those 18 months in remote areas, and once the exit strategy begins, return to more populated areas.

Tremblay: I think it is a concern, but again, the way we see it is we monitor and gather information on the flow. We’re connected with the remote communities through the Afghan national security forces, we are building up the Afghan national security forces in numbers, both the ANA but also the ANP, so they can also make a difference at the local level by increasing security, and we’re...increasingly security, governance and development at the local level.

So even if the insurgents are deciding to go and park themselves in the remote areas and wait for conditions to change, the reality is the situation is improving, because there’s more Afghan national security forces, there’s better governance, there’s better development, there’s a better network of Afghans ready to make a difference for the country -- for their country. So, if this is what the insurgents want to do, it would make our job easier.

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