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U.S. Defense Official Outlines Lessons Learned In War On Terrorism

U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman says political and social development should dominate counterinsurgency efforts

PRAGUE -- U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman spoke with RFE/RL senior correspondent Ron Synovitz about the changing dynamics of the war on terrorism and the lessons the U.S. military has learned from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Although Pakistan is a key ally of the United States in the war on terrorism, U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan have told RFE/RL that they didn't trust Pakistani military or intelligence officials, and that they suspect some elements in Pakistan's security forces have been giving information about U.S. operations to Taliban fighters. But relations between Pakistani and American forces appear to have improved since the inauguration of President Asif Ali Zardari and the replacement of senior generals in Pakistan's army and I.S.I. intelligence services. What has the United States been doing recently to try to improve these relations?

Edelman: Pakistan remains an important partner for us in the global war on terror and they have been since 2001. We've put a great deal of effort and attention in the last year into developing a better partnership with Pakistan that helps address what has become a challenge not only for us in Afghanistan but [also] clearly for them in Pakistan. Because the elements of the insurgency that are coming across the border into Afghanistan clearly are also now looking the other way from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas into the North-West Frontier [Province]. So you'd have to have the Pakistani military fighting not only in Bajaur, for instance in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but also in Swat in the North-West Frontier Province.

And of course, we've seen the tragic assassination of [former Prime Minister] Benazir Bhutto. It's clear that the insurgency represents a threat to Pakistan itself. The government acknowledges that, as does [Pakistan's] military. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has met with General [Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani, the Pakistani [chief of army staff], six times this year -- five times in Pakistan. Our effort has been to help them to develop a capacity to deal with this problem by providing them with additional training and assistance in order to enable them to take on what is clearly a counterinsurgency fight.

We ourselves discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan that our own military was not necessarily prepared to take on that kind of a fight. It's taken a lot of adjustment. We've learned a lot of lessons -- sometimes very painful ones. We have been working with our Pakistani colleagues to help them adjust their orientation from one that has focused on their traditional plan for having to deal with a contingency with India to deal more with the threat they face now from an internal insurgency. I think we've made some strides. There is still a long way to go. There have been changes, as well, in the leadership of the I.S.I. And we're hoping that that will help us improve the level of our partnership as well, because this is ultimately an intelligence-driven war and an intelligence-driven struggle. We hope to be able to work more effectively with Pakistan toward a common end.

RFE/RL: Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher on October 20 praised the ongoing Pakistani military offensive launched recently against militants near the border with Afghanistan. To what do you attribute this emboldened effort by Pakistan to go after militants within Pakistani territory?

Edelman: Part of this has been a growing recognition on the part of the Pakistani leadership and military that this is a fight that they have to fight themselves -- that it is not just a fight for the United States. They are not just fighting an American war or fighting "for the West," as it is sometimes described. But it is their fight too. And you hear that increasingly articulated by President Zardari and Prime Minister [Yousaf Raza] Gilani. And that's very positive. And I think that is an important contributor to the fact that they have been operating now in parts of the area where the insurgency has been active. That is a very, very positive thing. We'll see them making this fight with some greater capability than they have in the past. But they've got a ways to go. And I think we can be of some assistance to them. That's what our intention is.

RFE/RL: Several U.S. and NATO military officials have spoken out publicly in recent weeks about the need for a counterinsurgency strategy that goes beyond military assaults and air strikes. What is the view of the Pentagon on this issue?

Edelman: Obviously, we have to be winning the fight on both sides of the border. And that's, I think, a given. This is a part of the world where the notion of "border" is really more of a cartographer's fiction for the people who live there. These are tribal Pashtuns who are related to each other who come across the border all the time. It is, for them, not really a border. So obviously, we have to be successful on both sides. And we have to have the combination of both civilian and military activity that you need in an insurgency that will deal with the issue on both sides.

When you are dealing with an insurgency, the rough rule of thumb is that 80 percent of your activity should be on the civilian side -- on the economic, social, and political development side, as opposed to the military kinetic side of dropping bombs. And I think that is probably a pretty good rule of thumb here. In that sense, we probably need to get the balance right as an international community a little bit better than we have up until now. You need to have the security established in order to be able to get those other activities to function.

We saw a tragic example yesterday of the Taliban's attempt to make the security situation worse for those who are providing international assistance. So we've got to get the security side right. But it's basically to enable the [civilian] side of the equation to make the changes in governance that are going to be required both in Afghanistan and Pakistan to get to the point where we can really resolve these problems.

RFE/RL: Pakistan is not just facing problems of a militant insurgency. The international financial crisis appears to be a serious enough threat to Islamabad that it has started talks with the International Monetary Fund about a program to shore up its budget. Do the economic weaknesses of Pakistan threaten its contributions to the war on terrorism?

Edelman: Pakistan's economy has been experiencing some difficulty for the past year. They've had a period of rather robust economic growth for the previous years until 2008. And then, I think, the combination of Mrs. Bhutto's assassination, the flight of foreign direct investment, the violence, and the political uncertainties all contributed to a rundown of growth and the beginning of consumption of their foreign currency reserves to finance imports. That's all now been exacerbated by the international financial crisis which has been developing over the last few months. So, in fact, it is a big challenge for Pakistan. It is crucial, of course, because without a functioning economy, they are not going to be able to do all of the other things that we think they need to do -- both on the civilian and the military side to deal with the challenges that they face. They face two gigantic challenges. One is the financial and economic crisis and the other is the insurgency. We are going to try to help them deal with both. We believe it is a very positive thing that they are involved in talks with the IMF. They probably need to be in an IMF program and we have counseled them to that effect.

RFE/RL: Military planners say there are lessons to be learned from the way surge operations have brought more security to Iraq. But a big part of the surge effort in Iraq was the willingness of the U.S. military to embrace Sunni tribal leaders in places like Anbar Province -- and to bring local leaders there into the fight against Al-Qaeda. Is this the real lesson of the surge in Iraq? Not just more troops, but also a willingness to work with local and tribal leaders in the insurgent strongholds of Afghanistan?

Edelman: It's a very good question and I think we need to be a little bit careful how we answer it. General [David] Petraeus, who is now about to assume command at [U.S.] Central Command of course, has got an ongoing strategic review for the entire theater -- which notably includes the situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I expect he'll be out there pretty shortly after he assumes command. I don't want to prejudge the outcome of his assessment. But he has certainly said several times -- and I think [U.S. Defense Secretary Robert] Gates and I agree -- that we can't kill our way out of this problem. It is a problem that does require not just a military side. It requires governance -- the extension of effective governance by the government in Kabul and by local authorities. That is why Provincial Reconstruction Teams are so important. So it's going to take a civilian side and it's going to take some political dimension.

I think General Petraeus is always careful to say, rightly, that based on his great work drafting up the counterinsurgency field manual -- the Army and Marines Corp field manual on counterinsurgency operations -- that each insurgency is different and has its own specific characteristics. And there are big differences between Iraq and Afghanistan that everybody needs to bear in mind. Iraq is a very urban society with a fundamentally urban insurgency -- even in a place like Anbar where it was centered in places like Fallujah and Ramadi....

In contrast, I think in Afghanistan it is largely a rural insurgency. And the level of economic and social development in the two countries is extremely different. Afghanistan is a country that is not as rich in natural resources or income as Iraq. Nor does it have as educated a population. In Afghanistan, you are dealing with the fifth poorest country in the world with a per capita income that is about half of the per capita income of Haiti -- which is, just for example, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. You've got a largely illiterate population [in Afghanistan] -- 80 percent illiterate. Female illiteracy is almost universal. So it is a much more challenging environment in many ways. Also, physically, the country is larger than Iraq and the population is larger -- about 31 million compared to about 27 million in Iraq. The governmental revenues are astonishingly different. The government of Iraq will have revenues this year of somewhere on the order of about $70 billion -- even with the decline in oil prices. Putting aside international assistance, which is the largest part of the government of Afghanistan's revenue, the revenue generated from its own internal sources will be between $670 million and $700 million. So the scale of the challenge is just enormous in Afghanistan. While some of the elements of tribal engagement that were used in Iraq -- like the Anbar Sheiks and the Sons of Iraq -- may be relevant to Afghanistan, it will have to be applied with some care. But clearly, engaging tribal leaders and making accommodations and bringing over those who can be reconciled from the other side is important.

This is a very complicated insurgency in Afghanistan. It comprises a lot of different elements. There is the big "T" Taliban -- Mullah Omar and the leaders represented in the Quetta Shura. There is what I would call "lower case" Taliban -- which is other associated groups of talibs who are discontented with the [President Hamid] Karzai government in Afghanistan. There are the remnants of the old anti-Soviet Jihad -- the Haqanni network and the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar group -- some of which frequently operate in conjunction with Al-Qaeda and the foreign fighter networks that are present in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [of Pakistan]. There are narco-traffickers and other criminal thugs who are sometimes fighting against the governing authorities. So it is a very complex environment. Tribal engagement and local accommodation certainly will be part of the solution. But we will have to figure out exactly how to apply it.

RFE/RL: You mention both the Haqanni network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group as elements in the Afghan insurgency. And in fact, there has been a marked increase of attacks in parts of eastern Afghanistan where the Haqanni network and the remnants of Hekmatyar's group reportedly remain active. Do you attribute this increase in the violence in the east to fighters that are loyal to Haqanni and to Hekmatyar?

Edelman: [It is caused by] many of the elements here. Haqanni is certainly a big part of it. But not the only part. But yes, you are quite right. We've seen a consistent increase month-to-month and year-on-year of cross-border attacks into Regional Command East -- which is now commanded by General Jeff Schlosser of the 101st Airborne Division. That is a problem. It worries General McKiernan, the commander of ISAF and also the commander of the U.S. Forces Afghanistan. It is an issue we have to deal with.

RFE/RL: U.S. forces have found weapons in western Afghanistan that they say were smuggled across the Iranian border for delivery to Taliban fighters. Is there any strong evidence at this time that these weapons are being smuggled by elements linked to the government in Tehran? Or is this strictly an activity of criminal groups tied to the Taliban through the illegal opium trade?

Edelman: We believe, based on some convoys we have intercepted, that there has been an increase in Iranian assistance to the Taliban. It is episodic. But it continues. And it is a matter of some concern, of course, because it can be a very destabilizing element. So we think it would be better for the government of Iran, and any elements in the government of Iran, not to engage in that kind of activity and assistance. We think it is in Iran's ultimate interest to have a stable Afghanistan and an Afghanistan that is able to tackle its narcotics problem because some of that flows into Iran. We think it in their interest, as well, not to be supporting these elements. It is troubling and worrisome that some of that activity continues.

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