“It’s going to take security, it’s going to take governance, and it’s going to take socio-economic progress – all three of those in a comprehensive way,” he said.
As commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, McKiernan said, he’s not seeing a greater al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan. “But we do know that al-Qaida provides facilitators, provides trainers, provides resources that assist different insurgent groups inside of Afghanistan,” he said. “I don’t see any increase in it, but it is persistent.”
The insurgency is regional, straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, he said. “And I’ve always said that unless there is a resolution of the militant sanctuaries that exist across the border in the tribal areas of Pakistan, it’s hard for me to envision a degree of stability and security in this region,” the general said.
The 17,000 additional soldiers and Marines that President Barack Obama has authorized for the mission will be positioned in the southern and southwestern part of the country. The goal, McKiernan said, is to reinforce coalition efforts in the south and break a “stalemate” there. Security and freedom of movement is not improving in that area, McKiernan conceded.
“Yet the insurgency is not increasing their control either,” he said. “We need additional security presence in the south to break that stalemate and set a foundation where governance and reconstruction and development can improve.”
More forces won’t necessarily mean more casualties, McKiernan said. “I think in areas where we do have some security presence and we’re going to reinforce that presence, that’s not necessarily going to be the case,” he said. But in areas where the coalition hasn’t had a security presence, there might be an initial period of increased casualties, he acknowledged.
“There will be, initially, resistance on the part of those that don’t want us there — whether it’s Taliban, whether it’s narco-criminals, whether it’s other sorts of criminal activity,” he said. The casualty numbers should reduce and level out as these groups are rooted out, he added.
McKiernan emphasized that Afghan civilian casualties are taken very seriously, and every effort is made to minimize them. “We do everything we can to avoid that,” he said. Tactical units are trained to use an appropriate escalation of force and exercise good judgment in their operations, he said.
A little-known fact, he said, is that a full 80 percent of civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by insurgents. But in the unfortunate instances that ISAF or U.S. actions cause civilian losses, McKiernan said, action is taken to determine why and ensure a repeat doesn’t happen.
“We keep a very detailed accounting of every allegation of civilian casualties in this country,” he said. “No matter where it’s reported from, we go out and investigate it.”
The coalition strives to base all of its operations on good intelligence, and to work in tandem with Afghan security forces whenever possible, particularly during house entries and searches, he said.
Ultimately, the general said, getting it right in Afghanistan is critical to the region.
“If we don’t have a successful outcome in Pakistan and Afghanistan, that will allow a terrorist organization like al-Qaida to continue to have effects globally,” he said. “That’s why we’re still here – as part of that, we are committed to achieving a level of security and stability in the country of Afghanistan.”