McKiernan is in Washington to meet with President Bush, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other senior civilian and military leaders. The White House is conducting a governmentwide review of Afghanistan operations and strategy, as insurgents there have ramped up operations against U.S., coalition and Afghan forces.
Bush has announced a withdrawal of about 8,000 U.S. troops from Iraq that’s to occur early next year. The success of the surge of forces campaign in Iraq has produced a decrease of violence there by 80 percent compared to last year.
McKiernan, meanwhile, has requested that additional troops be sent to Afghanistan to help quell rising violence in some eastern and southern provinces committed by Taliban, al-Qaida and other terrorists.
The Taliban, who routinely beheaded people who didn’t agree with their radical Islamic philosophy, ran Afghanistan for five years until they were kicked out of power by U.S. and coalition forces during Operation Enduring Freedom. The Taliban cooperated with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist group and allowed it to establish training camps in Afghanistan.
The four-star general told reporters he is optimistic about defeating the insurgents. Most Afghans, he said, “do not want a return of the Taliban; they don’t want a return of a radical form of government, such as the Taliban.”
However, Afghanistan’s size, geography, demographics and history present complex challenges, McKiernan said. Afghanistan is a large and mountainous country, with about 70 percent of its people living in rural, isolated regions. The Afghan tribal system, he said, has been traumatized and broken down by 30 consecutive years of warfare and civil strife.
“We are in a very tough fight — a tough counter-insurgency fight,” McKiernan said. “We’re at a higher level of violence this time this year than we were this time last year.”
McKiernan said U.S. military analysts see “greater insecurity” in some eastern and southern sections of Afghanistan.
“The idea that it might get worse before it gets better is certainly a possibility,” the general said.
McKiernan cited increased foreign fighter activity in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan as a key concern.
“So, the additional military capabilities that have been asked for are needed as quickly as possible,” McKiernan said.
McKiernan said he validated McNeill’s earlier recommendation that three more ground brigade combat teams, amounting to more than 10,000 troops, are needed in Afghanistan. Deployment of these additional troops, he said, would include helicopters, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, and logistics and transportation elements.
Upon McKiernan’s recommendation, another brigade-sized unit, the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, was just approved for deployment to Regional Command East in Afghanistan in January.
“So, if you wanted to total those up, you could say it’s four brigade combat teams, with enablers, that are pending deployment to Afghanistan, McKiernan said.
A request for added U.S. military trainers to instruct Afghan soldiers and police is being reviewed, McKiernan said, because it’s believed that such personnel should be trained to conduct counterinsurgency missions as well.
“What we need is additional military capabilities to provide security for the people in Afghanistan,” McKiernan said, “and until we get to what I call a ‘tipping point,’ where the lead for security can be in the hands of the Afghan army and the Afghan police, there’s going to be a need for the international community to provide military capability.”
However, defeating insurgents in Afghanistan “is not just a question of more soldiers,” McKiernan said. Achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan, he said, also will require more governance, increased economic aid, and more political assistance for the Afghan government, as well as military assistance. And any reconciliation effort targeting present-day insurgents needs to be an Afghan-government led endeavor, McKiernan said.
“As a military officer, I’ve said that, ultimately, the solution in Afghanistan is going to be a political solution, not a military solution,” McKiernan said.
But for now, McKiernan said, winning the campaign in Afghanistan requires the presence of U.S. and coalition troops, while the capacities of the Afghan military and constabulary are built up.
About 32,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan. Some 15,000 U.S. troops work with about 30,000 NATO ISAF troops, and another 19,000 or so U.S. troops are assigned to Combined Joint Task Force 101, which is part of Operation Enduring Freedom and is commanded by Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser. Regional Security Command East, which handles security and reconstruction duties in eastern Afghanistan, falls under Schloesser’s purview.
The mission of Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, commanded by Army Maj. Gen. Robert W. Cone, is to partner with the Afghan government and the international community to train Afghan security forces.
To promote increased unity and better command and control, the Pentagon recently proposed that McKiernan be named commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as well as serving as the NATO ISAF chief.