McKiernan, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan and nominee to be commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, said the people do not want the Taliban ruling.
“They don’t want a radical form of government in power, but it’s still going to take a while to defeat this insurgency,” he said during an interview with reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Gates arrived this evening for meetings with Afghan, American and NATO leaders.
McKiernan said the effort in Afghanistan will require much more than just more troops.
“It’s going to require governance, it’s going to require security for the people, and it’s going to require the continued support from the international community on reconstruction and development,” he said.
But he does need more troops. He will receive a Marine air/ground task force in November and the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team beginning in January.
“I’ve asked for more than that, but this is a good start,” McKiernan said. The Marine battalion will work to train Afghan police, a mission the general called critical to progress in the country. The 10th Mountain unit will deploy to Regional Command East, where the nature of the enemy and mission has changed in recent months.
The general said a valid requirement exists for another three brigade combat teams, and that he believes he will receive them if there is a political decision in the United States to divert units from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Though the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is valid, “the problem is we don’t have enough resources to do it with,” McKiernan said. He repeated that while some of those resources are military, governance and economic aid also are needed.
“We need more and better governance in this country, and we need it at multiple levels, starting at village and working up to the national level,” he said. “We need more economic infusion by the economic community for a country that by any set of metrics is one of the poorest in the world.”
It is also complicated by regional tensions. Pakistan’s tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan are turning into safe havens for Taliban and al-Qaida operatives.
Afghanistan is a nexus of insurgency. A large part of the insurgent problem in the country is the Taliban, but there are other militant groups, and they often are facilitated by al-Qaida. Mixed in with this is “the effects of a narco-system that’s been in this country for a long time,” he said. “It’s also mixed in with smuggling and criminality, and then there is a level of corruption that permeates this society. That’s a formula for insecurity across Afghanistan.”
Violence is up in the country 30 percent over last year. Part of this is because the insurgents do not challenge NATO, U.S. or Afghan forces directly. Car bombs, roadside bombs, indirect fire and small-scale ambushes are their tactics now, McKiernan said.
The insurgents also are being pushed more and in more places than last year. The Marines in Helmand killed between 300 and 400 Taliban in the province. There were no coalition forces in the province in the past.
Finally, the deteriorating conditions in the tribal areas of Pakistan also contribute to the rise in attacks, the general said.
“They have been able to develop freedom of maneuver across the border into Afghanistan,” McKiernan said. The enemy has been able to resupply, to send in more foreign fighters, more weapons, supply command and control and the drug trade complicates the situation.
The Afghan National Army is on exactly the right path for increasing its size and capability, McKiernan said. The Afghan government wants to grow the army to 134,000 men.
“I’m very optimistic,” the general said. “The Afghan National Army is a very capable army; the soldiers are motivated. They are tough and serve because they want to serve the idea of Afghanistan. Does it still have a way to go? Absolutely.”
For example, he said, the force needs U.S. and NATO help for close-air and logistics support.
The development of the police is going to be a slower process, he acknowledged, because of corruption and because policing is not held in high esteem in the country.
Overall, the general said, he is confident that the insurgency won’t win in Afghanistan.
“We are not losing, but we are winning slower in some places than others,” he said. “It’s going to be a question of building capacity in Afghanistan, and continuing foreign engagement in the country.”
The general said he wants NATO and allied countries to reduce national restrictions on their forces in Afghanistan.
“Caveats reduce the natural advantage we have over the adversary – command and control, firepower, maneuverability and all those things. When you put national restrictions on forces, you reduce those advantages,” he said. “It also puts their soldiers in danger.”
While there is a requirement for more U.S. forces in Afghanistan, that will require a drawdown in Iraq before they can move. If he doesn’t get the forces, McKiernan said, “we’ll be here longer, expend more resources and experience more human suffering than if we had more resources placed against this command sooner,” he said.