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Afghanistan: Security Challenges

Patrick Moon, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs
By Rob Watson of BBC World Service
London, England
October 17, 2008

Question: It’s been widely reported that the assessment of America’s own intelligence agencies, though still in preparation, is that Afghanistan is in a downhill spiral. Why is it in a downhill spiral?

MR. MOON: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s in a downhill spiral. I would say that we have some very serious security challenges that we are attempting to address. What we’re trying to do is determine whether we have sufficient numbers of military forces there. President Bush has announced deployment of additional forces: a Marine battalion later this year, an Army combat brigade early next year.

We’ve also announced that we’re increasing in the size of the Afghan army -- up to 134,000 troops -- and intensifying training for the Afghan police. And these are the steps we’re taking to respond to those challenges, the security challenges that we’re seeing in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: So when the outgoing commander of British forces in southern Afghanistan and Helmand said NATO won’t win in Afghanistan, he was wrong, was he?

MR. MOON: I think he was talking about a military victory. And we are not seeking a military victory in the, sort of, absolute terms. What we’re seeking is that the military provides the security conditions so that we can conduct our counterinsurgency operations, so that we can provide government services to all the people of Afghanistan, and so that we can provide them with development assistance. And that’s the role we’re playing. That’s the way we will win, if you will, in Afghanistan, is through gaining the support of all Afghan people.

QUESTION: The United States Government and military are carrying out several reviews of the policy in Afghanistan. Why?

MR. MOON: I think it’s appropriate at this time. Number one, there would be a new administration coming into Washington early next year, and we want to ensure that we provide them the framework that they could pick up and that they understand what are the major issues and the options that they will have available to them. In that way the new administration can pick up very quickly and proceed with our policies on Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Do you think the reviews are going to come up with any startling departures or even any departures in the way policy has been working so far?

MR. MOON: Well, I would expect that we will look for ways that we can improve what we’re doing there and adapt to the new conditions that are evolving in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Now, the policy has been that you keep the Taliban on the back foot in the hope that the – more development in Afghanistan, better governance will make the Taliban insurgency irrelevant. Does that mean that the Taliban are not in any way part of what you see as the political solution in Afghanistan?

MR. MOON: Once we reach a point where there could be a negotiated settlement, we believe that it would involve the Taliban agreeing to support the Government of Afghanistan, the constitution of Afghanistan, and that they will lay down their arms and return to their villages.

QUESTION: But normally, in defeating an insurgency – we had it, for example, in dealing here in northern Ireland -- we had to deal with the people that were calling the shots in terms of the bombing.

MR. MOON: It’s hard to predict what will come in the future. This is a situation where I can’t read the future sufficiently to say what will happen in that regard.

QUESTION: But you wouldn’t rule out talks between senior members and the Taliban?

MR. MOON: I just have no idea how it might evolve.

QUESTION: The United States, with General McKiernan in charge of the operation in Afghanistan, has called for more troops. If the solution in Afghanistan is not a military solution, and I understand you’ve said that and the NATO commanders have always said that, why are more troops needed?

MR. MOON: Because we need to provide a secure space. With the increased challenge from the Taliban, we need not only to take our troops and to clear the Taliban from an area, which is relatively easy for our forces, but we have to hold the area. And that takes increased numbers of troops to increase the space that is under control of ISAF and the Afghan forces.

QUESTION: General Petraeus of Iraq favors taking overall command of Central Command, which includes Afghanistan, and he has said that there may be lessons to be learned from the experience in Iraq such as reaching out to tribal elders in southern Iraq to the Pashtuns – the Pashtun community. Do you see that happening? Are we going to see something like what we saw in Iraq with the deals with the awakening councils?

MR. MOON: I think that we need to look at Iraq and look for the good lessons to be learned there; but we also have to understand that there are real differences. And we are already working with tribal elders. We have been working through tribal elders almost since we started in Afghanistan. The question is, are we doing it the right way, are there better ways of doing it.

QUESTION: Are there?

MR. MOON: Probably so. We want to find those and follow those new solutions.

QUESTION: Some of the people close to General Petraeus – I’m thinking of General Keane, retired general -- have said, you know, that there should be talks with the Taliban.

MR. MOON: That’s up to the Afghan Government to decide when the time is appropriate so that they could reach a settlement.

QUESTION: Can I move on to the counternarcotics? Last week, the United States succeeded in persuading NATO to get more involved in this process. In practical terms, what will NATO be doing that it wasn’t doing before the agreement?

MR. MOON: I think the decision represents more a change in attitude. The decision itself suggests that there will be no changes to the NATO operation plans for Afghanistan, but there is now a greater realization among NATO allies that ISAF, the NATO forces, should be doing more than they have been doing in the past in the counternarcotics effort.

And this is largely because what we’ve seen in southern Afghanistan is this increasing cooperation, this nexus, if you will, between the Taliban and the traffickers, where the Taliban is supporting the traffickers and the traffickers are supporting the Taliban. The narcotics trafficking has now become a rather significant source of income for the Taliban.

QUESTION: But I mean, are we, for example, going to see either U.S. or British planes bombing drug factories in southern Afghanistan or seeing shoot-outs on the road when you find that those are the people actually trafficking very large amounts of poppy or opium?

MR. MOON: This is a question for the NATO military commanders, and their staffs, and they are studying that now. But I want to stress that this does not mean that NATO forces would be involved directly in eradication or arresting the Afghans. That’s a job for the Afghans officials.

QUESTION: NATO countries have always been somewhat fearful about getting too involved in counternarcotics, making this argument that you – you know, if you affect the livelihood of the people living in southern Afghanistan, it damages the battle for their hearts and minds. Has that sort of fear gone away?

MR. MOON: No. There are still many of our donor nations who have that view, continuing view. But we don’t believe that that is valid, because we do have programs which are called the alternative livelihood programs where we do provide for alternative crops, we do provide for alternative economic activity in areas where there’s poppy cultivation. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that farmers who may have been growing poppy are now destitute. Rather, there are alternatives for them.

QUESTION: You will no doubt be aware that the man inside your own Embassy in Kabul, Ambassador Schweich, was incredibly critical of how the counternarcotics operation had been going. He cited two things: the reluctance of the U.S. military and, indeed, other militaries to get involved in counternarcotics, and the fact that the Karzai government was riddled with corruption. Do you think any of that has changed?

MR. MOON: Well, first, Ambassador Schweich was in Washington. He was a Washington official. He was involved in our counternarcotics efforts, and I acknowledge the accusations that he made in a newspaper interview. But let me just say that, number one, I just pointed out that there is increasing realization among NATO allies that there is this nexus between the counter narcotics traffickers and the Taliban, and there is increased willingness by NATO allies to support ISAF operations and that support – that help with counternarcotics efforts.

In addition, the problems of corruption are ones which have been longstanding in Afghanistan. They, in some degree, certainly relate to the narcotics trafficking. Narcotics trafficking generates corruption and influence peddling, and therefore, it is a target for all of us in the international community in terms of trying to reduce corruption. And the Afghan Government has been increasingly aware of this and increasingly inclined to take effective, strong steps to counter corruption.

QUESTION: Final question: The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, has said that he thinks it’s going to be a pretty tough year next year in Afghanistan. Do you think that’s right?

MR. MOON: I think most predictions are that it will be a tough year in terms of security, it probably will not be much different from this year.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Much appreciated.

MR. MOON: Of course.

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