Interview with Top ISAF Commander McNeill 'More than Promises' Needed in Afghanistan

US President George W. Bush may have taken the pressure off of Germany in Afghanistan, but NATO's top soldier there, General Dan McNeill, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that he needs all the help he can get. He also said it is too early to speak of an exit strategy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: General McNeill, you will be leaving your post as head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in June. What will your successor find upon arrival in Afghanistan?

It's time for fewer promises and more action in Afghanistan, says General Dan McNeill.

It's time for fewer promises and more action in Afghanistan, says General Dan McNeill.

General Dan McNeill: My successor will find an insurgency here in Afghanistan, but it is not spreading, contrary to what some people say. Our enemies are not as strong as the NATO alliance in combination with its Afghan brothers. He will find some progress in security, some good work in the army, but unfortunately not so much progress in the police force. Governance remains a big problem in Afghanistan. Here we have to see more work by the Afghans.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the insurgency remains NATO's biggest problem in 2008?

McNeill: The insurgency is a part of the challenge, but is not necessarily the main part. We face a combination of problems: A lack of governance, which is not reaching out into the country; corruption, which is making governance very difficult; and the pervasive cultivation of poppy and drug money, which feeds all three problems.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Taliban has often referred to 2008 as the bloodiest spring since the insurgency began.

McNeill: Do you recall the end of 2006 or beginning of 2007? They made the same prediction. But the real offensive was the offensive by the alliance and our Afghan brothers. The offensive this year will be ours again. The insurgency will continue to use their means of fighting war: They will target civilians using roadside bombs, they will use suicide bombers, and they will spread fear. They don’t care if they kill a lot of their brothers while trying to kill us.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, the beginning of this year seemed to bear out the threats they made. Not only has the Taliban gone on the attack, but in the south, cell phone companies have shut down service at night in response to their threats ...

McNeill: … the Afghans I talk to say that this has little to do with the insurgency; rather it is a fight between business competitors. The Minister of Communication tells me that, even though some companies have shut down their services, it has not eliminated the ability of Afghans to talk on a cell phone at night.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nevertheless, it was a symbolic acquiescence to demands made by the Taliban.

McNeill: The way I see it, the insurgents made a big mistake. With the shutdown, they interfered in a part of life in Afghanistan which Afghans now see as a daily necessity. It doesn’t square with the claim that the Taliban are there to help the people.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Back to military strategy. Using targeted strikes, NATO seems to kill leading Taliban figures almost every week. Still, they are able to fill gaps in their leadership very quickly.

McNeill: We run operations to disrupt and destroy the insurgents' command level and we made good progress last year. Some of these leaders will be hard to replace. There will be new ones, young guys with less experience. What we need is help from Afghanistan's neighbors to stop the recruitment industry for the insurgency -- to stop the foot soldiers that flood this country.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Afghan government, most of all US-backed President Hamid Karzai, often talks about negotiating with the Taliban. How does an aggressive NATO-led war fit with the political will for a power sharing deal with the radicals?

McNeill: What amazes me is that the West is surprised that there are talks. There were negotiations as far back as 2002 when I was here for the first time. President Karzai has always said that there are elements of the insurgency which will never fit into any government. These are the extreme radicals with al-Qaida connections. But some of those in the resistance today might fit into the future. I told the President quite clearly that he has to make sure he knows who he is talking to.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: One of the biggest issues within NATO at the moment is troop levels in Afghanistan. What do you hope for from this week's summit in Bucharest?

McNeill: Bucharest is a political meeting. I am a NATO soldier trying to keep his focus on the military dimension. If you ask this soldier, he needs more than promises. He needs action to make the force in Afghanistan more resourceful than it is right now.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have long said that NATO members should send more troops.

McNeill: We will see more soldiers. The US generously offered 3,200 troops for the south. The Poles, British, French and the Danes made some suggestions as well, so I am hopeful. I don’t have a number -- we simply need more of everything: more manoeuvring forces, more flying machines and more surveillance platforms.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Many countries have already promised to beef up their contingent, but all we hear from Berlin is that the so-called "comprehensive approach model" -- giving equal weight to military activity and to reconstruction -- should be discussed in Bucharest.

McNeill: Most people using the term 'comprehensive approach' don’t know what they are talking about. The comprehensive approach includes a strong military option -- first fight the insurgency and then help reconstruct the country. The US forces have shown what that looks like. They attack militants in a valley and then build a road. Those who talk about comprehensive approach should not forget the combat element.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the last couple of days, politicians in Berlin have even started a debate about an exit strategy, suggesting that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

McNeill: We don’t focus on exit strategies here. We don’t talk about an end of the mission. Our work is to improve the Afghan forces so that they can take over the job on the battlefield. This will still need a lot of time. In the case of the Afghan Air Force, I think it might take until 2011. The army also needs a lot of mentoring still. When we don’t have a job here anymore, when we are not needed here anymore, only then we should discuss leaving. Not before.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The political motive behind the exit strategy discussion, though, is pretty obvious. With an exit strategy, politicians offer their constituencies the prospect of a pullout, which could have the result of increasing support for the mission.

McNeill: Politicians do what they have to do. All we soldiers can do is give our best advice as to what is realistic and what is not. I know that in some European capitals the debate is raging about this mission. I can only give high marks to Chancellor Angela Merkel because of her leadership. I know that there is a lot of resistance against the mission, but she still gets the votes needed in the Bundestag to extend the mandate. That is worth noting.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: She will be glad to hear that from a top ranking US general. But what would you like to see more of from Germany?

McNeill: The Bundeswehr is a fine, professional force with capable leadership. I could use them in many places outside the northern part of Afghanistan.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: German army chiefs often say that transporting the force would be a problem.

McNeill: If German troops have the will to join us outside the north, all they have to do is pick up the phone and we, as good friends, will pick them up. That won't be the problem.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Germany is planning on sending one mobile force, a so-called Quick Reaction Force (QRF), in July.

McNeill: As I hear Germany is sending a strong combat unit to be ready for any emergency in the north. It would be good if the German government would allow the QRF to act outside the north. I would be more than happy to use them.

Interview conducted by Matthias Gebauer at ISAF headquarters in Kabul


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