A NATO soldier talks with Afghan children. According to Gen. McNeill the greatest successes are where ISAF manages to fight the insurgency and initiate reconstruction projects.
Gen. Dan McNeill: We are putting resources and energy in targeting the insurgent command and control structure. And weve had some recent success here.
SPIEGEL: How strong are the Taliban today?
McNeill: The insurgents have the ability to regenerate their ranks quickly following heavy losses. They get new recruits mainly from the militant Koran schools which the local people have dubbed Taliban factories. Where we are having our greatest success is where we manage to both fight the insurgency, initiate reconstruction projects and establish better security for the population.
SPIEGEL: Military commanders repeatedly emphasize that this war cannot be won through military means alone. At the same time you are constantly asking for more troops. Why?
McNeill: Each army has a formula as to how to determine what you need in the way of security forces for a counter insurgency. If you use the US doctrine, which is based on population and land mass, the figure for Afghanistan comes out well over 400,000 troops.
SPIEGEL: And how many do you have in total?
SPIEGEL: Some NATO countries, including Germany, would prefer not to be involved in the military conflict at all.
McNeill: Each of the 26 NATO countries has its specific political context. Some governments, and Im not talking about Germany specifically, find it easier to accommodate their constituency if they impose certain caveats, certain restrictions, on the forces they contribute to this effort, such as that they can only be deployed in certain areas. These restrictions make things difficult for me as ISAF commander. The Clausewitzian theory of war identifies mass, i.e. the number of forces that I can apply in any area, as an important factor, as is speed. However, I have chosen to try to work within these limitations. At the same time we approach those countries and ask them to ease up on these restrictions, and weve had some success.
SPIEGEL: Many Germans doubt that the aggressive anti-terror operations of the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) Special Forces led by the Americans will bring peace to the country -- because of the high number of civilian casualties. A growing number of politicians, therefore, want to vote against the OEF mission in the upcoming vote in Berlin. Many MPs are against the Tornado deployment and are calling for a fundamental change in strategy.
US General Dan McNeill, head of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
SPIEGEL: Is the Taliban's information campaign more effective than that of the NATO and the Americans?
McNeill: The international audience does automatically believe what they say and I find that absurd. These people kill more civilians than any force amongst the Alliance or the Afghan army. They are hard core extremists. They behead people that dont agree with their positions.
SPIEGEL: The American military here in Afghanistan repeatedly emphasize that they dont really differentiate between the ISAF mandate and the OEF mission. That vexes many Europeans.
McNeill: There is an agreement between the NATO headquarters in Brussels and the US Army Central Command in Tampa, Florida, that the ISAF and OEF troops will help each other. We share intelligence, we share information about the battlefield and we are all united in our goal to help with the reconstruction here. The European population mistakenly believes that the OEF forces are simply here trying to kill al-Qaida and not helping the people. But thats not true.
SPIEGEL: What else do the forces do?
McNeill: It was OEF forces that stood by todays president, Hamid Karzai, who was then commander of an Afghan fighting force, from the very beginning. It was US Special Forces who helped the Afghans, together with the British and the French, to train the first battalions of the Afghan National Army.
SPIEGEL: The Germans want to get more involved in future in training the Afghan army but then not send their training teams into combat. Is that acceptable?
McNeill: The precedent for that is there. If a country doesnt want to be part of the combat operations there are a number of other tasks they can take on. We need another reconstruction team in the Central Afghan province Daikondi, one in Nimroz on the border to Iran and the governor of Kabul would like to have one too.
SPIEGEL: The training of the police led by the Germans has received strong international criticism. What is going wrong?
McNeill: It is a slow process and of course in-depth training takes time. But one thing is definitely correct: we are at a junction now where we need more policemen afield. And I mean policemen who are adequately trained, well equipped, and well led: policeman who are respectful of the people. The international community should not leave this task to the Germans alone. US Congress has just recently approved a lot of money to help this process along. What the country needs now, arguably more than they need the army, is effective police.
SPIEGEL: Latest reports state that the Taliban are getting weapons from Iran, including ones that could be a threat to airplanes. What does that mean for the ISAF troops?
McNeill: There is no doubt that these reports on Iranian weapons are correct. We have found mortar rounds, rifles, plastic-type explosives and more. But is the Iranian government behind this? I dont know. What I do know is that the Iranians are working to gain political influence here. But we have also found Chinese rockets and Eastern European mines and do not know exactly who is behind these arms deliveries.
SPIEGEL: In the last six years in Afghanistan there has been little progress in reconstruction, security and government work. One of the main reasons for this is the drug cultivation with a succession of record crops. Why cant this problem be tackled?
McNeill: Poppy cultivation undermines everything we are trying to do here. I estimate 20-40 percent of the proceeds from the opium trade goes to financing the insurgents. The UN even puts the figure at 60 per cent. The consequences are fatal: because the profits from the poppy business are so high in certain areas, the people there arent interested in the reconstruction projects. In Helmand, for example. The Kajaki Dam that is being modernized there and will provide thousands of families with electricity, will generate 2,500 jobs in about three years. But that doesnt really interest the people who live there. And they arent interested in the fact that their dependency on poppy will poison their own future and that of their children. And that I fail to understand.
SPIEGEL: How can the vicious circle of extremism, drugs and corruption be broken? Is the only option, ultimately, to make a deal with the Taliban?
McNeill: I can only advise against negotiations on a military level. On the political dimension, there are former Taliban in parliament and talks are going on between former Taliban ministers and the Afghan president.
Interview conducted by Susanne Koelbl