SPIEGEL: General Jones, it's now 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union imploded. Has the world become a safer place?
James L. Jones: Tremendous accomplishments were made over a number of years to bring freedom and democracy to that portion of Europe that was left out of the drive. The events that took place 20 years ago meant for the whole of Europe much more peace and much more opportunity for the citizens that had lived on both sides of the wall.
SPIEGEL: But it was not yet the "end of history," as the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama and many others predicted. What is the gravest threat to the American homeland today?
Jones: I worry most about proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in such a way that they could be acquired by non-governmental organizations, like terrorist groups, especially the radical groups that we know are trying to get these weapons. We're convinced that if they were to get them, they would use them. When a nation state has a nuclear weapon, it's a little bit easier to control the use of it, but for non-governmental groups it's much more difficult. We are obviously worried about North Korea and Iran, but the threat that's hardest to control is the non nation states, groups of individuals who could acquire such a weapon and what they would do.
SPIEGEL: Do you assume that some terrorist groups are close to that goal?
Jones: We're doing a good job nationally and internationally to make sure that we safeguard that eventuality from happening.
SPIEGEL: Is Pakistan the most dangerous place in the world, given that the Taliban and al-Qaida are increasing their sphere of influence?
Jones: Pakistan is certainly a point of strategic interest for us, for the alliance, and for much of the watching world because of the fact that they are nuclear -- they do have nuclear weapons, and they do have an ongoing insurgency.
SPIEGEL: Is it possible that the civilian government and the armed forces could lose control over these nuclear weapons?
Jones: It is something that we work on with the Pakistanis regularly. I've been assured that they're doing everything they can to make sure that these weapons are very tightly controlled and secured.
SPIEGEL: And you think the generals are assessing the situation realistically?
Jones: We are cooperating very closely. We hope that they are successful in combating their insurgencies because since 2006 this has become a real cancer on the border regions.
SPIEGEL: The Obama administration is reviewing the strategy for Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, is asking for additional troops.
Jones: Generals always ask for more troops. Take it from me.
SPIEGEL: You would know. You're also a general and you were in Afghanistan from 2003 to almost 2007 ...
Jones: ... and of course when I was there I asked for more troops. When we started in 2003, we had to develop a plan. So by definition, you have to ask for people.
SPIEGEL: And now you support General McChrystal's demand for 40,000 additional troops?
Jones: We are in the middle of a process with the president and all of his advisers in assessing the overall situation in Afghanistan. I believe we will not solve the problem with troops alone. The minimum number is important, of course. But there is no maximum number, however. And what's really important in Afghanistan is that with this new administration we insist on good governance, that it be coordinated with economic development and security, and that we have much, much better success at handing over responsibility for these three things to the Afghans.
SPIEGEL: To President Hamid Karzai, who has just been reelected after a controversial election?
Jones: To the Afghans. And we will put much more emphasis on battling corruption and putting competent and honest people in positions of authority. We will be working with our friends and allies to do that.
SPIEGEL: When do you expect a final decision on McChrystal's request?
Jones: It will be a decision made by all NATO members, not just the US president. As part of NATO we are one of 28 nations, and we are going to closely follow NATO's discussions of the McChrystal request. It's a NATO request of which the US will do a portion of it, but we think other countries will do their share as well.
SPIEGEL: What do you expect from the Germans?
Jones: I think that will be for Germany to decide. Germany is the third largest troop contributing nation and it has been at the forefront of developing the Afghan National Police, which is something that Germany can do better than us, because they have the training base and the culture for that kind of police training. In the end NATO will decide as a whole who will be responsible for particular contributions.
'Al-Qaida Will Stop at Nothing'
SPIEGEL: What is the goal in Afghanistan right now -- to win the war?
Jones: Our definition of the goal has been to defeat, disrupt, and dismantle the al-Qaida network, which is the one that is the most significant threat to our homeland and to the European homeland. These are people that will stop at nothing. So we pay a lot of attention to where they are and what they're doing. We want those three D's, if you will, to make sure that they cannot come back to Afghanistan and reestablish a platform from which they can organize and equip themselves to do what they did several years ago. On that score, we're pretty successful in Afghanistan.
SPIEGEL: But al-Qaida has not been destroyed. The terrorists are now operating from Pakistan.
Jones: Unfortunately, there are some safe havens in Pakistan and it looks like the Pakistan army is seriously going after them. There are operations in Swat Valley and now in South Waziristan and we hope that they will continue. We intend to be of whatever help we can to ensure that they try to rid themselves of that cancer that exists between the two countries.
SPIEGEL: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently expressed her disappointment in how the Pakistani government is fighting al-Qaida. Do you share her view?
Jones: Well, if you had been here in March and asked me the question whether I'm more worried about Afghanistan or Pakistan, I would have said Pakistan because they had this policy of appeasement, which was flawed. I think they recognized it as well. Since March, they have done reasonably well in what they set out to do. We hope they have long-term objectives to go after all insurgents, not just theirs, but after the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaida, and other groups. This is really going to continue to eat at the fabric of their country if they don't.
SPIEGEL: In Afghanistan, you were not amused by the Karzai government. Now he's going to be the next president. How unhappy are you with having to deal with Karzai?
Jones: I don't think it's a question of happiness. It's a question of legitimacy. We recognize the election was by far not perfect, but in the end, it's extremely important that the Afghans think they have a legitimate president. If the legitimacy is questioned, then that makes it difficult for allies to continue.
SPIEGEL: What do you expect President Karzai to do?
Jones: We hope from this election will emerge a partner that will do much better in the second five years in the areas of governance, rule of law, economic development and development with the Afghan Security Forces. But we also need a better plan with the allies to gradually turn over responsibility for the country to Afghan institutions and organizations in as short a time as possible.
SPIEGEL: When will the US troops be withdrawn?
Jones: I don't know when that will be. But I do know that our president and other leaders are very insistent on doing everything that we can to make sure that it happens sooner rather than later. That we can in fact, begin to turn over responsibility to the Afghans. We can't want this more than the Afghans. So, if they want the promise of a democratic society and peace and stability, better opportunities for their children, then this government and all of the governors have to do a much better job than they've done so far.
SPIEGEL: Are the United States right now in some kind of negotiations with the Taliban?
Jones: No. We've let this electoral process play itself out, and now we will reengage with the government once it's formed. And then we will seriously consider all issues to bring security and stability to Afghanistan, as well as reconciliation and reintegration.
SPIEGEL: Afghanistan is famously referred to as the "graveyard of empires."
Jones: I know and that's why I say we cannot solve the problems with only military forces. You can keep on putting troops in, and you could have 200,000 troops there and the country will swallow them up as it has done in the past. There are many empires who tried to make Afghanistan a stable and different country, and there have always been neighbors which were not interested in a stable and centralized government. That's why I think it's not a US or European reconstruction program exclusively. We should encourage all of the neighbors to participate.
SPIEGEL: Is it difficult to advise the president, Barack Obama?
Jones: No, simply because he's a very good student of geopolitics. He understands strategy. He has a very inquisitive mind, and he prepares himself extremely well for all the meetings that he attends. You cannot come to his meetings without being prepared to say something because if you don't say anything, he will call on you.
SPIEGEL: How does Obama react if somebody contradicts him?
Jones: He actually encourages debate. He wants people to defend their positions. He is willing to listen.
SPIEGEL: How do you define your job?
Jones: The president can't do everything. So the role of the National Security Council is to identify the strategic issues that the president has to consider. You have to triage the issue, so that he tackles the really hard ones. Then you have to make sure that there's proper preparation of the issues before it gets to him. It starts with working groups, then the deputies of the inter-agency meet, and then the principals -- secretary of defense, secretary of state, secretary of treasury. I chair that group. And then when it's ready for the president, we have a full National Security Council meeting. And then people give their opinions around the table and then it gets to the point where eventually there's a decision.
SPIEGEL: How has being in the White House changed your way of thinking? Are your ideas less like those of a general and more like those of a civilian now?
Jones: As a matter of fact, the four years in NATO helped me do that quite a bit because NATO Secure is a political and military job as well. So for me it's not terribly difficult to leave the uniform behind and graduate over to this level, to this different way of looking at things.
SPIEGEL: Being a military man, don't you miss having to make tough decisions quickly?
Jones: It's more important to make good decisions. We have to ensure that the president is well served by the right process and that we stay at the strategic level. Where other White Houses have gotten in trouble sometimes is when the president gets down to the tactical level. For instance, I started my career in Vietnam when I was 23 years old, and even as a young lieutenant, I could see the influence of the White House in terms of what we were doing on the ground. If you let the president do that, then he's not staying at the level where he should.
SPIEGEL: President Obama was elected one year ago. During the last year he has given many great speeches and delivered idealistic messages. Is he about to enter a new phase? Is it now time for delivery?
Jones: I think that's right. The first year is your introductory year where you make your speeches, you present yourself, you present an image that you hope the country will embrace and achieve globally. Now the ideas are out there. The tasks are clear. The challenges are visible, and now you have to implement the ideas.
SPIEGEL: General Jones, thank you very much for this interview.