Gen. David McKiernan, who in June became the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has been vocal about the urgent need for more U.S. troops there. In particular, he and others have been concerned that U.S. troop levels might not be high enough to defeat a stubborn, multipronged insurgency.
McKiernan spoke to a roundtable of journalists traveling with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, including U.S. News Defense Correspondent Anna Mulrine. Excerpts:
On growing levels of violence throughout Afghanistan: I think there's first of all a change in the tactics of insurgent or criminal groups, where more and more they operate in smaller, more asymmetric, complex attacks against targets such as convoys, such as government targets, such as police, and less and less against international forces or Afghan National Army targets. I also see the fact that we have increased security capabilities in this country this year as compared to last year. The Army's larger, the international force presence is larger.
We are operating in extending security into areas of this country that we weren't in a year ago, and with that is going to come contact with insurgent or criminal groups. I also see a historic level of militant sanctuaries in the tribal areas of Pakistan that have fueled the insurgency not only on the Afghan side of the border but the Pakistani side of the border. And while there is some reason to be cautiously optimistic that the Pakistanis, with support from the international community, are beginning to deal with those militant sanctuary areas, that has accounted for a heightened level of violence in Afghanistan. You put those three things together, and people quite frankly in many areas of Afghanistan don't feel secure.
On whether the U.S. troops currently slated to head to Afghanistan will be enough to establish security in the country: To ask a military commander if that's enough is like me predicting who's going to win the World Series next year. I don't know if it's enough. I know it's what I can foresee is a requirement to improve security to allow other lines of operation in this country, like governance and socioeconomic programs, to continue to progress.
On hopes that 7,000 to 10,000 additional U.S. troops will arrive in Afghanistan by the summer of 2009: Additional security capabilities coming by the summer is important this year in Afghanistan because it's a year of elections. It's a year of continued campaign against an insurgency. It's a year where we see some reasons to be cautiously optimistic with collaboration and coordination with the Pakistanis along a very long border, so there's a lot of reasons to get forces here sooner rather than later. So I'm hopeful that we can provide additional forces by the summertime.
On the toughest area in Afghanistan: I think the area that we need to increase our security presence the most is the south and southwestern part of Afghanistan. I think you'll see some reinforcement down in this area.
On how long the war will last: To put it in historical perspective, this country has been at war for the last 30 years. That's not going to stop overnight. So if your question is might it get worse before it gets better, yes, it might. Until we get to this tipping point where there's sufficient security capabilities in Afghanistan, there will probably continue to be a degree of insurgent violence in this country. Absolutely.
It's going to take us another three to four years to develop the [Afghan] Army and continue to work on reforming and developing the police to have less reliance on international forces. But make no mistake about it, the security line of operations cannot work without governance and without development. They all have to work together to defeat this insurgency and build a better future for Afghanistan.