Afghanistan: The Other War

INTERVIEW Lieut. Gen. David Richards

Lieut. Gen. David Richards

Lieut. Gen. David Richards

“... you know, there are times when you definitely have to put politics before military rationale but never to the degree that you jeopardize the mission. I have stood up to excesses of national proclivities very robustly, but there are ways you have to give ground to keep people on side. ”

In July 2006, NATO took over from the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan under British commander, Lieut. Gen. David Richards. Before he left the 9-month post this February, Richards talked with FRONTLINE/World reporter Sam Kiley about how he mixed militarism with diplomacy to run his multinational campaign, and how he'd rather not be remembered in the Afghan history books. "If we fail here," he says, " and I'm absolutely convinced we won't, we push Afghanistan back to the Dark Ages."

Q: Sam Kiley: Could you put this operation in context with other NATO operations?

A: General David Richards: This is NATO's first ever war fighting operation certainly in terms of ground maneuver. Obviously [in] Kosovo NATO dropped bombs, but at the point General Jackson led the ground forces in, there was no actual fighting.

So, if you like, this is NATO coming of age, we have to prove we can do it. I think we've done that pretty decisively, and it was important in the minds of people that we could defend them. We've done that through the summer and early autumn [2006]; now we've got to deliver on the other part of the international community's sort of promises to the country. And we're getting set to do that. I'm very optimistic that over the next six months, we'll see some dramatic improvements in reconstructions and development and it's our job to facilitate that.

Q: And in terms of the scale of it, can you give me the number of countries and troops involved?

A: We've got 32,000 troops and 37 nations within NATO, and it ranges from an American contribution, well over 10,000 to the British around 4,500, down to one or two nations like Iceland with 6, 7, 8 [people]. So it's fascinating. And everyone in his or her own way plays a vital part. It's a real team effort.

Q: There is a delicate balance militarily here, isn't there? On the one hand, you are running a tough military campaign, but also a hearts and minds effort. You can't bomb a village one night and put a well in the next. It's much more complicated than that, isn't it?

A: If you look at Afghanistan as a whole, I've got responsibility for a country bigger than Germany and part of Poland. In one part of country it's very much reconstruction development… hearts and minds of a traditional nature, but hearts and minds in Afghanistan given it's history and it's almost societal dependence on one form of violence or another to resolve problems, means that fighting does have a part in the hearts and minds here. They [the Afghans] need to know that you can defend them, but also that you can bomb a village in the sense that your enemy is in that village. They [the Taliban] are living and cowering amongst them. It's a very cowardly form of attack. Then, the next day you do need to go in and establish a meeting with the local elders and explain why you had to do that and how can you now help? More than once, we have built a well within a few days to show that our intent is sound and it does start to bring them back.

Q: And particularly in Afghanistan, this is a cultural thing in a sense. You need to show people they are siding with the stronger side…

A: They will…

Q: I wonder if you could explain this tactic.

A: We're conducting a counterinsurgency campaign. The way to succeed or fail in a counterinsurgency is to encourage and retain the consent of the people. If you lose their consent, you'll never really succeed, and historically that's the case. Look at Vietnam and so on.

In Afghanistan the situation is, Three percent of the population are Taliban; another 7 percent, roughly, will be prepared to do as they're told; 20 percent have had the Taliban up to here -- never want to go near them again. And 70 percent broadly want us to win, but they want to see that we can win. If we don't deliver on their expectations over time, and we haven't got forever, then there is a possibility that some of those people will say, "We want you to win, but come on, you're taking too long and we'd rather have the Taliban than go on forever." Can we keep that 70 percent on our side and lift them up to the Promised Land? I'm very confident we can do that and this is what we're doing this winter.

Q: So you're saying military campaign plays a role in winning them over. They want to see you as a strong side, essentially…

A: If you can't defend the communities robustly, the Taliban will get in there and will spoil their day and they don't want the Taliban. We have exhaustive evidence that people want us to win and the international community to succeed and their government to succeed, so you have to be hard-headed about this, and soldiers are required to defend the population and do it in depth and, if necessary, to do it robustly.

Q: As far as winning the hearts and minds, could you give me an idea of how you're focusing that goal?

A: The reason the president [President Hamid Karzai] agreed to the creation of his Policy Action Group, or PAG, is that when we arrived, I went to him and said, "What levers do I pull to pull us all together, to achieve your aim, Mr. President?" We sort of scratched our heads and actually there wasn't one. So he decided with assistance from us to create what we might call in the U.K., a war cabinet -- key ministers with key members of the international community designed to achieve unity of effort. We knew where we wanted to go, but we didn't have the mechanisms to achieve it. Down on the ground, we needed to generate the same sort of feeling, so we created something called the Afghan Development Zones [ADZs], which is designed through various mutual activities to allow reconstruction and development to happen in such a way that we could lash our information operations around substantive progress. Because what we're talking about here is not trying to deliver nirvana overnight, but to deliver steady, clear progress to keep that 70 percent confident in all of us.

Q: These ADZs , can you be specific about what form they will take?

A: Well, the ADZs are agreed geographical areas, within which the government will focus on improvements in governance and getting better people in there. Don't forget this country has been through hell and back, over the last 30 years, they don't have two generations of middle class, so we can't do this everywhere, we have to focus our efforts. The international community will focus the redevelopment in these areas and my task is to secure all that so people can see genuine progress.

Q: Right. 37 nations, a very multinational force, being headed by a thoroughbred, I might say. The atmosphere in the camp, out and about, it's almost bizarre, with the Americans eating burgers and the Italians eating pizza. It's a curious atmosphere, haven't you found?

A: It is, and it's quite a culture shock. I have worked with many nations before, but I've never had the privilege to command so many. Militarily, they're all excellent people; they came in here, they want to do good, and I think collectively we're achieving a lot of good. But you do have to massage national and individual egos to make sure they remain together as a team. And I'm not comparing myself with Eisenhower, but my goodness me, I know why he was considered a great man.

Q: Why do you know that now?

A: Well, I'm trying to emulate him just a little bit and, you know, there are times when you definitely have to put politics before military rationale but never to the degree that you jeopardize the mission. I have stood up to excesses of national proclivities very robustly, but there are ways you have to give ground to keep people on side.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: Well, for example, I am very clear that in a perfect world -- and this is very much on the public record -- that in a perfect work… I would be able to move troops to wherever I want them to move for sound military reasons. That isn't always possible. But, there's no point me wringing my hands over what I can't get. So we make virtue a necessity and ensure that where good troops are broadly focused on a particular region for political reasons, largely, we make best use of them and give them proper tasks. And I also make the point always, of never criticizing the troops concerned; they often want to deploy but for various reasons aren't allowed to. So we view it as a common team effort and make sure that where they are sitting and getting out and about, we give them valuable tasks.

Q: Could you explain some of the caveats [restrictions set by individual member states] attached to this mission?

A: Well, the caveat that is most militarily difficult to overcome is when certain countries have to move out of an area in which they feel comfortable and which they're doing good work. I often say that we need people in the north; we need people in west. It's not as straightforward as I want to move you from A to B, because we would then have a hole which someone else might fill, so I'm loathe to be critical of the effect of caveats, but the principle makes my life difficult. I think that's the biggest issue. Again, this is on public record, but we need a reserve force that would enable me to pre-empt problems, and take advantage of opportunities more decisively. And without ability to move troops around freely, I am circumscribed to a degree. We perhaps have to overuse the ANA [Afghan National Army] and the ANP [Afghan National Police] and, particularly in the latter case, they're not quite ready for that. So at the very time we're trying to create their capability, we're also trying to use them. That's quite a neat trick. We have to help them considerably to manage both.

Q: How does it feel as a Brit in charge of so many? You're in charge of Americans?

A: I am, and I know there is media interest in the U.S. about who is this Brit that's commanding this level of American troops for the first time since the Second World War? But the quick answer is, I'm hugely privileged. I view every one of these 32,000 soldiers as one of mine, and every time I write a letter home to the parents or wife of someone who has been killed, you feel something up your spine. And it makes me determined to do what is truly right, and sometimes I'm a bit outspoken. But I'm living and breathing this, and I have soldiers whose lives are at risk for the people of Afghanistan, but also their own nations, and right or wrong, I take that quite seriously.

Q: Is it nice being in charge of the Americans?

A: Well, actually, can I say something here? I don't know what we would do without the U.S.A. They are hugely generously hearted in their approach, and militarily, at the tactical level, they are second to none. They bring together all the parts modern soldiers need better than any of us. And, the sheer money they are pouring into this country is not matched by anyone else. They could have said that they're putting in the majority of effort here, so we want a U.S. commander at this stage. But they have chosen not to and I take that as a signal tribute to NATO and a confidence in my headquarters and just a little bit in me.

Q: During your tenure here, how has the role or significance of Pakistan affected things on the ground?

A: It's a big issue for us. I went over to Pakistan a few weeks ago. I met President Musharraf and had a good amount of time with him. I was told by his aides that I had more time [with him] than Bush, which tickled their fancy. But I think the key to Pakistan is to make sure that they and the Afghans view this as a common problem. And I have no doubt they do. The Pakistan army is doing a lot, much more than I think people realize. But we also need to make sure people understand that it's not easy. And I say in terms of the cross-border movement -- which has been historically the case for thousands of years -- up to 200,000 cross that border on any given day, dressed all the same. It's not easy to distinguish the Taliban from perfectly law-abiding people.

Q: Could you explain what is the issue in terms of the Afghani/ Pakistan border?

A: The border, which has never been formally agreed, is the British-introduced Durand line. It's not actually a border in a legal sense, and on either side are the Pashtuns, which is a number of sub-tribes. It is very complex. They have historically crossed over. If you go over to the Pakistan side, you'll find, they don't even know the border exists and the same on this side. So, it's a very vibrant area in terms of the people who live there. They don't recognize it formally but it is being exploited by the Taliban, by foreign fighters based in Pakistan. We heard today about a big attack on a large madrassa [school teaching Islamic fundamentalism] by the Pakistan military and their attempts to forestall some of this activity. And, we need to pin it all down and manage it better. So that we can separate perfectly law-abiding people, the vast majority, from what the Pakistanis, I always find rather quaint, call "miscreants." These miscreants cross the border to do Afghanistan a lot of damage.

Q: Is this a time now that you feel America, in particular, has to be convinced of the legitimacy of this operation?

A: Well, we're getting into policies here, but I have large numbers of American visitors. I've had the privilege of meeting Mr. Rumsfeld, and Ms. Rice; it's wonderful to meet people who are dealing with hugely complex problems. All I can tell you -- and in my heart I believe and see this on a daily basis -- America is fully committed to this operation. I don't want to get into analogies with Iraq, but the fact is, the people here want us, the international community, to succeed. We must not make the mistake, and the media must not make the mistake of seeing the Taliban as some sort of freedom-fighting organization. Where the Taliban are making headway is through brute force and intimidation, and so, yes, there is some frustration with the pace of progress. But this winter I absolutely made clear that with the increasingly powerful mechanism -- the PAG, [the Policy Action Group] - and as we totally focus on the growth of these Afghan Development Zones, we will see tangible progress, which will enable people here to retain confidence in what they want to see happen, which is for us all to succeed.

Q: This is an extremely large operation, a coming of age, as you say, for NATO. Is there a sense of make or break, or are you out there to prove something either way? How high-risk a venture is it?

A: Well, I suppose, the stakes are high for NATO, but shouldn't NATO get a pat on the back for stepping up here? I think it is a coming of age for NATO -- from the Secretary General downward, we are absolutely committed to succeeding. And I know there's a lot of apparent disunity over, "Will they give us more or not?" But what we're doing here in NATO is playing under a U.N. mandate and alongside the U.N. It's a huge and significant role for the people of Afghanistan and for the whole world, because, if we fail here, and I'm absolutely convinced we won't, we push Afghanistan back to the Dark Ages. All reconstruction and development effort go with us. Our information campaign is wrapped around the vision that the Taliban offers hopelessness, no education, no international help, versus the huge hope and wonderful prospects of what we offer. That's a powerful message that NATO is firmly behind. Despite it's apparent disagreements in certain areas, we will pull through, and NATO in the future will come through as a transformed operation that will have learned some of the lessons, undoubtedly as a result of this operation, and will be much more powerful in the future. So, it's a risk yes, but, to me, I think it's a risk worth taking.

Q: It puts a lot of weight on your shoulders?

A: Yes, but I'm lucky. I sleep well every night. One reason is I've got a wonderful team here and we somehow, despite all the pressure, find time to enjoy life. And I suppose the most wonderful thing is when you see success. After the battle of Medusa, which was a very difficult battle, but which we won and imposed our will on the Taliban, I had people coming up hugging me, literally, which is an Afghan thing, but takes you a bit by surprise the first time, men with beards giving me a big hug. But you know it's very heart-warming. You feel this is a just war and we are here to help people who deserve our help and we are making headway.

Q: Final question, lots of talk in the media about not having enough Troops. Where do you stand on that?

A: Of course I would love more, every general in history has wanted more. You could do things more quickly, more efficiently and probably with les risk to life. But I can't wait for that to happen. I think we may get more troops here in the next few months, but for now, we have to carve a route through all that and make do with what we've got. I think we're broad enough now to sustain progress over the winter period. But we do need visible improvement in terms of security and visible reconstruction and development over this winter period. If we get that then we may need fewer troops next year because the consent of the people is solid, and they will say to the Taliban we don't want you. If we don't have that sort of progress then we'll need the same number of troops, and, ideally then, we'd have more.

Q: We need less troops, says the four star general….

A: You're a very good interviewer… but the fact is too often the media are looking for the drama that paints a certain type of picture in the short term. It's our task to carve a route through all that. That's what Generals do. I often think it's so easy to be a journalist, so easy to be an analyst. I mean I go to high-powered conferences, I can critique as well as the next man, but it's our job to solve the problems and come out the other side. I think we're not doing too badly, and the PAG and the ADZs is our route through it.

Q: You don't want to add your name to this long list of [defeated] field marshals and generals here?

A: I definitely intend not to do that. We'll wait and see, shall we? I think this is a different sort of war. We are not fighting the Afghan people, like in previous wars, that's why I will not go down in history as previous generals. We are fighting for the Afghan people.

Relatively few Afghans actually support the Taliban who are a callous lost cause in the eye of most people. On top of that we're fighting a war for all of us. Because if the Taliban got back in: One, there would be an all-out war because there is no doubt that nations would feel they had to get rid of them again; and two, in the interim, London, Paris, Washington, we're all at risk again. This is a very important and just war for all sorts of reasons, both for Afghans and internationally.

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