RAY SUAREZ: Admiral William Fallon has been the commander of U.S. Central Command, CENTCOM, since last March. He’s responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East, including Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa and Asia.
And, Admiral Fallon, welcome.
ADM. WILLIAM FALLON, Commander, U.S. Central Command: Thanks, Ray. Good evening.
RAY SUAREZ: Recently, we got the word that 3,200 Marines are going to be sent to bolster the American presence in southern Afghanistan. Why are they needed, five years after the defeat of the Taliban there?
ADM. WILLIAM FALLON: Well, the situation in Afghanistan has been very complex. And we have, during this past year, I believe maintained the initiative in trying to expand stability and security there.
And I see an opportunity. The commanders on the ground see an opportunity, as we move into the springtime, to try to capitalize on the gains that we’ve made and the value of these two groups of Marines, one to do training which we need, training and mentoring with the Afghan security forces, and the second to provide a maneuver force to enable General McNeil, the ISAF commander there, the NATO commander, to be able to have the flexibility to deal with the situation.
It gives us opportunities in other places. For example, in this past year, the U.S. forces have shared assets between Regional Command East, which is under U.S. command, and Regional Command South.
We’ve had a battalion of troops operating most of the time in the south helping. And that’s the most troubled area. It certainly has been in recent times.
And so our ability to provide additional troops gives us the opportunity to move out and to bolster our forces back in the east by having that battalion back there. And I think it puts us in good position to go into this next year.
Resurgence of the Taliban
RAY SUAREZ: The terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan have recently increased in tempo. There have been suicide bombers, audacious daylight attacks on civilian areas of gathering, commerce, hotels.
Why is the fight there so hard, after the Americans were said to have defeated their foe there?
ADM. WILLIAM FALLON: Well, back in 2001, early 2002, the Taliban were pretty much vanquished. And I wasn't over there during the intervening years.
But my sense of looking back is that we moved focus to Iraq, which was the priority from 2003 on, and the attention and the resources focused on a different place.
There's been some resurgence in the Taliban. This is a country -- Afghanistan needs a lot of work in the business of rebuilding itself.
Remember, this is a place that about 70 percent of the people are illiterate. Many, many places throughout the country have nothing in the way of infrastructure, no electricity, generators, and so forth. So there's a lot of work to be done.
There was a resurgence of the Taliban. And last year, I think a significant effort made to focus attention here and get the job done.
Now there's certainly been an increase in high-profile attacks. The phenomenon of the suicide bombers got into Afghanistan in a major way this year, certainly up from previous years.
But the overall level of violence, for example, when compared to Iraq is not even on the same scale.
There was a lot of talk a year ago about the projections for a potential Taliban offensive during 2007. My assessment of that is that, at the end of the year, that was pretty well neutralized.
We gained and retained the initiative in that country. And while there are certainly a number of high-profile attacks and suicide bombings, the level of instability throughout the country is not anywhere near the scope and scale of what we saw in Iraq.
The need for Pakistani cooperation
RAY SUAREZ: Just over the border from Afghanistan sits Pakistan, which is also in CENTCOM's area of interest. With all the tumult in Pakistan, do you believe that, on the other side of that very porous frontier, you have partners who are fighting the same fight as you are?
ADM. WILLIAM FALLON: I'd make a couple of comments. First of all, I think it's difficult, if not impossible, to separate Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There's a tremendous amount of overlap, not least being the large Pashtun population that inhabits Afghanistan and a significant part of Pakistan. There are troubles along the border, or have been troubles along the border.
A number of reasons for that. The western provinces of Pakistan are the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as they're called, is pretty much ungoverned.
Certainly, the writ of government from Islamabad is pretty thin out there. And they've historically been an area that are pretty much locally run.
This has been a place that attracted, we believe, al-Qaida and those Taliban that fled in 2001 and 2002. And they've tended to concentrate in that area.
Nonetheless, the level of cooperation, particularly in recent months, between the PAKMIL, Afghan military, and ourselves, and it's U.S. forces that are pretty much along that eastern border, has resulted in significant success.
For example, the last two months, the level of violent activity in those eastern provinces is down about 40 percent. And I think this is due to a number of factors: better cooperation between the two militaries; more focused attention from our forces out there; and also there are a lot of things going on within Pakistan, as you know.
And I think that, in recent months, the PAKMIL response to the instabilities that resulted in the Red Mosque incident, certainly these tragic bombings that, the most recent one that took the life of Mrs. Bhutto, have caused the Pak government and military to realize that they have a significant threat.
And they have now moved their regular military forces into parts of this area in an attempt to put pressure on the insurgents. And I think the insurgents now are faced with the challenge of not only having us in the west on the Afghan side, working with the Afghan security forces, but now they've got the PAKMIL squeezing them on the right.
And so the net result of that has been a decrease in activity in Afghanistan, and that's good.
Nonetheless, we still have work to do. And we want to cooperate very closely with the Pakistan military to try to help them to be even more successful, to build their capacity to deal with this, because it is a threat that challenges stability in both Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.
Hormuz incident raises tensions
RAY SUAREZ: Let's move to Iran, where just recently in the Persian Gulf there was a confrontation between American forces and an Iranian craft.
Tell me what we know about that and whether this is a particularly dangerous place, given the confluence of all these different territorial waters in a very narrow strip of ocean.
ADM. WILLIAM FALLON: Well, I think you've pretty well focused on the challenge. The Strait of Hormuz, where this incident took place, we had several U.S. warships that were transiting, regular routine for us.
We're in and out of there all the time, have been for decades, were challenged by some fast attack boats, we call them, small speedboats that we believe were manned by the IRGC, the Iranian guards. This is...
RAY SUAREZ: So not regular Iranian Navy?
ADM. WILLIAM FALLON: This is an entity that's different than the regular, more professional Iranian Navy.
This is bad behavior on their part. It's confrontational, not professional, unnecessary, provocative, and so forth, and not the kind of thing you'd expect to see in a very heavily traveled shipping lane such as the Strait of Hormuz.
RAY SUAREZ: Unprofessional, but is it dangerous? Can this kind of thing escalate, with one not understanding the other, and suddenly people are shooting?
ADM. WILLIAM FALLON: Well, it's certainly dangerous, because this kind of behavior in which we aren't certain what they're doing, what they might do next, we have got to protect ourselves.
Our warships in particular, given the history of recent years, the USS Cole bombing comes to mind, are certainly acutely aware of the potential danger of these kinds of craft, and so well-established procedures for maintaining safe standoff distances, and these folks coming in close proximity raises the anxiety levels.
And, frankly, there are a couple of challenges here. One, the potential for a mishap, for a misinterpretation or an accident, somebody comes too close, could easily result.
We've had a couple of instances here in the past, in recent months, where we've actually -- one in particular, where we've actually fired some warning shots to try to get these folks to move away.
So we would be very, very hopeful that these guys would start acting in a more professional manner. It's dangerous, and it's certainly not the place to be doing this kind of thing.
Iran a negative regional influence
RAY SUAREZ: Depending on what week you read the paper, Iran is either building down the tension in the area by not supplying certain weapons to allied groups in Iraq, not making provocative moves in the waterways, and then somebody in high responsibility in the United States government will say, "No, no, just as dangerous as always."
Where do things stand right now?
ADM. WILLIAM FALLON: I'll give you my perspective. Since I've been at Central Command, regrettably, every public action that I have seen Iranian military or paramilitary forces take has been unhelpful, certainly in the gulf, at sea.
Just after I arrived, we had the incident up in the northern gulf, in which the British sailors were seized and taken hostage, carted off to Tehran. We've had a number of interactions with U.S. warships.
We have had activity inside Iraq that has been unhelpful to us and causing us to lose people and to suffer casualties. And what I'm talking about here is the infusion of lethal equipment and training into Iraq by the Iranian guards, the Quds force branch of that.
Just in recent weeks, this month alone, we've seen a substantial rise in the proliferation and use of these EFPs, or explosively formed projectiles, that are very lethal against our armored vehicles.
In the previous month or so, it seemed to me that there was some restraint in the attacks against our soldiers and Marines in the country, particularly in the eastern part of the country.
And weren't sure quite what was going on, how much of this may have been a direct attempt or a direction on the part of the Iranians to maybe throttle back, or whether this is Muqtada al-Sadr and his guidance for a freeze, or the effectiveness of our troops. We just weren't quite sure.
But what's disturbing in the last couple of weeks is that this trend to increase the number of EFPs has certainly increased, and that's not good.
So what we're seeing is, at least until very recently, we have very good intelligence that indicates that Iran has been playing an exceedingly active role in training the militias, particularly the JAM special groups, and providing the kind of lethal assistance that is really unhelpful.
We also see activities of this sort, less in scope, but in the Afghan side, as well. So their behavior has not been helpful.
And, frankly, in my discussions with regional leaders in the gulf area and in Central Asia, they've got everybody's attention. Everybody is concerned about this kind of behavior because it's not helpful. And it's generating insecurity in the entire region.
And that's a shame, because this is a country that can play a major role. They've got lots of resources. They're intelligent, smart, educated people. We'd sure like to see them change behaviors.
RAY SUAREZ: Admiral William Fallon of Central Command, thanks for joining us, sir.
ADM. WILLIAM FALLON: It's been a pleasure. Thanks, Ray.