President-elect Barack Obama’s newly-named national security advisor, he is a decorated Vietnam veteran who has served as Commandant of the Marine Corps, NATO commander and co-chair of the Atlantic Council of the United States. The latter, an independent advisory group, presented a report to Congress in January 2008. It begins: “Make no mistake, the international community is not winning in Afghanistan.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Sept. 4, 2008.
Let’s talk about Afghanistan. When you arrive, it’s 2003 and in the command of NATO. Describe for us what the situation was on the ground in Afghanistan.
In 2003, in January, when I took command of the operational forces, there was no NATO mission in Afghanistan, so it wasn’t on the list of things that I was officially tasked to be concerned about. But interestingly enough, one of the first conversations I had at a meeting hosted by the then-19 ambassadors who comprised NATO were some questions directed at me about a possible NATO role in Afghanistan, which frankly struck me as a little bit odd, because it was never part of the briefings that I had undergone before I went over to Brussels. But it got me thinking that at least somebody’s talking about it. But we did not have an official mission or role until several months later, when I received an official tasking from the North Atlantic Council to begin to prepare a plan for NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan.
And the situation on the ground in Afghanistan?
The only people I could talk to were, of course, my U.S. colleagues, [former CENTCOM commander Gen.] John Abizaid and then people on the ground there. And they were generally fairly content with the progress against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Al Qaeda was actually almost a footnote. The Taliban was a little bit more of a problem. I remember one officer briefing that there were perhaps less than 3,000 of both left anywhere in the country. So, from a military standpoint, it seemed to be under control.
And is this, I presume, why NATO was so interested in being involved, that this was going to be essentially a reconstruction program?
The history of NATO’s relationship with Afghanistan in particular goes all the way back to 9/11. In the aftermath of 9/11, the North Atlantic Council invoked Article 5, which means an attack against one is an attack against all. And as a means of support to the United States, and in the aftermath of that declaration, NATO expected that the United States would be asking for support, which NATO was willing to provide. But for some reason other than sending a few AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System] airplanes and some special forces, ... there wasn’t much of a request, and partly due, I think, because of the rapidity of our own deployment and the fact that we were already engaged. ...
When did it begin to grab your attention as a situation that was going from good to worse?
Well, in 2003 we were able to say that generally the situation in Afghanistan seemed to be manageable, that the insurrection was under control. We started to see the development of worrisome trends in terms of narcotics production. We were getting ready for the elections of both the president and the parliament. ...
Germany was really one of the first countries to be willing to go into Afghanistan and do some work in the northern provinces. And that followed with more discussions of NATO and saying: “Well, ... how would you do this? And militarily, what would be a plan?” And so we worked for the remainder of 2003 in NATO on developing a couple of courses of action. ...
What happened in the south, which was really the acid test for NATO, was a major confrontation with the Taliban, who decided to believe a lot of the stories in the press that NATO probably wouldn’t fight, that this was a peacekeeping force, not a peace-enforcing force. And they decided in the fall of ‘06 to challenge us, almost conventionally, [to] stand and fight. And they suffered a pretty major tactical defeat, which I think carried all the way over into the lack of a spring offensive in ‘07
But since then, of course, there were some things going on in parallel that were more worrisome to me than the military situation on the ground. And those things were that the [Hamid] Karzai government, having been duly elected, the parliament having been duly elected and constituted, was not making much progress -- and neither was the international community -- in solving the rapidly developing narcotics problem, which was fueling a resurgent capability in terms of the Taliban.
Second, the police reforms were not going well. There weren’t enough of them in the country. Third, there was really a paralysis in weeding out corruption in the government. In other words, the rule of law -- prosecuting drug criminals, prosecuting corrupt government officials -- was not being done. ...
... And frankly, [there was a] lack of a visible presence of President Karzai. As the leader of the country, he was more the mayor of Kabul than he was being seen inside the country. And I appreciate very much President Karzai’s position; he and I had a very good relationship. But in the aftermath of my three years of almost monthly visits, I’ve come to certain conclusions about the inability of either the Karzai government or the international consortium to move on these three of four issues. ...
Why is the Taliban so resurgent?
Well, I think for two reasons. One is they have a constant funding stream from the ill-gotten gains through the drug business, which has skyrocketed. Ninety percent of it gets sold on the streets of Europe. And the ultimate irony is, that money comes back and buys the IEDs [improvised explosive device] and the weapons and the supplies that kill NATO soldiers and really, I think, plays a major role in the funding and the resourcing of the opposition. So I think that’s one of the key reasons why you have this resurgence.
Second, they have a safe haven in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA] on the Pakistani side of the border, and that is something that Pakistan has not successfully dealt with. ... So when you have that safe haven and you have the resources, you can get a lot of recruits. It wouldn’t surprise me to know that their ability to pay their fighters probably exceeds, say, President Karzai’s ability to pay his soldiers. ...
I think that’s where it went from being a single-nation problem to a regional problem involving both countries [Afghanistan and Pakistan]. And I think today that most people who think strategically think of this as a regional problem as opposed to “We have Afghanistan here and Pakistan there, and they’re different.” They’re not. They’re very, very linked now. ...
How strong are the Taliban?
I defer to the local commanders on that, but I think they’re certainly stronger than they were a year and a half ago. ... And I think that the public in Afghanistan -- I’m not sure about Pakistan, because that was after my time -- really got, in ‘03 and ‘04, what we’re trying to do. You remember all those stories about the long marches to the polling stations, and they’re showing their thumbs with their ink prints? This was a magnificent and oftentimes very courageous display of a population. They really believed their lives were going to be better, and the disappointment that they feel now -- they’re still not sure who’s going to win this. And as a result, they’re going to go with whichever side they perceive to be the winning side.
I think a lot of the problems go back to the failure of the international organizations. When you think about who’s on the ground there -- the U.N., NATO, the E.U., the World Bank, NGOs [non-governmental organizations] all over the place -- almost 50 countries have committed some assets, both human and in capital, to doing this, ... and it’s just incredible to me that this gathering cannot bring itself to either compel the government to do what it needs to do to lift the people and move them in the right direction and to tackle the top three or four things that absolutely have to be done in order for this not to become a real military confrontation, where we actually backslide to where we have to go back in with overwhelming superiority again and take it on militarily. ...
Why didn’t NATO, the U.N., the United States make fighting the drug trade a higher priority?
Well, the history of that goes back to the G8 back in 2000, or I think it was 2003, when the G8 met, and they decided to portion responsibility for five pillars to five different countries: Great Britain signed up to do the drugs; the U.S. signed up to do the reform of the Afghanistan army; the Italians signed up to do rule of law; the Germans signed up to do police; and the Japanese signed up to do disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. [Editor’s note: The G8 meeting to which Gen. Jones referred occurred in April 2002.] What happened was that everybody, when they considered narcotics, said: “Oh, that’s a U.K. problem. We’re not involved in that.” They talk about rule of law, they say: “Oh, that’s an Italian problem. We’re not involved in that.” The fact is that the agreement was that the U.K. would lead strategically, but everybody would pitch in, and it didn’t happen.
So the U.K. was left with this growing problem with a government that was democratically elected, to which everybody was very deferential, [but] had no intention of jeopardizing what was almost 50 percent of the GDP of a country; didn’t show any proclivities to have a rule of law or a prosecutorial system that would put really bad guys away for a long time. And it just snowballed.
And as a result, the Taliban started getting the funding that it needed [and] discovered that it could have a safe haven. ... The two presidents, [Pakistan’s Pervez] Musharraf and Karzai, were more interested in pointing fingers at each other instead of working together. ...
Is Karzai capable of moving forward?
I think he’s fully capable. If he did as well inside his country as he does outside, it would be terrific. But for reasons that escape me, that hasn’t happened.
Now, I’ve been gone now for about a year and a half, and I’ve not been back, so I’m not quite as current as I once was. But I’m still persuaded that the overall solution to Afghanistan in particular has to do with economic recovery and moving that society away from its linkage to narcotics, corruption and the safe havens for the Taliban that lie in between the very difficult areas between the two countries.
You’ve had many meetings with Karzai. Did you get any insights in those as to what was keeping him from tackling the issues that you saw as essential to getting Afghanistan on track?
Not really. They were always very good meetings. ... [F]or a time, in 2004, 2005, generally in terms of the insurgency, things were under control. But despite the repeated suggestions that there’s a growing problem out here, particularly with narcotics, despite repeated visits by world leaders to bring that to his attention, there wasn’t really much response in that direction. And I for the life of me don’t understand why, because it is really the cancer that’s eating away the internal fabric of the country.
So it’s just a mystery as to why Karzai has not been able to move.
To me, all of the elements were there. I think the international organizations have been much too compliant to his wishes. And the mantra you hear is, “Well, he’s a sovereign, democratically [elected] leader, and we’re here to do what he wants.” And my answer to that is, well, what if he’s not doing the right thing? And what if his Cabinet and his government doesn’t know what to do? I mean, you have to help them. You have to point out the ways, and you have to use some tough love sometime[s] to say: “Look, you have got to do this. There is no choice.”
Was tough love ever administered to Karzai?
No, not in my days.
You know, he’ll blame Pakistan.
He’ll say it’s the sanctuaries in Pakistan; that’s the problem.
It certainly is one of the problems. But I think equal to that, the resurgence of the Taliban was [due] to the fact that it’s got an economic lifeline that originates from Afghanistan and the drug trade.
Did you ever say to Karzai, "Look, you’ve got all these drugs grown all over the south and the west"--?
Showed him the pictures.
And what did he say?
“Well, we’re going to have to do something about that. And thank you for sharing this information with me. And I’ll turn to the right minister, make the right pronouncements.” But functionally, each year -- the nice thing about Afghanistan is there’s no jungles. You can just go back in a helicopter, and you can measure with great accuracy how it’s growing. ...
We’ve seen the success of the Awakening model in Iraq. Is there a tribal solution that’s akin to that that could be applied, in your view, in Afghanistan, or even in the tribal areas?
Well, I think you have to understand the tribal realities of the country. But Afghans, I think, will also rapidly gravitate to good governance, especially at the regional level, so I think it is possible to make some inroads. If you’re going to make their lives more secure, that means more well-trained police. You’re going to provide some economic revitalization through the PRTs [provincial reconstruction teams] and gradually expand the international programs and the central government’s programs, and also to gradually wean the economy off of its dependence on narcotics and get a judicial system that’s functioning. I think that those are the elements that we have to work on.
How much of this is just a matter of neglect because the attention has been focused on the war in Iraq?
Well, that would probably [be] more of a U.S. question. ... I can only speak to NATO’s because that was my job. I thought NATO was focused on it. Before people criticize NATO too much, I think you have to read the charter and the tasking that was given to the military mission, that it was essentially to provide security and to assist and establish the conditions whereby reconstruction and economic development could take place.
The problem is that we did the security piece reasonably well. But, as in Iraq, that other governance piece, economic reconstruction piece, was very slow to metastasize, which is all the more disappointing because, as I said, you have almost 50 countries on the ground there trying to do the right thing. And it’s just a shame that we have not been able to or could not bring ourselves to focus on those three or four things that we talked about that just absolutely have to be done.
Is the problem that no one’s in charge?
There’s certainly some truth to that. ... Kabul is awash with executive vehicles going from one meeting to the other, but if you don’t have anybody that can operationalize the vision, you don’t get anywhere. In my view, I hope it can be recovered. But it’s certainly an opportunity lost for what we haven’t been able to do. Given the assets that are there, given the effort, all the pieces are there. We should be able to make this work. ...
... One thing we have to understand is Afghanistan has all the legitimacy that you could want for any kind of international intervention. It has numerous U.N. resolutions; it has NATO’s; it has the European Union’s. I mean, every legitimate tool of international diplomacy has been agreed to. So a failure in Afghanistan, should that happen -- ... and I don’t think it will -- is not simply a U.S. problem; it’s an international problem. It’s a failure of the U.N., in my view. ...
Now I think it’s going to be harder simply because we now have Pakistan, … a serious problem with regard to how you clean up the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. ...
How much of the answer lies in bringing more U.S. troops into Afghanistan?
Well, I think that if you’re dealing with, you know, 5,000, 6,000, you’re talking about a regional impact. If you’re going to put them in the south or in the east, you have more capacity to affect a certain specific mission that you’re going after. It’s not going to have a national impact. If you really wanted to occupy Afghanistan, it would be in the tens of thousands.
But that’s not what any general is recommending. So they’re asking for small augmentations in the thousands, more helicopters, more mobility. This is not dramatic stuff given the number of countries that are there, whether it’s coming from the U.S. or from the allies. ...
So it’s not about a massive surge of troops into Afghanistan?
I think the request has been very reasonable in terms of numbers, and it’s to do specific things. And it will have an effect. But to me, the solution in Afghanistan is not, you know, 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 more troops if you don’t tackle the root causes that fundamentally attack the hope of the people -- if you don’t make their lives better, more secure; if you don’t wean the economy off of narcotics; if you don’t have a judicial system that works, which is why I find this really ... disappointing. ...
Let’s talk about the tactics that you’re seeing the Taliban employing, how they’ve evolved over the time that you’ve been watching the situation on the ground.
Well, they’ve obviously gotten bolder. In 2003 we rarely saw suicide bombers, so that’s been imported from Iraq. You rarely had, in 2004, 2005, even 2006, incidents in Kabul. ... So obviously there’s a greater threat. The enemy has been able to reorganize himself and has the money to do that. So you’re buying more sophisticated weapons, and you’re causing more and more trouble in the fighting end of things. So it’s a worrisome thing.
How is it that they’re able to strengthen themselves deep inside the country?
I think they have the skill sets for making bombs, and they’re buying ammunition. ... Some of it’s homegrown, some imported, but all of it’s paid for. You can’t do this without money. And I come back to my central theme that the core of this problem is, where is the money coming from? And the linkage between the uptake and violence and the sophistication has to do with the fact that they’re getting money, and they’re getting it at least in part from a narcotics trade.
Ironically it’s coming from the streets of Europe?
Yes. Ironically, 90 percent of it is sold on the streets of Europe. ...
Is there, in your view, a clear answer to the narcotics problem?
Well, I think there is. I think it’s comprehensive. Most of the solutions you hear about is that we should destroy the crop, we should buy the crop, ... we should provide crop substitution. But the truth is, you should do all of those things. But the first thing you have to do is you have a system of law enforcement and prosecution, and nobody has seen that yet. So the advantage goes to the people who are producing economic benefits even though it’s completely illicit, and nobody wants it. And until they change that paradigm from the government with the help of the international organization[s], and [until] you can incentivize crop substitutions, alternate crops, rebuild the irrigation system, build roads, get the perishable crops to market and obviously have a penal system that is working, then you can probably turn this around.
Are there alternative crops that will pay as well as the poppies?
Probably not. But you could subsidize it. I mean, you’d be spending your money more wisely than we’re doing now if you start with subsidies until you build up the volume that you need. I think it’s imminently doable. It just takes an agreement on a grand strategy to do it, and to focus the assets and the resources necessary. I think the Afghans have to participate in this. I think I’d rather see the Afghan army going after, at least in part, the drug producers with the same gusto they’re going after the Taliban, because one feeds off the other. ...