- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2008

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

KABUL, Afghanistan | The new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, said he will visit Pakistan in the next few weeks to coordinate strategy amid a deteriorating relationship between the two U.S. allies.

As a NATO command, the mandate for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) “does not extend across the border to Pakistan,” Gen. McKiernan told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview. “So we do have a right to self-defense, but we do not have any ISAF military operations in the sovereign territory of Pakistan.”

“But part of the security environment and challenge in Afghanistan are the materials, the insurgents, the leadership that comes across the border from [Pakistan’s] North West Frontier Province.”

The NATO-led ISAF has about 33,000 American troops as part of an international force of nearly 70,000.

Gen. McKiernan said he was eager to establish a good relationship with Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

“I want, as a new commander in this environment, to establish a relationship with him and the Afghan leadership, and to bring that process further along,” he said.

In a process that will include Gen. McKiernan, Gen. Kayani and top Afghan military leaders, the ISAF commander said they will “meet and discuss security issues that affect the border area.”

Gen. McKiernan told The Times that a “liaison between Pakistan’s military and ISAF along the border” already exists, but “we need to build on that.”

“There is certainly a rise in violence in the south and eastern parts of Afghanistan,” he said. “We’ve got to win those areas.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has threatened to send Afghan troops into Pakistan to fight Taliban and al Qaeda militants thought to be sheltering there.

Though the Afghan government later clarified the remarks to mean hot pursuit in a combat situation, the flurry of rhetoric from both sides illustrated the tensions between governments in Kabul and Islamabad that Gen. McKiernan hopes to ease.

After just three weeks as the new commander, Gen. McKiernan said he has no doubts about his mission: “I’m here to win.”

Gen. McKiernan, who has replaced Army Gen. Dan McNeil as commander of the 40-nation ISAF, said that winning in Afghanistan is essential to “global security” and that “winning is not about the NATO alliance, the future of NATO or any of that, but about the Afghan government, Afghanistan and the Afghan people.”

He returned to his Kabul headquarters earlier in the week after visiting troops throughout the war-torn nation’s 34 provinces, and said he would visit neighboring Pakistan sometime in the next few weeks.

The U.S. commander said he is committed to returning Afghanistan, which has experienced a surge of violence and instability over the past month, back to the Afghan people and securing the nation’s future from the Taliban and from al Qaeda terrorists.

Within the past week, U.S.-led forces have fought two major battles with Taliban insurgents, one in eastern Paktika province along the Pakistani border and another on the outskirts of the southern city of Kandahar.

U.S. officials are desperate to keep the long-standing tensions between the two countries from breaking out into open hostilities.

In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “I think it’s better that Pakistan and Afghanistan cooperate on their respective sides of the border.”

“There are Taliban operating in Afghanistan who have to be defeated,” she said, quickly adding that “there are Taliban who are operating in Pakistan and they have to be defeated, too.”

A Pakistani peace accord with tribal elders in the border regions in 2006, which Islamabad had hoped would undercut support for Islamist activities, instead led to an increase in the insurgency, recruitment of more terrorists and more training camps for al Qaeda, said U.S. counterterrorism officials familiar with the region.

That deal eventually collapsed. However, peace talks between Pakistan’s newly elected government and militants in tribal areas have raised new concerns in Afghanistan.

Further complicating matters are the financial and weapons support to the Taliban insurgency and al Qaeda from foreign financiers and countries.

“It’s a documented fact that there are foreign fighters and foreign financiers” supporting the insurgency in the Pakistani border regions, Gen. McKiernan said.

An intelligence report obtained by The Times found that al Qaeda has recruited agents from the United States and Britain to infiltrate areas frequented by foreigners in Kabul.

The commander would not comment on the report, but acknowledged that terrorism poses “a very real threat” internationally.

He said al Qaeda emanates from sanctuaries on both sides of the border, adding that the terrorist threat is not directed just at Afghanistan, but “regionally and globally.”

“What happens if we don’t [win in Afghanistan] is New York City, September 11, 2001, Washington D.C., London, Madrid, Indonesia,” the general said, ticking off a string of terrorist strikes by al Qaeda over the past seven years.

He said commanders must be willing to make the same sacrifices as the men they are leading.

“Senior leaders owe it to their soldiers to do the same thing,” he said, leaning forward in his chair to point at a map of the various provinces he has visited. “In my case, not just to the United States of America, but to all the 40 countries that are contributing to this ISAF mission.”

Traveling throughout the provinces has shown him the complexity of the Afghanistan challenge as well as the incredible “courage” and “strength” of the Afghan people.

“Without a doubt, when you meet the Afghans, they are worth fighting for. They are a strong, courageous, resilient people. They want a viable, secure environment.”