General: We Can't Kill Our Way Out Of Afghanistan

Originally published on May 28, 2011 6:16 pm
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From NPR News, this is Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Rachel Martin, sitting in for Guy Raz.

It's been nearly a month since a team of U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden. Since then, the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan has been dicey.

This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Pakistan.

(Soundbite of speech)

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): Today, we discussed in even greater detail cooperation to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and to drive them from Pakistan and the region. We will do our part, and we look to the government of Pakistan to take decisive steps in the days ahead.

MARTIN: That pressure may be paying off. A U.S. official tells NPR that a CIA forensics team has now left the bin Laden compound. It was the first time Americans had been allowed back in since the night of the raid, which brings us to our cover story today, the bin Laden effect, how the al-Qaida leader's death is changing the equation for the U.S. in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For the past year, Major General John Campbell has been the top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan, along the Pakistan border. He's just returned to Washington, D.C., after a yearlong tour. Campbell says the toughest foe in that part of the country isn't the Taliban or even al-Qaida; it's a tribal insurgent group called the Haqqani network. He points to a suicide attack in a market on May 1st that killed eight Afghan civilians.

Major General JOHN CAMPBELL (Regional Commander, International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan): We really believe this was really Haqqani, which, you know, really has a symbiotic relationship with the Taliban. We have seen a lot of the suicide vest attacks over the past year.

There has been other intelligence out there that we'll see a lot more with the recruiting young children that will put on explosives and walk them into, you know, bazaars or into large groups of people to cause damage that way. So, you know, really, 90 percent again of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, or at least in Regional Command East, were caused by the insurgents, 90 percent.

MARTIN: You have said often that the Haqqani network is the toughest part of this insurgency. Why?

Maj. Gen. CAMPBELL: They're better funded, better trained. They have sanctuary inside of Pakistan. They're going after the government of Afghanistan officials, where guys are putting on the Afghan army or the Afghan police uniforms and trying to insert themselves into where they live and really try to have a wedge between the coalition forces and the Afghan forces with the suicide bombings.

So they have much better training, much better funding. There's a little bit of an influence of foreign troops there. And that's really the Haqqani network.

MARTIN: General Petraeus, your boss over in Afghanistan, is getting ready to give a recommendation to President Obama about how many U.S. troops should start to come home in July. What did you tell General Petraeus before you left about your area of responsibility?

Maj. Gen. CAMPBELL: What I really laid out to the boss there was, you know, the progress, I think, that we had made, really, with the Afghan National Security Forces, where they had come over the past year. We were constantly looking at realigning forces throughout the battle space in Afghanistan.

Over 130 COPs and FOBs, combat outposts and forward operating bases, in Regional Command East, and I constantly took a look at where we could realign those. Some we closed; some we transferred over to the Afghan National Security Forces; some we added people to.

MARTIN: There seems to be pretty close to a consensus here in Washington among military leaders and administration officials that the U.S. cannot win the war in Afghanistan until those safe havens in Pakistan go away, until insurgents can no longer run across the border to Pakistan, regroup there and then go back into Afghanistan to wage more attacks. Do you agree with that?

Maj. Gen. CAMPBELL: Well, what I would tell you is we can't kill our way out of this thing. So there's got to be some sort of political solution tied into that. But you cannot talk about Afghanistan without mentioning Pakistan.

And when you have safe haven or sanctuary across the border, you know, we have to have some sort of solution to help that out. You know, I think some of that's going to change, though. We really made a dent, I think, on the insurgents, over 5,000 killed or captured in the time that I was there.

As we capture folks and, you know, we get information from them, they're able -you're able to see that the morale is down. Their supplies are down. We found double the amount of caches over the winter time frame compared to the same time frame a year ago.

And so I think the battlefield geometry really, really changed because we kept on the offensive. We kept the tempo up. But again, there has to be some sort of solution to help us alleviate people going back and forth.

Now, I think people see those films of bin Laden sitting in a lonely room, you know, kind of looking at video of himself and they're going to think, why am I doing this? Why am I here in Afghanistan when the leadership's in Pakistan? And so I think a lot of that is going to hurt the morale, will hurt the recruiting efforts, will hurt the funding efforts of both al-Qaida and the Taliban.

MARTIN: Major General John Campbell has just finished a one-year tour as the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan.

General Campbell, thanks very much for taking the time to talk with us.

Maj. Gen. CAMPBELL: Yeah, thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.