The volatile Afghan province of Kandahar will be the next focus of the new, more sensitive approach to fighting the Taliban, the top US commander in the country has said. US and British forces are implementing an Afghan-led strategy in an offensive launched ten days ago in neighbouring Helmand province, according to General Stanley McChrystal. He told reporters that those tactics would form the basic model for future operations. Asked where the future trouble spots would lie in a country in which Taliban influence remains a threat, he said: We are going to go to where significant parts of the population are at risk and Kandahar is clearly very, very important, not just to the south but to the nation. Kandahar City, the capital of the province, was once the Talibans centre of power and it maintains a grip on key districts around the city. Speaking after the Dutch Government collapsed over a dispute on whether to withdraw its troops from the conflict, General McChrystal said that allied forces would face challenges, but he was confident that the campaign would succeed. US, British and Afghan troops are pushing through hostile terrain in the heart of Helmand, with a focus on protecting civilians, helping the Afghan police and army take control and enabling Afghan governance to grow as part of Operation Moshtarak, the largest offensive in Afghanistan since 2001. In many ways it is a model for the future: an Afghan-led operation supported by the coalition, deeply engaged with the people, said General McChrystal, speaking at Natos International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. He added that every situation will be dealt with a little bit differently because conditions in every area are different. Kandahar is also the headquarters of allied forces in southern Afghanistan, led by the British Major-General Nick Carter. A plan is being finalised to split the command, which covers an area of about 60,000 foreign forces, including most of the 9,500 British troops in the country. The Times understands that there are ongoing discussions over how Nato forces could be restructured in southern Afghanistan after the likely Dutch withdrawal later this year and a potential Canadian withdrawal next autumn. One option under consideration is for British troops to be relocated to Kandahar province, leaving Helmand to the US Marines; a proposal made by US commanders to their British counterparts. The British Lieutenant-General Sir Nick Parker, deputy commander of allied troops under General McChrystal, said that, although Kandahar was under government control, the province remained volatile. Extending the principle of Afghan government control across the whole of the south is really important, General Parker said. Two American battalions have been deployed alongside Canadian forces to try to end the insecurity that has plagued Kandahar City. A US brigade has also been deployed to bring security to the road network connecting Kandahar to Helmand and to the Pakistan border. In a campaign designed for the next eight months, security improvements are expected to be backed by efforts to bring a reliable electricity supply to Kandahar City. General Parker said that kinetic action military-speak for the kind of offensive tactics that kicked off Operation Moshtarak would be needed in some areas, but he put more emphasis on undermining the insurgency through civilian means such as building up education, health and other services. The renewed effort in Kandahar comes after three years of declining security in and around the city and despite repeated Nato operations to clear the key districts of Zarai, Panjwai and Arghandab close to the city. General McChrystal, who spoke alongside Mark Sedwill, former British Ambassador to Afghanistan and now Natos senior civilian representative, said that the new approach meant that it would take time for his forces to clear Marjah and the surrounding area, which were defended by scores of buried Taliban bombs and booby-trapped buildings. Allied forces found 68 improvised explosive devices in the first week, which began on February 13, and were hit by a further 25. We are going to go as slowly as we have to go to minimise the risk of killing civilians, the general said. Nato puts the current toll of civilian deaths from the operation at 16, while 12 allied forces have died, including three British soldiers. The number of insurgents killed or captured is unclear. Full transcript of the interview with General Stanley McChrystal Roundtable with General Stanley McChrsytal, US commander of International Security Assistance Force, and Mark Sedwill, Natos new senior civilian representative. They were speaking on February 20 to The Times and five other journalists from France, Spain, Lithuania, Turkey and Slovenia. McChrystal: Let me start by, only because this is a new team, a week or so old. Ambassador Mark Sedwill is my counterpart, senior civilian representative to Nato Isaf. I think what that does is rounds us out. It certainly gives us a lot more talent but it also gives us the opportunity to be more balanced, wider than just strictly military so I think it is really valuable. Q: Weve been having some briefings at Nato and everyone seems to be very optimistic. We were wondering if you have Plan B (if the new strategy fails)? McChrystal: I think we will succeed and over the long period of the campaign, I am very confident that the Afghans will succeed. To put that in to context for you, I believe that what we are at is a point in which the Government of Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan have decided that in partnership with Nato Isaf that they are ready to shape their own future. The insurgency, particularly the Taleban part, are very, very unpopular and we see significant efforts on the part of the Afghan people to resist that. There will be difficult days ahead. There will be set backs. There will be loss of life among Afghan civilians, Afghan military, coalition as we resist the insurgency but Im very confident over the long haul in the fact that together well be successful. Q: What happens if not? McChrystal: We will be successful. I think over the long haul thats not something that we plan for. Q: What makes you think youre going to be successful? McChrystal: This effort is not strictly a military effort. It is really a battle for the support of the Afghan people. A comparison could be made to an argument where each side is making their case. It will be decided in the minds of the Afghan people, who will decide that their government can provide them legitimate governance, can provide them relative acceptable justice within the Afghan cultural perimeters and then they will help resist the insurgency and I think we are already seeing that. When I talk to Afghans, and I get a chance to travel around the country quite a lot and not just Afghan military or Afghan government agents, but also people down in Shuras around the country. Im convinced that they are absolutely committed to a future without the insurgency Sedwill: It is just worth remembering how localised the insurgency is. Three-fifths of this country is largely outside the reach of the insurgency. So this argument, as the general talks about, is actually an argument within relatively limited communities. Even within those, if you look at any of the opinion polls they suggest that support for the insurgency is low so that in the end is the main reason to feel confident. Most of the country has rejected the insurgency anyway and even in those areas where the insurgency draws some strength from the local population they are still in a very small minority. Well under 20 per cent of the population in most of those areas would support and so that argument goes on but it goes on in very localise areas. It is vicious but its local and limited. Q: Is the model that we are seeing with Operation Moshtarak, with the comprehensive approach, the targeted strikes and the people-centric mission, is that the model that is going to be used in future operations? If so where are your next areas of concern, is it towards Kandahar? Where is going to be the nest Operation Moshtarak McChrystal: First off, it is a general model but every situation will be dealt with a little bit differently because conditions in every area are different. Some of the specific things about Moshtarak that I hope people notice are: It was an area that had been under Taleban control for several years but before Afghan and coalition forces went in we did extensive engagement with the population inside and those who had left. We engaged the population to the point where they actually requested the forces to come in. We also did other shaping in terms of informing them how things would go, what were the plans for after the military phase of it and also to provide the insurgents an opportunity to think about it. Clearly people say that provides them a chance to put in defences and they have done some of that but it also provided many of the insurgents a chance to rethink their position as insurgents some to leave, and we are not judging the effectiveness of this operation by how many insurgents we kill. It is can we protect the population? Can we retake the area in a way that allows as little property damage and as few civilian as possible. In many ways it is a model for the future. An Afghan-led operation supported by the coalition, very deeply engaged with the people. Q: Where are the future trouble spots in your mind? McChrystal: We are going to go to where significant parts of the population are at risk and Kandahar is clearly very, very important not just to the south but to the nation. It is not the only area though. Q: In terms of Moshtarak itself, weve heard people talking about when the clearing stage is going to be over. Given the resistance that we are seeing what is your assessment of when we can start this government in a box? McChrystal: I think it will start in parts of the area very, very rapidly but other parts will take much longer. The insurgents are fighting for the ground. Q: Days, weeks? McChrystal: I defer to General Carter who yesterday talked in terms of 25 to 30 days but I really want to make sure that everyone understands this is going to be based on the conditions and we are going to go as slowly as we have to go to minimise the risk of killing civilians and destroying the area. Its been under Taleban control for a long time so for us to rush I think is less responsible than for us to take our time and get this right. Realising that many of the insurgents are showing a tremendous desire to try to inflict casualties, to include casualties on civilians. Q: I understand that the main part of this is these two words: reintegration and reconciliation with the Taleban. Why do you think it will succeed? As you know, these people have different views from ours. Sedwill: It is important to understand the complexity of the insurgency. About three quarters, probably more fight within a few miles of where they were born and where their families live. And so for them, many have drifted into the insurgency for a variety of reasons: local tribal grievances, friction, disaffection etc. We believe that they can be brought back into the political and economic mainstream reasonably straightforwardly. It is not that they are opportunistic but they have drifted into it for a lot of local reasons. In a sense they are fighting with the Taleban but not for them. That has happened a lot in Afghanistan in many of the civil conflicts that have gone on in the past. There is a hard core of the insurgency who as you say have got a completely different views not only, of course its not to us but its completely different views to the Afghan mainstream, which is what really matters. They need to understand that they can never get any purchase for those views. There is no popular support for it and therefore the conditions that have been set by President Karzai and others and essentially there are only really two firstly that they must respect the Afghan constitution and that of course includes protection for womens rights and the rights of all ethnic groups and secondly that they renounce violence and terrorism and any association with terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. If they are willing to do that then there is an honourable and respectful way back to the mainstream but if they are determined to continue to pursue very hardline ideological goals and overthrow the Afghan state then there is no place for them and they will continue to be subject to the severest military action. Again, that does not apply to most of the insurgency. Most of the insurgency, we believe, is not really fighting this fight because of those reasons of ideology. Q: You know or your believe? Sedwill: We have good information to suggest that it is three-quarters or more. Inevitably there is a degree of imprecision about this but if you talk to the Afghans themselves whove worked very hard on this, the intelligence services the interior ministry, those are the sort of numbers and that is the kind of assessment they would make as well. McChrystal: I agree with the Ambassador on this. President Karzai has made it very clear that he views any insurgent willing to come under the model that Ambassador Sedwill described as welcome back into society with honour and I think thats an important option. Q: What are the roadmaps to pull the Taleban into the political process and Parliament? Sedwill: It is an Afghan roadmap. They are beginning to set it out now. I dont think it is yet completely worked through but President Karzai spoke about it again this morning in his speech in Parliament and it was probably the main theme of that speech. The first key event is the peace jurga. He wants that to be an opportunity for the whole of the Afghan nation to come together. This essentially reflects the point that General McChrystal was just making. He is very clear that he wants to offer an honourable way back into the political and economic mainstream and that all of the disaffected compatriots as he describes them would be welcome back. The peace jurga is an opportunity not only to start that process but to ensure the whole Afghan nation, all of the ethnic groups here, are behind him. That is what he is seeking to achieve. Of course there will need to be specific programmes, there will need to be specific measures in place to try and help people reintegrate back into society to help them get a job, to provide the security reassurances that they and everyone else needs about them. Those techniques are fairly well known and have been used in other programmes across Africa and in resolving other conflicts. The fundamental issue here is that political one and that sense of political will. The peace jurga is probably the first big milestone in that process. McChrystal: I think what we are doing is trying to shape conditions in the country in two ways. First is we are trying to improve security to demonstrate we can protect the Afghan people so they have a choice to support the government and I also think we are trying to improve governance. On the military side we are trying to provide conditions so that governance can be improved so really you are offering the opportunity for people to have a choice but then you are trying to motivate them by showing that you can provide better governance than they had perceived before. Sedwill: That goes to this issue that we were talking about a moment ago and that is ensuring local grievances dont fuel disaffection and fuel the insurgency. Decent governance is absolutely critical to them Q: Winning hearts and minds is also important. What are the strategies to change the negative image of Nato and Western forces here? Are you consulting with local or religious leaders for example? McChrystal: Those are all part of it we are trying to talk to the people at every level. We are trying to talk to local tribal leaders, we are trying to talk to local people in the areas, we are trying to deal with political leaders at every level and be as open and as transparent as we can and not just talk to them but listen to them. Take their desires as we did on Operation Moshtarak. Much of what has been crafted has been based upon what the locals said they wanted for an outcome. We are also trying to chance some of the ways that we maybe perceived by the population, how we use fires. I put out a tremendous amount of limits on how we can use fires to hep reduce accidental civilian casualties. We try to drive better. We try to move along the roads in ways that signal that we respect the Afghan people and their rights on their roads. We spend a lot of time trying to train our force how they can understand. The Turkish forces are particularly good at this. We try to learn from each other. Each of the coalition nations is good at different things and we try to learn from the strengths. And then as we partner with the Afghan security forces they bring a particular strength. When a coalition force operates with an Afghan force they suddenly have language skills, they suddenly have an understanding that they just wont have if theyre not Afghan. Together we become a much better team. Q: Isnt it too late to win hearts and minds after nine years? McChrystal: I think it is important that that be our main effort but I would like to say that winning hearts and minds sometimes gets over simplified. It is not just popularity. The population is not looking for people who will hand out candy. They are looking for people who can provide them security from a very lethal insurgency and they are looking for people who will help them build a future to include governance. I think that if we can build our credibility with them that we are here for them to protect them and respect them then I dont think its too late. I think its the right time. Sedwill: Were not trying to win hearts and minds in affiliation to us. It is trying to help the Afghan government do that. Thats the critical point. That is Afghan to Afghan so in a sense it is never too late. Q: How worried are you that corruption makes Afghan weakest link in this strategy? Sedwill: Corruption is a big issue here. Weve all made it a major theme. Its been a theme of President Karzais inauguration speech, the speech he gave today in Parliament he talked about it again. It is clearly a critical problem in addressing this crisis of confidence that the people have in their government. A lot of it is about capability. There are an awful lot of officials for example at low level who are paid so poorly that they have traditionally indulged in low level corruption frankly in order to feed their families. Where we sometimes get this wrong looking in from the outside is that we focus on the big headline issues, the ones around the centre, the ones around misuse of aid and those issues, and they are all absolutely critical but actually to the ordinary Afghan citizen, whether their district police chief, district governor, district prosecutor, are straight or not is probably much more important than if they read about a grand corruption case involving a famous power broker in the headlines. That is absolutely critical in addressing this. In places like Helmand where we have these operations going on ensuring those people are genuinely going to serve the people is one of the most important measures of whether governance is going to extend. There is a lot going on to address corruption. Ministers are getting on to this. Everyone knows this is a priority, but no one is under any illusion as to how hard its going to be to turn this around and of course these people are embedded in the power structure as in other countries and therefore it is going to take a time to winkle them out. McChrystal: Id like to add that it was interesting before Moshtarak was launched engagement engagement with the population included a large shura with many people from inside the areas held by the Taleban and some who were from there but living outside at this point. They put several conditions on their support for the operation. They said we want the operation but we want it done in a way that you will minimise civilian casualties as much as possible, we want you to guarantee that you will stay and they didnt mean coalition forces they meant Afghan army and police to provide long term security to keep the Taleban away for the future and then last they said we want the best governance possible. We want legitimate, not-corrupt governance. It was that that I think was a good forcing function on everyone on how we operate and how we take it forward. Sedwill: The important thing to remember about corruption is that it is not an issue between the international community and Afghanistan. Its an issue between the government of Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan. Q: What will you do to make Afghan government more effective, at the moment they have no influence outside Kabul? Sedwill: I dont think either of us would agree that they have no influence outside Kabul. Its a criticism thats been bandied around for a long time and it simply isnt true. If you look at Helmand, which is probably the most challenging area of the country at the moment, you have one of the best provincial governors in the country who has built a strong team around him, hes building up teams of district governors and one of the things that is different about Operation Moshtarak is the degree to which the central government and the provincial government have been integrated in their planning for this. In the past these things have tended to be left to the provincial level and this time the central government ministers have been down there and working on it. They are producing teams of young, energetic, bright, well, educated, straight civil servants to go down and work in all the various areas that the people down there want help, health, education, judicial work and so on. No doubt that wont be perfect and of course it wont because of the situation in this country. But even in somewhere like Helmand there is the reach of central government and the reach of the Afghan security forces with our support and of course in many other areas of the country which are already stable then the provincial governors, representatives of the central government are genuinely providing those services that the people want. Much of this country is not conflict ridden. It is just another poor, central Asian country. Half to three-fifths of this country looks that way and the central government runs throughout. McChrystal: The Government must prove itself to the people as it goes into areas, particularly areas where we push the insurgents out. I think thats good for the government. I think all governments need some pressure, all of our governments need some pressure to perform well. Q: Do you see any obstacles on the way to success, some countries are losing their patience, consider pulling out their troops and we have several smaller members with very strict national caveats. Can that be a problem on the way to success? McChrystal: I think there will be many challenges on the road to success. I think there will be things we have to work through and there will be unexpected challenges and there will be days when we will question ourselves and our progress but I think as we step back and look most of the challenges that we face in an effort like this if they are put in context are all things we can work over. Each of the coalition partners comes with limitations. They are not all rules. Sometimes it is the equipment they have, the experience they have, the size they have, but they are just realities. I dont think of them as limitations. I think of them as characteristics. Some of the forces come with great strengths in certain areas and they make up for weaknesses for the coalition. So I think as a team it comes together that well have to make adjustments all the time, well have to account for things expected and unexpected but I think we will continue to move forward. Q: So you dont see problems in Nato itself or in Isaf? McChrystal: No what I said is that I see many challenges. You can call it problems or whatever but I think that will keep us all busy. It will keep Ambassador Sedwill and myself busy every day as we go forward but that doesnt mean we cant do it. Q: So the date of 2011 to start pulling out is very close to that strategy? McChrystal: I think the date of 2011 needs to be put in context of what President Obama actually announced. First he announced in he near-term 30,000 additional forces and that was matched by a number of additional coalition forces so thats between now and 2011 is much greater capacity. We are also increasing the Afghan national security forces, that was approved by Nato as well. Then in the long term what he said was he guaranteed a strategic partnership with the people of Afghanistan. In the long term he guaranteed that the United States would stay wired but Nato has offered the same partnership. So 2011, if you put them between those two realities, he just said that he was going to start to reduce American forces then but it would happen at a pace based on conditions. So I think that sometimes that date gets over emphasised militarily. I think that militarily it is another reality that we can work with. Q: Which provinces are better prepared to start a kind of transition? Sedwill: There are clearly provinces that are already stable and have been stable for a long time but weve got to be very cautious about naming them in advance for two reasons. Firstly, because you immediately set them up as a target for the insurgency to try and reduce the stability there. We need to be very confident that the capability of the Afghan security forces and in deed the Afghan government in those provinces is robust enough to stand the challenge that they will no doubt face so it would be wrong to announce those except at the right time. The reason, which in essence is the more important one, is that this has to be a decision for the Afghan government as well as us. The Afghan government has full sovereignty across the whole of Afghanistan this is not a transfer of sovereignty. This is a question of simply reinforcing their sovereignty and enabling them to visibly take the lead in more and more of the country and President Karzai has said he wants to do that in the whole of the country within his second term, within the next five years, slightly less than five years now. The entire alliance has strongly endorsed that goal. As we identify areas of the country that between us we believe are stable enough and secure enough that Isaf can step back into a supporting role and maybe step back altogether at some point, well work through that with the Afghans and well announce those as we go, but the key operational requirement would be that those areas are robust enough to withstand the challenge they would be likely to face. Q: You want to put responsibility on shoulder of Afghans so how would you assess capability of army and police? McChrystal: In the long term you are correct. We want the Afghans to have responsibility for the defence of their own sovereignty. In the near term we use a saying called shared partnership and what that means is what we do is we partner units together. Shared responsibility for what happens is critical. It cant be a coalition war against the Taleban, nor are the Afghans ready to do it entirely without our help. So we try to hold each other accountable. The Afghan National security forces are growing. They are not as mature as theyll be a year from now or two years from now. They have got to develop leaders. We are helping them develop training programmes. But I would say that when you look at the relative challenges that they have in front of us you also have to look as I did just earlier this week young Afghan army soldiers down fighting every day in places like Marjah. Afghan national police holding checkpoints all around the country and dying at a higher rate than any other force on the battle field and not running away. With all the challenges that theyve got, theyve got an awful lot of strengths already. Q: What is the significance of the recent arrest of Mullah Baradar and the other senior Afghan Taleban in Pakistan and why is it happening now? Has some deal been done between the United States and Pakistan to facilitate this? McChrystal: I think the significance has yet to be fully determined and I think it will play out in the weeks and months ahead. But Mullah Baradar was clearly a significant member of the Taleban structure and so any time a significant member of the organisation is taken out it is going to have an impact on the organisation. Q: Is he talking? Did you get some information? McChrystal: I dont think it would be appropriate for me to talk about it here. Q: Would you agree that the key to success is not just here but is also in Pakistan? Sedwill: Yes absolutely. The second big theme of President Karzais speech in Parliament this morning was about regional stability. All of use recongise that that is critical to bringing an enduring peace to Afghanistan. It is not just Pakistan but of course Pakistan probably more importantly than anywhere else. They are dealing with some very major challenges of their own. The Pakistani Taleban, theyve got other extremist groups there, theres still quite a large number of al-Qaeda floating around in Pakistan and other elements from other parts of central Asia. They are handling some absolutely vicious challenges of their own and their capacity to do so is under strain. But as they do so, with our support, then clearly all of their efforts are important to their stability but also the stability of Afghanistan as well. Each day they make progress, each day they manage to arrest or detain another significant figure whether from the Afghan Taleban or the Pakistan Taleban or al-Qaeda or another group is another step forward.(Times Online)