Richards: Time To Turn Afghan War Around is 'Now'

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Gen. Sir David Richards has been a commander in the Afghan war, and a critics of the way it's been carried out. Richards is Britain's equivalent of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He tells Renee Montagne that NATO currently has the right resources and the right troops numbers to turn the war around.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Our next guest has been both a commander in the war in Afghanistan and a critic of the way it's been carried out. General Sir David Richards is Great Britain's chief of Defence Staff. That's the equivalent of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs here in the U.S.

Back in 2006, General Richards was head of NATO forces in Afghanistan. He faced a Taliban that had just that year regrouped and was fighting hard to get back their heartland - Kandahar. I began by asking him about a prediction he made back in 2006.

At one time you said something quite dramatic, that if there wasn't more reconstruction and that if Afghans didn't see an improvement in their lives in six months, you said, 70 percent of Afghans would go over to the Taliban. That didn't exactly happen. I mean, the Taliban did flow in. Afghans still mostly aren't behind them.

General Sir DAVID RICHARDS (Chief of Defence Staff, Great Britain): Well, I -as ever, you know, the soundbite has caught up with me. I didn't actually say 70 percent could go to the Taliban.

What I was saying is that about 10 percent of the population, give or take, mainly in the South, were sympathetic to the Taliban. Twenty percent were hotly opposed and still certainly are. But 70 percent, if you like, were floating voters, and that there was a risk that if we didn't get the reconstruction development and governance side of the equation right, that 70 percent would progressively turn towards the Taliban.

So I'm delighted that the polls reveal that a good majority of Afghans are still with us and still want us to succeed. But I would also emphasize that we're taking too long in delivering it and we need to get on with it.

MONTAGNE: Now, British troops were in charge of a large swath of southern Afghanistan at this point - 2006, 2007 - just at the point at which the Taliban was becoming resurgent. British troops were, you know, based in Helmand Province, as today U.S. Marines are fighting there.

I'm wondering, had you had the tens of thousands of troops that are there now, had you had them, would things be different now?

Gen. RICHARDS: I like to think that without a doubt they would've been different. I remember debating it with people like Mr. Rumsfeld, that back in 2005, '06, there were insufficient resources going into Afghanistan, a vacuum was created, and we've been playing catch-up ever since. The problem was that we were all eyes on Iraq.

I actually can say with hand on heart - and I speak a lot to General Petraeus -that many of the things that he's doing today were things that we were articulating but unable to do back in 2006. And I only wish we had been able to do it.

MONTAGNE: When you were head of the NATO effort in Afghanistan five years ago, did you find yourself pleading for help from NATO countries that were just not interested in fighting?

Gen. RICHARDS: Well, I don't think pleading. I don't think generals do pleading. I certainly articulated the case, as General Petraeus does today. That is part of your job at that level and you've got to explain why you need more resources and what will happen in your judgment if you don't get them.

The key is to make sure that we allow the development and nonmilitary effort to catch up and then keep pace with all that military effort. And I think if we can get that right, then we have every reason to be optimistic.

MONTAGNE: Although you have also written and spoken about problems with aid in Afghanistan. I mean, over all these years, aid is one of the biggest chunks of the economy and a distorting element of the economy.

I have to say one maybe slightly startling comment that you made - and I'm going to quote you - said it may have been better and more efficient if the international community had simply air-dropped bundles of money throughout the country. What about that? How would aid be better used?

Gen. RICHARDS: Well, it's a very interesting philosophical point, the effect of aid. It can have a pernicious effect. Too much aid has been focused on very worthwhile activities, but not enough on the bare essentials of what makes any community, any people, work, if you like.

And I mean, essentially I used to say, and still do, that what Afghanistan most needs is electricity, irrigation, roads and employment. And we now need to focus, I think, more on the generation of jobs, in the four years, I'll say, that we've now got left to get this right, so they can take the thing forward themselves.

MONTAGNE: There's long been talk in Afghanistan of a window of opportunity. And at the moment we're at a turning point. How many more turning points in your opinion are left?

Gen. RICHARDS: Well, my own view is that this is it. There's no doubt that domestic support - i.e., U.S. and British and other European domestic support for the operation - is, shall we say, slightly fragile. The nations in the area, the region that we're talking about, they don't want us to go on doing this forever.

I think if there is no clear signs of progress over, shall we say, the period of particularly late 2011-2012, then we will have to assess again whether we've got it right. And this is our - not necessarily our final, but this is certainly our best chance now of getting it right. We've got the resources. We've got the troop numbers. It won't go on like that forever, so we've got to get it right.

MONTAGNE: General, thank you very much for joining us.

Gen. RICHARDS: A pleasure, and thank you.

MONTAGNE: General Sir David Richards, the United Kingdom's chief of Defence Staff. He spoke to us in Washington.

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