An Update On The Battle In Afghanistan

Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez is the deputy commander of United States forces in Afghanistan and directs day-to-day operations of coalition forces there. He speaks to host Robert Siegel about the battle there.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Lieutenant General David Rodriguez is the deputy commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, where he directs day-to-day operations of coalition forces. And he's our guest today.

Welcome to the program.

Lieutenant General DAVID RODRIGUEZ (Deputy Commander, U.S. Forces, Afghanistan): Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: You said this week that if Pakistan doesn't move on the Taliban in North Waziristan that is within their own borders, that's not a mission-stopper. Wouldn't it greatly assist the mission if they did that?

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: Certainly, it would greatly assist the mission. And what I'm focusing on, as the operational commander, is building the strength and durability in the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan Border Police, police, to withstand the challenges that they'll see from their border.

SIEGEL: But when you say it wouldn't be a mission-stopper, are you making the best of a bad thing? You would prefer the Pakistanis to do this, but you (unintelligible)?

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: Oh, absolutely. Everybody (unintelligible) would prefer for them to do more and more over there, which makes it easier on the mission in Afghanistan.

SIEGEL: There was also a rise in assassinations by the Taliban from 2009 to 2010. What do those numbers say about the Taliban strategy?

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: What happens when they see more security forces out, they adjust because they can't control the people like they want to, or as easily as they had in the past. Then they turn to an intimidation and murder campaign, and that's what they've done.

Now, the assassinations overall, I believe, have gone down this year. Now, the assassinations of government officials has increased, and it has increased in the Kandahar area and its environs. The rest of the areas have decreased.

So when you look at those figures, you really have to analyze the whole overall area.

SIEGEL: So what you're seeing, you're saying, is where government officials are now, first of all, actually administering something and where U.S. and allied forces have pushed the Taliban out...

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: Right.

SIEGEL: ...then assassination becomes a tool.

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: Right. And it's the same with the people who start to support their government. Because, again, that's what threatens the insurgents' control of people.

SIEGEL: It is an understandable discouragement to an Afghan to go take up a position, being an official in a place, when the strategy of the Taliban is to assassinate those officials.

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: It sure is. But, you know, the other thing that's not always understood is there are some incredibly brave Afghans who keep stepping up into these positions, who especially, you know, start to understand that there's a better hope for a future. So in every place that we've been in, again, it happened in Marja, it happened in the central Helmand River Valley, it's happened in Sangan, as one of the tribes has begun the peace overtures.

People keep stepping up. And again, as they earn the trust and confidence of people, more people come forward to serve.

SIEGEL: The United States went to war in Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaida and its leaders, especially Osama bin Laden. First, are you still fighting - are your forces still fighting al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan? And second, how high does the mission of getting bin Laden rank in your list of priorities?

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: There are very, very few al-Qaida operatives inside Afghanistan itself. There is...

SIEGEL: Hundreds? Dozens? Thousands?

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: Less than hundreds.

SIEGEL: Fewer than hundreds.

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: Yes. And again, the mission that we were assigned was to build a durable enough Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from overthrowing it and al-Qaida from coming back. So that's what we're focusing on in Afghanistan today.

SIEGEL: Getting bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, his number two, does it figure? Do you assume that's somebody else's problem?

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: Again, if they're in Afghanistan, that's our problem. But we don't think that's where they are right now.

SIEGEL: They're in Pakistan, you assume.

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: That's what we assume.

SIEGEL: And therefore, not your problem, can't do anything about it.

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: I can't do anything about it. That's correct.

SIEGEL: So looking ahead to July, which is when President Obama wants to begin drawing down U.S. forces, does it appear to you that the start of that drawdown will be nominal, will be substantial? How many troops can leave?

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: Well, I'm not going to make a guess at that yet. That'll be a couple of months before we do that. But we're looking at that very hard. And again, we'll have to see a couple of things. One of them, as you mentioned earlier, was the strategy and how they come out as whether it'd be an assassination and intimidation campaign alone, whether it'd be a mixture, or how they do that.

So that'll be a couple of months before we really get a good estimate of that. And we'll give our best military advice and move out.

SIEGEL: But when you're here in Washington, say, is your message to the Pentagon: Don't pull the rug out from under me. Don't be precipitous in withdrawing troops, or things are looking good and keep according to schedule.

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: Well, again, there's no schedule. It's all conditions-based, and we're going to stay with that. And again, we'll give our best military advice based on the conditions on the ground and our ability to, again, thin our forces while the Afghan forces assume more responsibilities. So it's going to be a judgment call all the way down on the ground.

SIEGEL: And can you say simply, we're winning, the U.S. is winning in this conflict?

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: Yeah. We have made - we have told everybody we're making slow and steady progress, and that all the objectives that had been laid out in front of us are attainable.

SIEGEL: General Rodriquez, thank you very much for talking with us.

Lt. Gen. RODRIQUEZ: OK. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Lieutenant General David Rodriguez who is deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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