Afghan Election Blow To Taliban, Leading U.S. General Says

Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne, who has been reporting from the Afghan capital Kabul, talks to Marine General Joseph Dunford, the commander of all allied forces in Afghanistan.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene in Washington.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne in Kabul. Here in Afghanistan last Saturday, millions of Afghans braved threats by the Taliban to vote in record numbers for their next president. With the vote count unfinished, the front-runners have all declared that if elected, they will sign a security deal with the U.S. That would mean a residual force of American and international troops will remain in Afghanistan after this year.

The man in charge of those troops and winding down NATO's role in the war is Gen. Joseph Dunford. He's commander of coalition forces here. He works out of a wood-paneled office in Kabul - which is where I met him, a few days after a vote being hailed as a milestone.

Gen. Dunford, thank you for sitting down and taking the time to talk with us.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD: Well, thanks Renee. It's good to see you again and good to see you back for I think, the ninth or the 10th time.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Tenth, actually.

DUNFORD: Very good. Thanks.

MONTAGNE: Now does this election change your calculation at all? I mean does the resounding rejection of the Taliban makes the Taliban and this insurgency weaker?

DUNFORD: Renee, we're not complacent about the Taliban. We know that they will try to come back after the setback that they've had during the elections. They'll try to conduct high-profile attacks. They'll try to create fear. They'll try to convince people that the elections were anomaly and that the future is filled with abandonment by the international community. But in my mind, the Afghan people are confident about the future and the Taliban are filled with despair.

MONTAGNE: Now what about al-Qaida? You did tell Congress last month when you went before a congressional committee, that al-Qaida and Taliban still were a force to be reckoned with. Are you saying that they could roll back in?

DUNFORD: I view al-Qaida in Afghanistan today is in a survival mode. We know from intelligence that they have an intent to regroup when the pressure is off. We know, right now, that they estimate that we will not be here in a meaningful way after 2014 and they will have an opportunity to once again plan and conduct operations against the West. So it's my assessment that continued pressure on al-Qaida in the region is going to be required for some time to come. Increasingly that pressure in Afghanistan will be provided by Afghan security forces as we continue to grow their counterterrorism capability.

MONTAGNE: Give us an example. And I think Americans kind of want to hear this. You know, that it's hard to keep track of exactly what American forces are doing here other than fighting. Give us an example of the sort of effort that you envision for American troops if some troops stay on after 2014.

DUNFORD: First and foremost, we would be focused on developing what we call self sustainability of the Afghan forces - will allow a modern national army to properly train, organize and equip its forces. So U.S. forces in 2015 and beyond would be actually serving as mentors, trainers and advisers to help the Afghans as they develop the capacity to close those gaps that remain, but they're well on the path. Even today, the day-to-day fighting is being done by Afghan forces and has been, now, for almost a year.

MONTAGNE: No American troops, not one, died last month in Afghanistan. And that was the first month without a single death in seven years. What does that say about this war?

DUNFORD: What it says is that the transition that we began in 2010 has actually moved along a pace. And today, you know, while we've fortunately, did not lose anybody during the month of March, it's important to point out that the sacrifice for what happening here in Afghanistan is increasingly being borne by young Afghan men and women.

MONTAGNE: You're about halfway through your time here. Is there any one thing about Afghanistan that has struck you, that has made you, perhaps, understand the place more?

DUNFORD: Renee, when I came here, you know, a lot of people had talked to me about a culture of dependency in Afghanistan and said that as long as we provided Afghanistan support they would take it and they would never grow their capabilities. I have seen exactly the opposite. When I first came here, there wasn't much of a connection between the Afghan forces and the Afghan people. And today, there is an extraordinary sense of ownership by the Afghan people and the Afghan security forces, it is an extraordinary sense of pride that the people had, that they actually had their own young men and in women providing security for Afghanistan. So at least today, the things that have struck me most is that sense of accountability and responsibility and leadership and the sense of ownership that the Afghan people have for their security forces.

MONTAGNE: Gen. Dunford, thank you very much.

DUNFORD: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That was Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of American and international forces in Afghanistan speaking to me here in Kabul.

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