NATO Commander Weighs Efforts in Afghanistan

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U.S. Army Gen. Dan McNeill, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, addresses a dilemma: How to attack insurgents without alienating the Afghan people.


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


And I'm Rebecca Roberts.

Here are two stories of war fought among civilian populations. The U.S. is trying to win over civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that adds urgency to stories of civilians killed in battle.

INSKEEP: This week, Afghan officials said Western troops were involved in a firefight and 21 civilians were killed, including women and children. We learn more from General Dan McNeill, the commander of NATO forces in Southern Afghanistan.

General DAN McNEILL (U.S. Army): A coalition unit, mostly American, was conducting an operation north of Helmand province. They got into an ambush by a far-superior force and as they tried to work their way through this by shooting and moving, it became clear this was a pretty good-size insurgent force who also could shoot and move pretty well. And eventually the only way they were going to get out of it is they got backed up to a river and between that and a piece of high ground was to use as air strike.

It does appear there were civilian casualties - exactly what caused them, we're working our way through all of that. And I think we could state conclusively, it has been and likely was in this event their tactic to push themselves inside of civilian homes, to shoot from those homes, and we know this.

On the other hand, we don't want the soldiers of the alliance or the coalition to be killed, and when we're attacked we're going to attack back.

INSKEEP: How damaging are those incidents when the Taliban can come out, as they did this week, and say the Americans are killing Afghans and we're the ones who are going to avenge those deaths?

Gen. McNEILL: I have in my office here, Steve, an insurgent video, and you used the term Taliban, I'll just use the term insurgents, if that's okay with you. But it was produced by the Taliban. It features the beheading of four men. It's grotesque and vulgar to the Nth degree. That was a delivered act. It could be that sometimes in spite of the care we take civilians get killed, but we never target deliberately. I don't think you could say the same of the Taliban.

INSKEEP: Although I'm thinking of the political effect of the so-called collateral damage here. When you look this week at the Afghan parliament, one house of the parliament passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire with the Taliban. That was supported by a lawmaker, quoted by the Associated Press, who seems to think the Taliban are awful, who seems to think that they hide behind civilians but nevertheless says that civilians are being killed, and that's not acceptable. He supported this resolution. What does this do to your political support inside that country?

Gen. McNEILL: The will of the Afghan people, who invite us here, is certainly important to us. We will take every measure to mitigate any risk to civilians or to property.

If I might give you another example of what extremes we go - this occurred with me personally last month. It involves a very sensitive operational concept. The target was a very significant insurgent leader. In the final analysis it was my decision not to take the action that would have killed or captured this individual. We very clearly knew where he was, sitting a circle, five or six other guys, but just across a wall from where they were sitting were perhaps 50 or more Afghans, many of them children. We could have used a munition that would have minimized the risk, but in the end result they would have been traumatized greatly. And my decision was we'll get this fellow another day, and we will.

INSKEEP: You mentioned earlier that you would rather call your enemy insurgents rather than the Taliban; why is that?

Gen. McNEILL: I think that's what occurring here, is an insurgency, and I think what we are doing about it would be called counterinsurgency operations. And so I'm not sure it's useful to continue to say this is the Taliban.

INSKEEP: Can you ever negotiate with the insurgents, as called you them?

Gen. McNEILL: I will leave that to the political bodies; that clearly is in the political side, and I don't think that's my forte.

INSKEEP: I think one of your predecessors in the role as NATO commander actually strike up a ceasefire agreement with the Taliban at one point, right?

Gen. McNEILL: You would be speaking to my friend, David Richards, who...

INSKEEP: British general, yes.

Gen. McNEILL: I'm not sure that he entered into this arrangement. I think he had knowledge of it but didn't enter into it.

INSKEEP: But it was NATO forces that did so?

Gen. McNEILL: I think it was more - it was a national issue, but to go much further, I might - could be construed as criticizing one of our allies, and I wouldn't do that.

INSKEEP: Understanding that you're constrained from criticizing an ally, let's put it in the passive tense. There was a ceasefire agreement in Southern Afghanistan with some members of the Taliban at one time. Is that something that you would pursue if the opportunity came up?

Gen. McNEILL: I don't think it worked the first time. In my view, the deal that was struck, just from a military standpoint, in its best case it might have been a tactical error; in its worst case it might have been a strategic blunder, because the people who wanted the deal struck were not strong enough to effect their own government, and within 24-48 hours of the insurgents had dominated them. So it's possible that you could get to some agreement like this but you have to have the right conditions, and I don't think those conditions existed when that deal was made.

INSKEEP: General, one last question. Have you had an occasion to simply take a walk down an Afghan street recently, and if so, what did you see?

Gen. McNEILL: I have been - I'm not trying to be Hollywood or tout something, but I was in the northwest province of Badghis. They consider themselves the poorest province in Afghanistan. I think they are a poor province. We have a fairly effective provincial reconstruction team. They are built from a Spanish infantry regiment. When I went up to visit with them, we walked out on the streets; we wanted to see some projects they were doing. And I'm doing this without benefit of body armor or a helmet or whatnot. And to be sure, I had people that had the ability to secure groups around me. But when we walked by the bazaar, it's bustling. And granted, it does not look like Sach's or FAO Schwartz or something along these lines. But by Afghan standards it look pretty good.

INSKEEP: Is that what your soldiers have to do in order to win this fight, take off the helmet, take off the body armor?

Gen. McNEILL: I think that there will come a time when that's very possible. I don't think we're there yet, Steve.

INSKEEP: Well, General Dan McNeill, thanks for taking the time.

Gen. McNEILL: It was my pleasure.

INSKEEP: He's the commander of NATO forces in Southern Afghanistan.

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