Gen. Jones: Afghan Op Meant To Build Confidence

National security adviser Gen. James Jones says the Marine operation in Afghanistan's Helmand Province is designed to bring confidence to the people of the region. He says, however, that Afghans must see their own authorities take charge of the country.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And to talk more about the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan, we're joined by the Obama administration's national security advisor, retired Marine General James Jones. Welcome to the program.

General JAMES JONES (Marine, Retired; National Security Advisor): Thank you very much, Melissa.

BLOCK: General Jones, how would you describe the mission that got underway yesterday?

Gen. JONES: This is an operation designed to bring confidence to the people of the region, bring a certain level of security. And hopefully that will be followed by economic development and better governance and rule of law and cooperation with the governor of the region.

BLOCK: All of the things you're talking about, General Jones, would require solid commitment on the Afghan side from both the military and the government. And there has been, as you know, a lot of skepticism about the Afghan's ability to hold up, essentially, their end of the deal. How much do you share in that concern?

Gen. JONES: Well, I do share in that concern. And I also know that the Afghan army and the security forces are not - we don't have the numbers that we hope to have, say, a year from now, but it's also an international responsibility. I think we have 47 countries with us in the region. We have the U.N., we have NATO, the EU.

And this seems to be that we should be able to put things together in such a way that when we establish security, we could very quickly roll in with some economic development and make sure that the people of the region, whether it's at the local, regional or national government level are led by competent people who are not corrupt and who have their interests at heart.

BLOCK: And when you say, we don't have the numbers on the Afghan side, how far off are you from where you would want to be?

Gen. JONES: Well, the size of the Afghan army is about 80,000 now and we're going at the rate of about 2,000 a month. Our goal was about 136,000. They can't be everywhere at once. And so I think what we need to do is to make sure that they are in those places where they need to be. We simply have to have the people of Afghanistan see their Afghan authorities taking control of their own destiny.

BLOCK: I'd like to ask you about that, because our producer Graham Smith has reported that the people in this valley, where he is right now, trust the Afghan police less than they trust the Taliban. How do you overcome that deep suspicion now, borne of many years experience, of local Afghan government officials?

Gen. JONES: Exactly. And that's part of the problem. And that's why we believe there's a - three legs to the stool. The security piece is what we traditionally do very well. But security without economic development, and more importantly, without the local face of the Afghan police and Afghan military to convince the people that they're not only there, but they're going to stay there, is really what we need to concentrate on.

BLOCK: General Jones, I'd like to ask you about troop levels in Afghanistan. You told The Washington Post that your message to commanders there on your recent visit is that troop levels will hold steady and that they need to focus on economic development and governance. And I'm wondering how you square that with what seems to be a different message coming from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen.

He told The Washington Post that the commanding general in Afghanistan is advised that he should tell the administration, here's what I need. There are no intended limits, no preconditions. In his words, ask for what you need. How do those two things get reconciled?

Gen. JONES: Correct. And I've had a conversation with my good friend Admiral Mullen this morning on that and there really isn't any daylight. My message was one to convey that we have a process and we have a strategy. The strategy was formally adopted barely 90 days ago. We are in the middle of ramping up our forces to a total of 68,000, which is 21,000 more. This was what was asked for. And the president agreed to authorize this.

And my message was simply to say that, you know, before we go back and ask for - fill additional forces - that we should make sure that we see how the strategy is being implemented, absent any overwhelming reason that you would have to rush forces into Afghanistan. It seems to me that - and to, more importantly, to the president, that we should get a measure of how we're doing strategically to make sure the entire gamut of the strategy is working.

And it certainly wasn't intended on my part to say that at no time could we ever come back with good reason to make another case. In due time, when we see how the strategy is working, if we need to adjust it, we - you know, they certainly can do what they feel they need to do.

BLOCK: General Jones, thank you very much for talking with us.

Gen. JONES: You're certainly welcome.

BLOCK: That's retired Marine Corp General James Jones. He's the White House national security advisor.

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First U.S. Casualties Reported In Afghanistan Push

As thousands of U.S. Marines poured from helicopters and armored vehicles into villages in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, the Marines reported their first casualties from the massive effort to reclaim the Helmand River valley from Taliban control.

It is the first major operation under President Obama's strategy to boost U.S. forces in Afghanistan and stabilize the country. The goal is to clear insurgents from the volatile region before the nation's Aug. 20 presidential election and restore stability to the region.

"One Marine has been killed in action, and several others have been injured or wounded throughout the day," said Capt. Bill Pelletier, a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. There were no more details on the extent of the injuries.

The brigade has not received any confirmed reports of civilian casualties or damage to property, says Pelletier. The Marines are now in the process of setting up combat outposts along the thin green stretch of the Helmand River valley.

The valley is a major stronghold of the resurgent Taliban, and a source of their cash crop, poppies that are turned into heroin.

The Marines involved in the offensive — about 4,000 infantry troops including units from North Carolina and California — have seen only sporadic resistance, according to NPR journalists traveling with the Marines and a military spokesman.

"The enemy has chosen to withdraw rather than engage for the most part," says Marine Lt. Abe Sipe.

The Marines are now in the process of renting houses along the valley to use as outposts. But NPR producer Graham Smith said one resident took a $100 rental fee from Marines, only to quickly return it, fearing he would be found out by the Taliban.

Throughout Helmand province, residents talk of threats from the Taliban: police who have been told to leave their job or face the possibility family members will be killed; teachers who are told to stop instructing girls or their schools will be bombed; shopkeepers who are told to leave town so their businesses can be used as safe houses.

Operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," is meant to take back this Taliban-held territory that has seen few Afghan or U.S. forces in recent years. There have been sporadic military operations involving U.S .and British troops, but there have never been enough troops to hold the ground.

"This is an enemy used to small scale attacks and having the coalition pull back," Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the brigade commander, told his Marines shortly before the operation began. "There is no pull back. We will stay on him and ride him."

The operation is a test of the Obama administration's new strategy in Afghanistan. The effort calls for "clearing" the area of Taliban, "holding" the ground and then "building" government capacity, Afghan forces and the economy.

Nicholson told his Marines they would find the enemy and either kill or capture them.

Early indications are that the Taliban have dispersed in the face of the Marine operation. That could change quickly, with insurgents mounting small scale attacks or suicide bombings.

The Taliban, who took control of Afghanistan in 1996 and were ousted from power following a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, have made a violent comeback, wreaking havoc in much of the country's south and east, and forcing the United States to pour in the new troops.

Pelletier, the Marine spokesman, said the troops in Thursday's operation were sent in by a mixture of aircraft and ground transport under the cover of darkness.

The operation aims to show "the Afghan people that when we come in, we are going to stay long enough to set up their own institutions," Pelletier said. Once on the ground, the troops will meet with local leaders, hear their needs and act on them.

"We do not want people of Helmand province to see us as an enemy. We want to protect them from the enemy," Pelletier said.

The main threat for the Marines could occur in the coming weeks and months, as the Taliban watches for the troops in these combat outposts to be re-supplied. The most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan is on the roads, which are peppered with roadside bombs. Those bombs account for more than half of all U.S. casualties.

Senior U.S. military officers say they are finding caches of materials for the manufacture of explosives throughout southern Afghanistan — a stockpiling of fertilizer and other chemical materials that can make crude but effective bombs.

Taliban officials have told Western reporters that they will target the American forces using roadside bombs. Said one: "We will kill them on the roads."

Nicholson also told his Marines several weeks ago to be careful not to create civilian casualties, which have grown dramatically in Afghanistan during the past year, partly due to increased use of U.S. air strikes. The general told his Marines that rather than calling in a warplane and "dropping a house" with a bomb, they should surround it.

So far, the Marines say they have not received any confirmed reports of civilian casualties or damage to property. And the Marines say they have not used artillery, and no bombs have been dropped from aircraft.

The Pentagon is deploying 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in time for the elections and expects the total number of U.S. forces there to reach 68,000 by year's end.

Hundreds of Afghan troops are involved in Operation Khanjar. U.S. officials see an effective Afghan security force as the only means for lasting stability in Afghanistan.

But creating more Afghan forces will take time, likely years. The U.S. wants to double the size of the Afghan army by 2011 to about 135,000 troops. And there is talk that even more are needed beyond that. The U.S. is sending in 4,000 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division this summer to focus solely on training, though most analysts say that number should at least double.

And to fight a counterinsurgency, an even more important tool is police, who are closer to the local population, the villages and neighborhoods. The police currently are few in number, lacking in basic skills and in many cases corrupt.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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