One General's View of Shorter Troop Tours

Last week, President Bush announced that military tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan will be reduced from 15 months to 12 months. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, says longer tours give troops time to build trust with Afghan citizens.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Last week, President Bush announced that military tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan will be reduced from 15 months to 12 months. The announcement came after Pentagon leaders warned that the longer tours were leaving troops mentally and physically exhausted.

But at least one military leader has a different view. Army General Dan K. McNeill, commander of the 57,000 U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, told the Baltimore Sun this week that longer tours give troops time to build trust with Afghan citizens who can help in the fight against insurgents.

General McNeill joins us now from Kabul. General, thanks very much for being with us.

General DAN McNEILL (U.S. Army): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What difference does that extra three months, 12 to 15, make in your judgment?

Gen. McNEILL: If I might just begin by pointing out that I'm not in disagreement with anybody in the U.S. What was in that article, if you read it completely, there was only one quote which was I think attributable to me in tour lengths, which said I think we have to come off of the 15 months because of what it was doing to the force, specifically the families.

On the other hand, in the course of that interview, I did point out for those who were unfamiliar of what 15-month tour lengths in Afghanistan might have done…

SIMON: Yeah.

Gen. McNEILL: …the fact that they produce some benefits. The benefits are fairly simple. In 15 months - by the way, the U.S. here has the longest tour lengths -allow soldiers and their leaders to establish and maintain relationships with the terrain, the indigenous people and their leadership and with the enemy, and it allows them to fully exploit those relationships so that in Afghanistan, in all the various areas where the 40-some odd countries of NATO or prosecuting counterinsurgency operations, those that are done in the purest form are done in the U.S. sector, and I would attribute part of this to the longer tour lengths.

SIMON: You said in that interview with the Sun that you think it'll be necessary to maintain the current troop levels in Afghanistan through 2011, but the job won't be done then. Give us some idea of what more would be entailed.

Gen. McNEILL: Scott, I think the answer to the security and stability issues in Afghanistan really rest with the Afghan people. And I'm of the view that ISAF, which is the force I command - it's an acronym for International Security Assistance Force - probably has reached a juncture where the name should be changed to ISAF, Interim Security Assistance Force. And that's an acknowledgement that we are here for a finite period of time, the NATO effort. And in that time, the major intent is to build Afghan national security force capacity.

It would seem, with the progress we have in the Army now, with the progress that is beginning in the police, that that might occur as early as the year 2011. Sometime beyond that, there still could be insurgency here if the neighbors don't help. All the neighbors have to help, not just any one neighbor but all the neighbors. They have to help deny sanctuary to the insurgents, they have to help to interdict the flow of illegal narcotics in and out of this country, and they have to help with the reconstruction of the country.

SIMON: When you say neighbors, do you mean Pakistan?

Gen. McNEILL: I said all the neighbors, Scott.

SIMON: Okay. And I want to ask you about this lastly, General. There are reports this morning that, in fact, Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan, who's been missing since February, has been kidnapped by the Taliban.

And the Taliban has also claimed responsibility for an attack that killed Lieutenant Dennis van Uhm, who is the son of the Dutch military commander, General Peter van Uhm. I wonder if you have any information about these incidents or the Taliban's responsibility.

Gen. McNEILL: The Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan has been missing for some time, and a number of Afghans(ph) in the country believe that he probably was kidnapped or captured by someone. We're not certain who that could be. It could be a criminal element.

I've seen an article in the New York Times online that says he communicated with someone who says it's the Taliban. I'll take him at his word because he's the one that is, in fact, detained, and he probably knows better than the rest of us.

As to Lieutenant van Uhm, we are saddened by any loss that we experience in the ISAF force here. And certainly, Lieutenant van Uhm, we're saddened by his loss. But his parents, his family, his friends, having just learned this, I don't think I would really want to offer much beyond that, if you understand.

SIMON: Yes. General McNeill, thanks so much for your time.

Gen. McNEILL: Well, very good to talk to you.

SIMON: General Dan McNeill, commander of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Thank you, General.

Gen. McNEILL: Thank you, sir.

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