LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
We're reporting this week from Washington. Our colleague Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan, and this morning in the capital city Kabul, she went to a military headquarters building, where she sat down with the new American commanding general in Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal faces attacks in Afghanistan as well as headlines back in the United States suggesting the Taliban may be winning the war. And Renee asked him about that. Renee, what did you hear?
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Well, General McChrystal is certainly aware of those reports. He didn't address, specifically, any headlines that would suggest that the Taliban are winning, as at least one headline said. This is what he did say on the subject.
General STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL (Commander, Coalition Forces; Afghanistan): We will - we will win, the Taliban won't win. But we will also have to deal through good and bad days, and good and bad months, and that's the tragedy of seeing so many Afghan civilians killed or so many coalition forces killed. This is a job that takes not only resolve, it takes patience. And it takes courage; it takes military and political courage to do this because you don't see the quick wins, there is not the sudden lightning move that captures an enemy capital or anything like that. You're actually fighting to convince people to support their government.
MONTAGNE: All of these concerns, Steve, will be informing a formal assessment General McChrystal is due to give in a couple of weeks to the president on the war effort here, and also what's needed to make it successful. Now, there's lot of talk that he will be asking for thousands of more Americans troops, which General McChrystal did not rule out. One issue he was eager to talk about, though, is the number of Afghan troops on the ground. Only about 600 Afghan soldiers are fighting alongside the 600 Marines down in Helmand, and that's given rise to some criticism that those numbers aren't enough to put what is sometimes called an Afghan face on the mission.
Gen. MCCHRYSTAL: I was down in Spin Majid with Task Force Helmand, which is the British element, and they and the Danes and the Afghans fought their way through Spin Majid and Babaji, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, suffering casualties together. So, the idea that there aren't Afghan national army in there is incorrect. Are there as many Afghan national army as we'd like? No, there are not. The Afghan national army is still something that's growing in size.
We also remember - have to remember - that they have to provide forces around the entire country. And so in areas where the density of coalition forces, like RC- South, is higher than the percentage of Afghan national army available is lower. An interesting indicator, though, is all of the forces - our Task Force Leatherneck, our Task Force Helmand - all asked for more Afghan national army because they want them, and they perform very well with them. So, it's a good indicator.
MONTAGNE: One of the other key elements of the strategy had to do, in the near term, with elections - nine days from now. And part of the job was to make Afghan civilians feel secure enough to vote. Do you have a sense of how able the people - I'm just speaking of Helmand, because that's were much of the force is - how able they will be to vote in nine days?
Gen. MCCHRYSTAL: I have a sense of it. We have, of course, been watching it very closely, and we've tried to open up as many areas as we can in Helmand. I believe that we have been able to open up the key population centers - which is also the Helmand river valley, the fairly long, spread-out population center -so that the vast percentage of voters in Helmand are going to have the option to vote. And that's really the key there. Now, I'm hopeful that they will exercise that option. Sometimes in our own country, people don't vote in the same percentages that we might like, and so I would urge everybody to keep in mind there will be multiple reasons why people vote or don't vote.
MONTAGNE: But will the polls be there for them to do so if they choose?
Gen. MCCHRYSTAL: We have conducted a number of operations with our Afghan partners so that most of Helmand's population will be well within reach of what we call a polling center.
MONTAGNE: You are preparing to give President Obama your first formal assessment of the strategy here, and it must encompass a lot of things. Will you be measuring success at this early stage by how able people in the area that these forces are in, are able to get to the polls?
Gen. MCCHRYSTAL: That's a great question because the strategic assessment, which I will submit through the secretary of defense to President Obama and then also to the secretary general of NATO, I asked to delay that so that I'd be informed by what happened in the elections, because I just thought it was such a data point that my overall read of the situation here would be much better if I could have that in the rear view mirror to look at - and it will be significant.
But it won't be overwhelming, i.e. if the election goes better than expected or somewhat worse than expected, I don't think it will change my assessment dramatically. It'll just inform it.
MONTAGNE: What are the other data points in your assessment?
Gen. MCCHRYSTAL: The most obvious people always look at is just levels of violence: how many bombs go off, how many guns get shot, how many casualties there are. And I think that's fairly superficial because we will consider that and we have considered that.
We also consider trying to measure those areas where we think insurgents have influence; areas where they might have established shadow governance or are trying to do that. We'll also look at things like the growth of Afghan national security forces. We'll look at polling data from the population.
Because at the end of the day, a counterinsurgency is often based on what the people feel about security, rather than strict numbers of incidents or whatever. It's how they feel. We'll look for support of governance; we'll look at things like children in school; we'll look at commerce. We'll look at all of the things that try to paint a picture of what the situation in the country is. It's incredibly complex to put together a clear picture.
MONTAGNE: Just yesterday in the province of Logar, which its capital, which -you and I can drive there in an hour from this office - there was a huge attack on the capital, on the governor's mansion/office, credited to the Taliban. Even as that was going on, President Hamid Karzai was giving a campaign promise that he would call, if elected, re-elected, a loya jirga, a gathering of all the elders, and invite the Taliban. How does that fit into your strategy?
Gen. MCCHRYSTAL: Well, President Karzai's political strategy is something that is really not mine to comment on. I'm clearly informed by the direction in which political leadership is going, and I'm well coordinated with that and I appreciate it.
But when I think when you listen to President Karzai's description, what he really talks about is the average Taliban is an Afghan. The average Taliban, we think, fights fairly close to their home. The average Taliban, we think, is paid for his work, not ideologically driven, not nationally motivated by any particular movement to free the country.
And so I think what he really is looking for is a chance to bring back the great, massive Taliban fighters, and even lower-level commanders, back into the political process of Afghanistan and not give them the sense that they don't have a seat at the table for the higher-level parts that, you know, parts of the leadership, that's clearly up to him.
But I think the great mass of Taliban fighters are particularly open to having a chance to have a different and better future.
MONTAGNE: So, you'd be comfortable with that?
Gen. MCCHRYSTAL: I would absolutely be comfortable with fighters and lower-level commanders making the decision to reintegrate into Afghan political process, under the Afghan constitution.
MONTAGNE: General McChrystal, thank you for joining us.
Gen. MCCHRYSTAL: Renee, my honor. Thank you.
INSKEEP: That was General Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan speaking with our colleague Renee Montagne in Kabul earlier today. Renee's following events there leading up to Afghanistan's presidential election, which is scheduled for next week. And tomorrow, we'll be hearing how U.S. forces are targeting drug lords funding the Taliban.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: It's NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.