London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Brigadier-General Richard Blanchette, spokesperson for the coalition forces in Afghanistan -the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF], told Asharq Al-Awsat in an exclusive interview from London by telephone, that the coalition forces in Afghanistan are trying at present to redress the balance and turn it in their favor, to allow the Afghan government to secure and rebuild Afghanistan with international support. Blanchette expected that point to be reached by 2012. He stressed that the purpose of the war and the result ‘we are trying to achieve’ is to make the Afghan people realize that central government authority over the whole of Afghanistan is the road for the future. This is important so that Afghans feel they have a choice and are able to see a bright future for their children.
Brigadier-General Blanchette said that the narcotics trade which yields revenue of between 100 million and 200 million dollar per annum, is a legitimate target for the ISAF because it is used to finance the purchase of weapons and suicide operations. He alluded to the smuggling of weapons across Iranian borders but ruled out the possibility of the smuggling being run by the Iranian government or with its knowledge.
Blanchette said that the number of the Afghan army stands at 82,000 at present, but the number they are aiming for is 134,000.
The following is the text of the interview:
Q: What does Afghanistan need at present; more foreign forces or material support for reconstruction efforts?
A: I wish there would be support for both, military forces as well as material support. The good news is that more US forces will be coming to Afghanistan. We want to prepare for more of what I call ‘security windows’ and continue with training the Afghan forces to preserve the gains achieved in the security situation. We also want to improve government performance because this automatically leads to more resources coming from the international community. It is important also that the Afghan people feel the change; because, without the people’s consent it would be difficult to fight the insurgents.
Q: What is the number of Afghan forces at present?
A: The number of the Afghan army at present is 82,000; we are planning to bring that number to 134,000, in addition to a police force of 80,000. I believe the Afghan government would want more army and police forces in the future.
Q: Are there any security arrangement being made to secure the upcoming presidential elections? Do you think that the elections would pass without Taliban influence or intervention, or are you expecting a surge in violence before the elections?
A: Security plans are already underway; but it should be understood that the front security line will be the Afghan police supported by the Afghan army. ISAF forces will be in the third line to oversee and coordinate. We admire the capabilities of the Afghan security forces to coordinate their work and mount complex operations. But we are going to help the Afghan forces in these elections so that we have sufficient numbers to provide security.
Q: Are the international forces winning in their battle against the Taliban armed forces in the Helmand region, in southern Afghanistan?
A: We need to have a clear definition of what we mean by ‘winning’. Anytime our forces fight against the Taliban they beat them under all circumstances and they know that. We have better firepower and better communication and movement capabilities, and our losses have always been less than theirs. What the Taliban do, is that they try to preserve their forces by carrying out individual operations, such as planting explosives on the roadside and suicide operations. But they do that at a great cost to the Afghan people, as more Afghani civilians fall victim to these operations than coalition forces. This situation has led the Afghan people to reject these operations, and consequently, support for the rebels has decreased. Opinion polls indicate that the people’s support for the rebels is extremely marginal.
Q: Seven years into the war and the Taliban is still getting weapons and material resources. Where do they get them from, and do neighboring countries, such as Iran and Pakistan, give them any assistance?
A: We have clear examples and documentary evidence of safe havens inside the Pakistani borders that have clear impact on military operations in Afghanistan. We admire Pakistani government efforts in those regions and the pressure they put on Taliban, but we also know that more is needed. The border areas are huge; there are many loopholes and it is impossible to seal the borders completely. What we hope for is a reduction of illegal trafficking across the border.
Q: What about Iran? Is there any evidence that Iran is helping the rebels?
A: We have evidence of weapons from across the Iranian borders; but there is no evidence of direct involvement of the Iranian government in these operations.
Q: What is your view of the negotiations said to be taking place between the Karzai government and moderate Taliban elements?
A: We have to look for a political solution, and this is something that should happen; but we do not have specific information about any on-going negotiations between Taliban and the Karzai government. We are preparing the ground in terms of improving government achievements and reconstruction work; but on the whole, the issue is in the hands of the Afghan government, and our role is to support these efforts. The negotiations are in the Afghan people’s interest; but we shall continue to deal with those who do not wish to have a peaceful settlement.
Q: Do you expect to achieve more with the additional 17,000 US troops due to arrive in Afghanistan?
A: Yes, Sure. We will be able to go into areas in the south that we have not been able to reach so far and to put more pressure on Taliban and try to isolate them from the Afghan people. In order to do so, we need the people’s support -and this is what we are doing. We talk to the tribal chiefs and we tell them that the best way to secure their villages is to prevent the rebels entering. Taliban’s preferred method is to take advantage of the human shield as a tactic. The additional forces will also help us deal with the Taliban more efficiently. We know that the Afghan people do not want the return of Taliban and they want a better future for their children.
Q: Who is the primary beneficiary of the growing farming of narcotics, Taliban or the narcotics mafia? When are the ISAF forces going to interfere in the growing of opium poppies in the Helmand region?
A: NATO has recently held a conference in Budapest for combating the cultivation of narcotics in Afghanistan, and the conference called for more efforts in this regard. We are doing all we can because the narcotics trade and rebellion are closely connected, and this makes the war on drugs a security issue and a legitimate target for us. We have carried out a number of operations against the narcotics industry; we arrested more than 70 people and destroyed 78 factories and 60,000 kg of narcotics. The revenue from this trade last year was estimated at between 100 million to 200 million dollars, most of which goes for buying mines planted on the roadsides, explosive belts for suicide operations, ammunitions and weapons that kill our soldiers and the Afghan people. We have to take action against this trade.
Q: One Afghani Taliban military leader, who refused to give his name, told CNN that Taliban fighters are deployed at locations on the outskirts of the capital Kabul and are ready to attack and strike at any part of it. This is a new reference to the growing strength of the military capabilities of the Taliban Movement. What is your comment on this?
A: I totally disagree with this analysis. I live in Kabul and I know that it is a live city with a population of four million and you can see the reconstruction operations and the thriving markets. There is always the chance of planting a bomb here or there, or a suicide bomber entering the city. What we need to make sure is that the targets of such operations are well protected. We do not want to offer them easy targets. Nevertheless we do not want to paralyze the city by setting up a check point on every road. What we need to make sure is that Afghani security forces are able to deal effectively with such dangers. Three synchronized suicide operations were foiled last February and only one was successful. I was told at a meeting with Afghan students that the training of Afghan forces ought to have been started a long time ago, as their operations have been quite effective. The evidence is that terrorist operations are declining year on year.
Q: How long will the coalition forces presence continue in Afghanistan, and when will security materialize?
A: One of the basics of what we learn at the military academy is that the beginning and end of operations such as those taking place in Afghanistan are decided by politicians. We do not have a date for the end of this war; what we want to achieve is a level of security where the government can carryout reconstruction. We are going in the right direction in building an Afghan army of 134,000 troops despite the operations from across the borders. We hope to reach the point of the balance tilting in our favor by the year 2012.
Q: What about the European position regarding the surge of forces in Afghanistan and have they agreed to send more troops?
A: We certainly need more forces and the US is sending more troops to be part of the ISAF. There are also other states discussing the needs of the ISAF which represents a coalition of 42 states; that is to say more states than NATO’s. In Afghanistan, the ISAF deploys these forces as necessary.
Q: Some reports said that the US has asked Iran for a corridor allowing it to transfer troops and equipment to Afghanistan. Does the US really need Iran in its operations in Afghanistan?
A: I cannot comment on the negotiations between the US and Iran. What I know is that supply lines to Afghanistan are important and vital and we want to have the greatest possible number of supply lines. There are discussions in this connection with Russia and Asian countries north of Afghanistan, and I would not be surprised if the same thing is happening with Iran. We rely heavily on supply lines through Pakistan and the rebels have in the past attacked some of these lines, but that did not have any noticeable impact on our operations.