As the new commander of NATO's 22,000 predominantly American combat troops operating along the rugged and mountainous frontier Afghanistan shares with Pakistan, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser could hardly have a tougher assignment. His men are responsible for guarding the long, porous border from insurgent attacks and infiltration emanating from Pakistan's largely ungoverned tribal area, where Al Qaeda-linked Afghan Taliban, allied Pakistani tribal militants and other Pakistani extremists enjoy safe havens. Ever since the Pakistani military began peace talks with tribal leaders some three months ago, these militants have increased their cross-border attacks and infiltration. Not only are Schloesser's men charged with preventing these incursions, they are also involved in working with Afghanistan's fledgling security forces, its local government appointees and tribal elders to provide security and a degree of economic development for the region's poor villagers. A 32-year Army veteran who has been in command of NATO's Regional Command-East (RC-East) since early April, Schloesser has served in Germany, South Korea, Haiti, Kosovo and Iraq. Concurrently commander of the US Army's elite 101st Airborne Division, from his Bagram headquarters he talked in a telephone interview with NEWSWEEK's Ron Moreau about the challenges he faces. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How concerned are you about the ongoing peace negotiations in Pakistan's tribal area, talks that don't seem to include any prohibitions on insurgent cross-border attacks and movement into Afghanistan?
Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser: Pakistan is a sovereign country. Our interest from NATO's perspective is that whatever agreements are made will hopefully be enforceable. I would expect that there would be some attempt [by the Pakistani military] to ensure that security is provided in those areas in Waziristan or other [tribal] agencies further north. Obviously, from my perspective I'm interested in security and stability along the border.
What about reports that the insurgents' cross-border attacks and infiltration into Afghanistan have increased over the past two or three months, as the peace deal was being negotiated?
I've been in command about 45 days, so even I have to put a pinch of salt on anything I say. But I am deeply concerned that there appear to be a fair number of cross-border incidents that both bring tension to the border and also obviously require border operations on the part of coalition forces here in Afghanistan. That drives us [away] from what I am trying to do, which is give security to the people of Afghanistan and help the Afghan people develop and strengthen local governance.
What about reports of an uptick in Pakistanis, both from the tribal area and from Pakistan's Punjab and other provinces, coming across the border along with Afghan Taliban from Pakistani safe havens to fight with Taliban forces?
The insurgents we see coming across the border, and those that we are dealing with inside Afghanistan, are a diverse lot. It's a variety, not just one group. It's not just the conservative, Kandahar [province]-based Taliban. You can say they share a common ideology, but sometimes even that is unclear. There seems to be a strong degree of cooperation [among them]. Some help with financing, some with facilitation to help them get across and also move weapons across the border. Others help train and recruit fighters not only within Pakistan but elsewhere as well. I wouldn't say that I have seen a lot of what I would call Pakistanis. I would not want to call this a large or organized movement. These are largely smaller insurgent groups and terrorists from different regions participating in this. One thing I would not want to do is to send a message that I believe that Punjabis are crossing the border. I don't believe that we see that.
Some experts have warned that Afghan and coalition forces are not winning in Afghanistan. How would you describe your biggest challenge to try to turn things around?
In RC-East [which comprises 14 eastern provinces] we are seeing success each and every day. We are working very closely with the Afghan national security forces. And we are achieving a great deal of success in security, governance and development. But my daily concern is the [unstable] border region that seems to add tension between the Afghans and the Pakistanis and coalition forces. We are all really fighting the same enemy. I have to spend a lot of time addressing those issues along the border.
The Taliban seems to have suffered heavy casualties over the past year and have also lost a lot of midlevel commanders. Is the insurgency now a weakened force?
I would acknowledge that they have lost a large number of leaders. I do believe they have a capacity to replace the leadership that is either captured or killed with new leaders who are fairly agile in re-establishing the network and what their predecessor was doing.
The American military seems to have been successful in negotiating deals with tribal insurgents in Iraq that bring them over to the coalition's side. Is the U.S. military or NATO in Afghanistan also trying to talk to insurgent tribal leaders?
We concentrate on working with tribal leaders who are legitimate in the eyes of the people and those [leaders] who have been appointed by the government at the district and provincial level. We believe that's culturally accurate, because the tribal leaders and the mullahs have positions of authority that go back hundreds of years. We have an elected government at the highest level and an appointed government in the provinces, and we believe that's a good mix. Those are the Afghans we are concentrating on.
But is there any official prohibition to prevent you from talking to Taliban militants?
That's not in my realm to answer. The Afghan government has a peace and reconciliation program. But we do make recommendations [to the government] about people we believe are ready to do that [lay down their arms and join the government's side] if we do run into them one way or the other.
Coalition forces seem to be successful securing formerly Taliban-controlled or threatened areas, but is the government of President Hamid Karzai capable of moving in behind you and providing security and good governance to the people there?
In my short experience the areas that are most secure often have good governance, a capable provincial governor and district subgovernors who know their job and have the capacity to execute that job on a daily basis. So good governance helps bring good security, and it works the other way as well. It's no secret that the way ahead is [providing] good governance, good security and then a reasonable increase in the quality of life for the Afghan people. I do believe we are seeing that in RC-East.
Do you believe, as many people do, that Osama bin Laden is hiding somewhere in your area of operations, perhaps in Kunar province?
That's a superhard question to answer. As you know, each and every day we are doing everything we can to not only help the Afghan people but also to look for the enemies of the Afghan people, and of the rest of the world. Osama bin Laden is one of them. I guarantee you if he is in our area we are going to continue each and every day to try to find him.