Combating the Resurgent Taliban

Along the porous and rugged eastern border with Pakistan, Afghan insurgent forces this year have gained in strength. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, who commands the 19,000 U.S. combat troops that are trying to secure the area and bring development to it, puts the number of insurgents at 7,000 to 10,000, which includes foreign fighters from safe havens inside Pakistan. In his headquarters at the sprawling U.S. base at Bagram, just north of Kabul, Schloesser chatted with NEWSWEEK's Ron Moreau about his strategy to combat the resurgent Taliban. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Has the recent Pakistani military offensive along the Afghan border reduced cross-border attacks and infiltration?
Jeffrey J. Schloesser: I'm really encouraged to see that the Pakistani military is involved in military operations in the Bajaur region. We've had discussions of that nature with them in the preceding months, and to see it occurring is a good news story. At this time, it's too early to say if there is a definite decrease in the amount of cross-border activities by the insurgents. This is what I'm hoping for.

Last June you said that combat incidents along the Pakistan border were up 40 percent. What's the situation now?
Incidents each month this year have still been fairly high compared to the same period in preceding years. Every year from 2002 to 2008, generally speaking, incidents have increased. There have been more insurgents in 2008 coming across the border. This year's numbers are going to be significantly higher, some 20 percent to 30 percent higher than those in 2007. So the 40 percent [increase] we saw in June meant that there was a pretty big spike in April, May and June. We've seen a leveling out, not a decrease.

How serious is the challenge?
As we introduced more ground troops in 2005 to 2007, we started going into places where we had not been before. There's no doubt about it--when you poke a stick inside a hornets' nest, you are going to get some hornets coming out. We still see that today: activity is rising. We are going in and are able to find, locate, capture, kill or cause to flee insurgents of a variety of different groups in this Taliban syndicate.

Can security and development ever come to Afghanistan as long as these insurgent safe havens in Pakistan exist?
Security and development are already here. Still, it's frustrating for me. I need more troops to be able to do the holding part of our good strategy, which is: clear, hold and build. It doesn't have to be linear; it can happen simultaneously. We have doubled the amount of money and the number of projects we are doing this year in what I call the commander emergency-response program. That funding is up to around $450 [million] to $480 million for the ideas of the provincial governors and councils. We don't dream it up, and we don't know what to do--they come up with the list of things that are needed to provide quick quality-of-life improvements. I would call it a development surge. We've got seven provinces in [eastern Afghanistan] that have been declared poppy- and opium-free. There's an award for this to each province. Nangarhar just received $10 million, which is being used to build three earthen dams. These are real projects to help people.

But what about security?
I plan on having a winter campaign that will take advantage of the mobility that I have to seek out any insurgent safe havens in Afghanistan, any facilitation areas, any places they go to for rest and recreation. We're going to give them those options: either get killed or captured, flee or reconcile. At the same time we are going to increase this development surge. By putting both of those together, you'll see that our ability to hold areas will increase over the next year to two years. It's a slow process.

What about civilian casualties? Afghan and United Nations officials say a recent coalition airstrike in Herat province killed up to 90 civilians, while the U.S. says 30 insurgents were killed and only seven civilians died?
I believe that this potentially is a case where there was pure propaganda. The Taliban were the first at getting that message out, so that almost becomes the popular perception, and it's very difficult to roll back in spite of on-the-ground reality and investigation. I started an investigation of it. I expect to have the results soon. The commander of NATO, Gen. David McKiernan, desires to broaden the investigation based on our results to include both the Afghan government, as well as the U.N. That's a good way forward. It will enable us to share the real proof that we believe we have from the incident's location.

But how can you combat the popular perception that 90 or more civilians were killed?
One year ago the Taliban would have tried to relate their propaganda to some fact on the ground. An aircraft has a mechanical failure, goes down, is repaired and flies away. They would have said it was shot down. Now what I see increasingly is that there is no link to reality before they make these wild claims. They will try to continue this line of propaganda about civilian casualties. We are deeply regretful of any civilian casualties during our operation. We work harder than any military I am aware of to prevent civilian casualties. But it's very difficult when the enemy chooses to wear women's clothing and hide behind women and children. Three months ago they threw a child out in front of a convoy to initiate an IED. It stopped the convoy, and then the attacker in a suicide vest hit the convoy. It killed the child. When we believe we have created a civilian casualty, my goal is to be able to acknowledge it as fast as possible, to be able to consult with the provincial and district governors and, whenever appropriate, apologize and repair whatever we can with payments [to the victims and relatives].

President Bush and both U.S. presidential candidates say they want two to three more combat brigades here. Is that enough?
We need more troops here in the east. I think General McKiernan has said the same, speaking more broadly of Afghanistan. I don't want to characterize it as a troop surge. But to clear, hold and build we will need more forces, and that includes more Afghan forces, which are critical. Are two to three more brigades the answer? It depends on our success as we increase the number of troops. And then, what's the impact on the enemy? Some things are not knowable in the coming months. Finally, what will be the impact of the Afghan presidential election next year? It's quite possible that the Taliban or other insurgent groups will throw in the towel and say this is not worth it.