Schloesser: Next Up--A 'Development Surge'

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser commands the 19,000 U.S. combat troops who are trying to secure and revitalize to the key provinces along Afghanistan's porous and rugged eastern border with Pakistan. This year Afghan insurgent forces there—which he estimates at up to 10,000—are stronger and have been reinforced by fighters from Pakistani safe havens. In his headquarters at the sprawling U.S. base at Baghram, just north of Kabul, Schloesser chatted with NEWSWEEK's Ron Moreau about his strategy to combat the resurgent Taliban. Excerpts:

MOREAU: Has the recent Pakistani military offensive along the Afghan border reduced cross-border attacks and infiltration?
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.

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. That funding is up to around $450 [million] to $480 million for the ideas of the provincial governors and councils—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.

What about civilian casualties? Afghan and U.N. officials say a recent Coalition airstrike in Herat province killed up to 90 civilians, while the United States 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 perception that 90 or more civilians were killed?
One year ago the Taliban would have tried to relate their propaganda to facts 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, we acknowledge it as fast as possible, 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?
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. And then what's the impact on the enemy? 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.