The South Asia Channel

Gen. Nick Carter: ‘2014 seems a very long time away indeed’

During a recent trip to Washington D.C., Major General Nick Carter, the former commander of the International Security Assistance Force’s Regional Command South in southern Afghanistan, sat down to answer a series of questions submitted by the AfPak Channel about the situation in southern Afghanistan. For more information and analysis on the insurgency there, see ...

MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images
MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images

During a recent trip to Washington D.C., Major General Nick Carter, the former commander of the International Security Assistance Force’s Regional Command South in southern Afghanistan, sat down to answer a series of questions submitted by the AfPak Channel about the situation in southern Afghanistan. For more information and analysis on the insurgency there, see Anand Gopal’s New America Foundation paper, "The Battle for Afghanistan: Militancy and Conflict in Kandahar."

1. What has been the effect of the recent coalition offensives in Kandahar on the insurgency? Have insurgent strongholds like Mushan been reverted to government/International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) control?

There’s no doubt these operations have squeezed the insurgency out of many of the spaces where they had reasonable freedom of movement before this summer. That’s particularly true for Zharay and Panjwaii as well as the districts immediately adjacent to Kandahar City. These places are no longer staging grounds for the insurgency to mount operations; they no longer afford the insurgency access to the population they once had; and they no longer allow the insurgency to interdict Highway 1, the key thoroughfare to Helmand.

In fact, during October, I was able to drive with Governor Tooryelai Wesa, Kandahar’s provincial governor, in an ordinary SUV from Kandahar City to Howzemdad on Highway 1, a 40-mile journey which previously would have been made in a heavy armored vehicle. That wasn’t possible before these operations, and I feel strongly it’s an indication of the wider progress we’ve seen in the past six months.

2. How do you see the NATO timeline for transition to Afghan control of 2014 impacting conditions on the ground, particularly in the south, areas likely to be transferred last?

As a regional commander, my horizon always tended to be about six months to a year out in front. From that perspective, 2014 seems a very long time away indeed. What will continue to be important though is the extent to which Afghans are taking the lead. So during my time in Afghanistan I was encouraged to see Afghan partners become progressively more assertive on security and governance issues. I witnessed Afghan soldiers become more effective at operational planning and provincial governors leading the decision making process. This is precisely what will be needed as we move closer to 2014.

3. What do you believe are effective, meaningful metrics for measuring military and political success in Afghanistan?

The campaign in Afghanistan is essentially a political problem. It is an argument between the government and the insurgency for the minds of the population. So, in terms of measuring metrics, you have to look at how effective we are at building a connection between the people and government of Afghanistan.

For example, the extent to which the population are able to talk to their district governor and he is able to get out and talk to them; the extent to which elders have returned to villages and are exercising leadership on behalf of the populations of these villages; and the extent to which these elders are coming into the district centers to take part in the governance of the district as a whole.

These are the sorts of criteria against which we can see how far we’ve come in Afghanistan. But we should acknowledge that they are quite subtle to measure and aren’t necessarily obvious to the outsider. You have to live it to know whether things are progressing in the right direction.

4. Panjwaii, Zharay and elsewhere in Kandahar have seen dozens of ISAF offensives in the past few years. In each case, insurgents were cleared, but the Afghan governance structures that took their place were ineffective. What has ISAF done this time to create a different result?

We have far more resources then we’ve had in the past. The uplift of US troops in addition to Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police units allow us to remain in these places long after they have been cleared of insurgents. We recognize, of course, that it’s not just about providing protection but making the population feel that they have a stake in the future by working with security forces to move things forward. This creates the space for governance structures to take root.

5. Has ISAF seen a change in the number or type of insurgent-initiated attacks in Kandahar after the offensives? What about if we adjusted for seasonal factors?

Summer is crucial in Afghanistan. Take for instance Regional Command South where canopy on trees gives the insurgency confidence to be able to go on the offensive. Therefore any progress we are currently making in southern Afghanistan needs to be measured next summer in relation to what it looked like this past summer.

The insurgency has become increasingly asymmetric in its overall approach. They now recognize, as we do, that this is a battle of perceptions and are finally coming to accept that collateral damage involving the local population is counter-productive.

They also realize that governance is essential. So as a response to the progress we’ve made in building that important connection between people and government, the insurgency has sought to intimidate and assassinate village elders and government employees. Over the course of the summer we saw a campaign to target government employees in Kandahar City and more widely. We’ve taken steps to look after these leaders and officials because they are vital to the long-term success of this campaign.

But the other point to make is that the insurgency has been significantly squeezed, and because they have been significantly squeezed, it has become much harder for them to launch spectacular attacks in places like Kandahar City.

6. Some in Kandahar say that the offensives there have pushed Taliban from the districts and into the city, further destabilizing things. Have you witnessed such a change taking place?

The insurgency never left Kandahar City. It is a city of some 800,000 people and insurgencies need the oxygen that populations of that size provide. In Kandahar, you don’t have to go back more than 10 years to understand that the city had a great deal of support for the Taliban. So it is no small wonder that there are people in the city who still support the Taliban.

Now, we must approach insurgencies in urban environments differently from those in rural areas. For example, counter-insurgency operations must be more precisely targeted which requires high quality intelligence. But our focus is still on developing governance, especially on providing security for the local population.

That’s why we’ve seen a build-up in capacity of the Afghan National Police over the last two-three months and have five companies of U.S. military police partnering with them in the city. We’re beginning to see the results of this effort. For example, over the last couple of months, 80% of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) events in the city have been hand-ins by the population to the police, which indicates that the population feels less intimidated, and more importantly, that they have more confidence and trust in their police force.

7. Recently there have been reports that coalition forces are using more aggressive tactics to clear insurgents from strongholds in Kandahar. For instance, there have been a number of reports of houses being demolished by ISAF. Does this suggest a departure from more conventional counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics? If not, how do these tactics fit into a wider COIN framework?

In Kandahar the insurgency has evicted the population from their houses, compounds and villages. In parts of Arghandab, for example, there are completely empty villages. The insurgency uses these properties as places to make explosives and store their weapons. It’s a no-brainer that it is easier to deal with these significantly booby trapped bomb making plants with high-explosives, rather than laboriously and dangerously trying to clear them by hand. After all, the rebuilding of these properties is a great deal cheaper in terms of blood and treasure than having to clear the compound at very high risk our servicemen. It also allows the district governor to connect with the population by leading the process of compensating the property owner for the rebuilding costs.

8. Local power broker Abdul Razzik’s forces has been used in clearing operations in various areas of Kandahar province. Razzik has been tied to human rights abuses, drug trafficking, and more. Why does ISAF see him as a reliable Afghan partner, and how does ISAF reconcile working with people like him with the effort to build effective and responsive governance?

A key measure of success is the extent to which Afghan security forces are able to operate on their own. Abdul Razzik commands an Afghan border police unit that is extremely effective. The Afghan government is therefore keen to employ this force, not least because it is circumspect about collateral damage.

9. Nawa in Helmand has been touted as a success story in southern Afghanistan. What makes Nawa different from other districts that have received similar attention–in other words, what has worked in Nawa, and how might it be applied to other districts in Southern Afghanistan?

Nawa was one of the earliest districts in which our understanding of population-centric counter-insurgency was applied. It was the focus of a good deal of attention in first half of 2009 a similar approach was adopted in Nad-e-Ali and recently in Marjah. Of course you’d expect the operations which began first to produce the earliest results. Yet if you compare Nawa with the centre of Nad-e-Ali, you’ll find that they are pretty similar places now, recognizing that there are parts of Nad-e-Ali that are still very difficult.

10. Locals in Marjah say that the insurgents still exert tremendous influence and intimidate them. Do you agree with this assessment, and if so why have the Taliban proven so hard to eliminate there, even in light of the massive ISAF offensive?

As I’ve already stressed, our objective in this campaign is to convince Afghans that they are better off working with their government. That’s a monumental task in places like Marjah because you are trying to overcome 30 years of mistrust and chaos. The insurgency had complete autonomy there for at least two years. To move from that type of context to one where government plays a crucial role in the lives of the population takes a considerable amount of time. Such as in Nawa, the approach we’re applying in Marjah will be successful.

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