Army Lieutenant-General David Barno, com
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Army Lieutenant-General David Barno.
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Dateline NBC
updated 6/23/2005 1:58:11 PM ET 2005-06-23T17:58:11

General David W. Barno is the former senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan. He was responsible for combating al-Qaida and members of the Taliban operating in the south and east of the country. Barno was also responsible for Coalition efforts in most of Pakistan as well as the southern parts of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In 2004, Barno fended off allegations of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan. He promised to tone down his troops' aggressive search for Taliban-led insurgents and vowed to work with villagers to foster goodwill. Also in 2004, Barno famously predicted Osama bin Laden would be apprehended by the end of that year, saying, "The sands in the hourglass of all of the al-Qaida senior leadership is running out." Read his complete interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw below:

Tom Brokaw: You and I saw each other about a year ago. What’s the difference between now and then in terms of the Taliban and al-Qaida coming into Afghanistan?

Barno: I think they've really kind of receded in a lot of ways, the election last year was a huge defeat strategically for both al-Qaida and the Taliban, and I think the Taliban themselves are starting to re-look whether they want to continue this campaign or not, there's been a lot of interesting negotiations going on behind the scenes in the last several months, and I think that will ultimately cause them to start coming apart.

Brokaw: Do you think the Taliban can ever come home to Afghanistan?

Barno: absolutely I do, I mean there's a few up there at the top end who are clearly folks with blood on their hands that the afghan government’s not going to accept back, but I think the rank and file out there are looking to put down their arms and looking to join this great political process and economic progress in the country, and I think the government is wanting to take them back in to make them part of the future.

Brokaw: Last summer you said that sand was running out al-Qaida’s senior leadership, but they're still around somewhere.

Barno: They are, but we still look for them. I mean we'll be here and we'll have forces that are committed to finding them and bringing them to justice as long as that takes, and we're starting to transition more security responsibilities over to the afghan national army now, and start to play a bigger role with developing the police as well. But that said, and also to include the NATO expansion that's going on out here, with a lot of gusto in Afghanistan, that said, we're still going to maintain the capabilities to hunt down and find the senior al-Qaida leadership.

Brokaw: Osama bin Laden still has tremendous symbolic value, but what about day to day operational value, and determining strategy for al-Qaida, what’s your judgment?

Barno: Well its tough to actually assess that, but my sense watching it now for 19 months is that he does not have any day to day operational control of the organization. He certainly is a symbolic leader out there, but I think that he's so isolated that he does not have the ability to control things on a daily basis, certainly, and has a limited amount of affect overall.

Brokaw: Why is he so tough to find and bring down?

Barno: Well he's one person in an area, a border area, that's about 1500 miles, about the distance from Washington, D.C. to Denver, Colo., covered by rocky mountains the whole way. So finding a single person in that structure here in a very tribal society, a very remote society in many ways is a pretty big challenge, but we're going to stay on in until we're successful.

Brokaw: A lot of people say that the big part of the problem is that in those areas, the Pakistani army is more sympathetic to Osama bin Laden than perhaps President Musharraf would like them to be, not as aggressive as they could be about going out and bringing him down.

Barno: Well I give a lot of credit to the Pakistani army for their operations in the last year. Until about this time last year, they never had been in the tribal areas of Pakistan before. And today there's a bout 70,000 Pakistan army and frontier corps out there. They've done some great work in south Waziristan. This year we're hoping to see them move into North Waziristan and use the same kind of approach to clean that area out and disrupt terrorist networks that are in that area today.

Brokaw: But wouldn't it better if you could conduct joint operations with the Pakistanis?

Barno: Well we certainly share intelligence with them, we've provided a great deal of military aid to Pakistan to facilitate their operations; I get over there regularly, I've been over there twice in the last two weeks. And so we're working very, very closely with them, joint operations will be something that the governments of the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan will have to sort out.

Brokaw: Any number of people have told me that part of the problem is that we develop pretty good intelligence, we tell the Pakistanis, and it takes them just too long to operate on it.

Barno: Well that's always the challenge, intelligence is perishable and to have actionable intelligence you've got to move very quickly with what you have. As we would, they want to vet the intelligence before they move on it and commit their forces, we're trying to cut down those reaction times, but its still a challenge.

Brokaw: What’s the difference in the kind of insurgent that you're picking up now and a year ago?

Barno: Well I think that there are very little indications today compared to a year ago of any ideological motivations for these insurgents. We see more and more of them being paid to conduct attacks in Afghanistan. We see evidence of foreign fighters that are training them, and in part they're coming across to actually conduct operations over here. So I think my sense is that the Taliban piece of this - the piece that's related to ideology - is very much on the descent, and is libel to further come apart in this next year.

Brokaw: Are you confident that the refugee population in this country is clean, that it doesn't have al-Qaida members who have infiltrated the country? And are just waiting in kind of a sleeper cell?

Barno: Well refugees here actually are typically folks that have come back from another country, so they're continuing to flow from Iran, to flow from Pakistan, to flow from really around the world where afghans left during the time of the civil war and the war on the soviets. So there's clearly a mix of people coming back in, we're watchful of that as is the afghan government. I think we've seen little indication that they're really a threat here as I look over the last year and a half or so.

Brokaw: Narcotics. The poppy crop is larger now than it was under the Taliban. It continues to provide what, about a quarter of the economy in this country?

Barno: Probably more closer to 50 percent I'd say, actually.

Brokaw: And it also helps to finance a lot of bad activities?

Barno: Yeah, without a doubt, we're much more actively involved today than we were when we talked a year ago in supporting the counter-narcotics efforts here. We have a fused intelligence cell right here on this compound that works 24 hours a day on counter-narcotics intelligence and helps build targeting information that are being used now by the various interdiction forces. So we're much more involved in that than we were a year ago, we're still not the lead, and we'll always, I think, be a supporting role, but our involvement is dramatically higher than it was 12 months ago.

Brokaw: But if narcotics provide about 50 percent of the Afghan economy, you can’t take that down quickly and not cripple the country.

Barno: Well that's exactly true, and we are arguing from the military standpoint, that this needs to be a multi-year approach. We want to achieve success, we want to get to the end state, but we also want to do it in a way that doesn't disrupt and destabilize the rest of our policy objectives here in Afghanistan, so we think doing this over several years with a continual takedown of the percentage of crops that are being cultivated as well as some very effective interdiction operations is the way to go.

Brokaw: But how do you fill in behind the poppy production and have a viable economy?

Barno: Well there are opportunities for that. This is always going to be an agrarian-based economy, in my judgment, its going to be a trade crossroads in the next couple of years as these road networks start to come in and it's a quicker route to the sea in the south. But the majority of  afghan people are always going to be involved in agriculture, so there's always got to be -- again, in my judgment -- an agriculture system built to allow people to farm other crops than poppy and still be successful and still be able to feed their families.

Brokaw: Do you think the American people have a full realization of how long the United States is going to have to stay involved here, militarily, economically, even culturally, to make sure that country remains secure and doesn't become a base again for radical Islam?

Barno: Well that's a very hard thing to predict. And we struggle with that as we look to the future and what kind of force structure we should have here. As I mention, we've got a significant expansion of the NATO effort, that'll take additional root this coming year. By 18 months from now, I would expect NATO will have military oversight of all of Afghanistan for instance. At the same time, we're building the afghan security forces up with the army and the police, the afghan national army now is bigger than our coalition forces, which are today about 20,000, for the first time. So there's a lot of other players involved with that are interested in supporting the country over the long term.

Brokaw: You've been in the cockpit here for a long time now, you've seen a lot of changes. As you get ready to leave, what worries you the most?

Barno: I think our willingness to sustain this effort and the concern that we don't lose momentum here in the next year or two years. Particularly as we reflect on the great progress in 2004 in Afghanistan, you know 4 big victories last year with the constitution being passed, ten and a half million afghans registering to vote, and then 80 percent of them coming out to vote for President Karzai in the fall, and then the inauguration and a new cabinet - that's a big year for Afghanistan. And it also sends great positive messages, but that efforts got to be sustained, and that's where some of the real challenges lie.

Brokaw: And you have the parliamentary elections this fall, how worried are you that the Taliban and al-Qaida will come in this summer in an effort to disrupt those?

Barno: Well they'll certainly try. They got zeroed out on the scoreboard last year, fundamentally, throughout the entire 12 months of 2004. So they are looking for ways to get back, and get some score up on the board, we expect them to do some type of spectacular attack to get media attention, and to focus away from the defeats that they've had. But I'm also highly confident that the same approach we used last year with NATO, with the afghan government, with the electoral commission will pay the same dividends here this fall for the parliamentary elections.

Brokaw: People who are critical of the political structure here say President Karzai is really the president of Kabul, he can’t move around the country. It's a kind of, if you will, a charade as the national president.

Barno: I don't really see that. I've heard that comment for a long time now. One of the things that I think is important as his movements is his ability to exert and extend the influence of his governments out to different parts of the country. And since I've been here, he's taken control of events in Herat, and closed down a warlord who was running the operation out there, in taking control of the city, putting his own governor. He's moved against several disturbances in Mazar-I-Sharif by deploying the afghan national army up there and the afghan national police. And done some very clever political work to be able to put that back in the box. So I see him having a tremendous influence around the country, and he's moving out and about more and more.

Brokaw: This is a tricky question for you, but is the United States putting too much pressure on uniformed services? You're expected to fight the bad guys, secure the country, and rebuild the country at the same time.

Barno: Well I think it certainly points out that the entire U.S. interagency process has a role to play in these type of operations. We're in a phase now where non-military activities perhaps have more importance than even the military part of our operations. So a greater role to be played by various parts of the US government outside of the military would certainly be welcome, and maybe necessary in the next couple of years.

Brokaw: Two questions on the minds of everyone - can you win this war, and how long is it going to take?

Barno: We are winning this war, for sure today. I mean there’s no question when we look back on events in the last year and a half that, in my view at least, there's been a corner turned here in Afghanistan. The key will be how long can we sustain that effort and can we take the long view and be prepared to invest - not necessarily at the exact same rate in the same way as we do today - but have the right mix of capabilities in here to sustain this great progress inside of Afghanistan, and sustain this regional effort that is very comforting to other countries in this part of the world over the long haul. That's not always been America’s hallmark, but its something we have to be able to do to be ultimately successful in the war here in this part of the world.

Brokaw: Is it going to be more expensive than the American people might anticipate?

Barno: I don’t know. We'll have to see what level of expense the American people are willing to tolerate over here, and that's always part of the equation and its one of the more difficult things we wrestle with. But there’s a lot of other players out there, there’s a lot of great international players. NATO's taking a larger role. So I think in combination, we have to have the will to make this work and sustain that effort.

Brokaw: What've you learned in terms of the use of special forces and special operations as opposed to the big armies showing up en masse on the borders?

Barno: Well one of the interesting things about this environment is, it's the perfect environment for special forces, we get huge bang for our buck from that. They're really the epitome of the 21st century soldier, b/c of their training and their background, their ability to flex, and do different kinds of missions at the drop of a hat. And their cultural orientation which we typically don't have in our regular forces, although we're starting to build that, recognize that's critical today.

Brokaw: What have you learned personally, as a senior officer, about the future of military operations around the world as a result of 18 months in Afghanistan?

Barno: Well for one thing, there’s not just one kind of war. We had become as a military, very focused on the kinetic type - drop bombs, take out the enemy in one fell swoop, the shock and awe approach to warfare. In counterinsurgency warfare, which we're in the middle of here, I think we're also in the middle of in Iraq today - is a long-term fight that's been part of the history of warfare for a long time, and we started to think that we didn't have to pay as much attention to that anymore. That's clearly how our enemies are going to want to fight us, so we're going to have to be very well trained and prepared and intellectually ready to deal with that kind of fight.

Brokaw: Is there a radium affect from Iraq on Afghanistan?

Brokaw: Is there a kind of a domino effect on Afghanistan as a result of what’s going on in Iraq. Are they training people there who show up here, does it bother the Muslims who live in Afghanistan to see on television what’s going on there?

Barno: We don't see too much of that interestingly enough. The, some of the events there with Abu Ghraib, and other activities have not raised a lot of public interest over here in this part of the world, for a short period of time, yes, and then its moved on. We don't see a great deal of transfer of tactics or even people from Iraq to this part of the theatre, but we're very watchful of that, and we share lessons continuously with our forces over there, so that's something we've got to stay on the lookout for.

Brokaw: The people that you intercept that come across the border, are they better fighters than they were three years ago? Or are they the new kids on the block?

Barno: They're new kids on the block, but they're better equipped, interestingly enough. SO there's money flowing in to provide them the right kind of gear, but they don't have the maturity or the battlefield experience, what we might've seen a year, year and a half ago here in Afghanistan.

Brokaw: When they arrive here, operationally are they very strong?

Barno: They don't do well, we've beaten in the last month we've had a number of engagements when they've just been pummeled into the ground on fairly amateurish type of activities that they've obviously prepared well for, and they had a media component to it, they had publicity, and an embarrassment part of it in the political sense, but they don't have the tactics and they don't have the training that we would've seen back in the early days.

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