IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

One-on-one with General David McKiernan

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Thank you for sitting down with us. As far as you can tell, what's the mission here.? Is it rooting out al Qaeda? Is it rooting out the Taliban? Is it finding bin Laden? What is it?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: Well first of all Brian thanks, thanks for coming to see us today. The mission of ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force is simply put - trying to assist the government of Afghanistan to become a viable government with institutions, with the right security, so that the people of Afghanistan can have a better future.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: That word security is always interesting. It can be used as a euphemism. We saw yesterday how this fight is spreading out. In the case we saw yesterday, by the recruitment and training of these Afghan commandos. You've got a whole lot of US special forces out there right now. How do you see the fight part of this progressing?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: That’s a tough question because of the complexity of this environment. If I could put a couple of things in context


GENERAL McKIERNAN: When I look around Afghanistan I see first of all a country where the average age in Afghanistan is less than 20 years old. The average life expectancy is about 43 years old. This country has been in constant conflict, war, for over 30 years. So violence, from a variety of historical sources and influences has been a part of the life of Afghanistan for as long as most people can remember.

So when we look at the threat here, the threat is not just the Taliban. The threat is Taliban, other insurgent activities and organizations that do not believe and do not want the government of Afghanistan to succeed. It's facilitation by terrorist organizations. Its criminal organizations, it's banditry, it's narco trafficers. It's inter-tribal conflict. There is a very complex security environment here that a variety of international organizations are trying to effect.

At the end of the day, I believe that security, good governance and developmental progress all go hand in hand for the future of Afghanistan

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Can you ever be successful in all you're charged with as long as where we're sitting is considered, by most level-headed individuals, a narco-state... supplying 91 percent of the world's opium?

GENERAL McKIERNAN I think that’s one of the great challenges to getting to the right security environment here. I won't say that's impossible to overcome, but it is one of great challenges. The insurgency is one of the great challenges, the issue with a very porous, uncontrolled, unsecure border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan is a challenge. All those things come together with the harsh geography and lack of human capital here in the country to make the question of how long do we need to be here and what do we need to do very difficult to answer

BRIAN WILLIAMS: You use the word insurgency, and the last time Americans heard that, they know, was in the Iraq war. What are the similarities and differences in the insurgency here?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: I find probably, first of all it's very helpful to disassociate Iraq from Afghanistan. I think the environment is much different. The insurgency here comes from a variety of influences. It's much more than just a religious or ethnic division. A lot of it is fueled by foreign influences, by terrorist organizations, but there is no one insurgent chain of command, if you will or command, and control headquarters that orchestrates all this. It's really, I believe, a nexus of a variety of different threats.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Isn't there one parallel, and that is that like in iraq, when the citizenry has had it with the insurgency, they've had ways to tamp it down, and isn't that also true here?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: I think that's certainly a very important factor. Of course when you say insurgency here, and you look at the network of tribes and clans and communication and families. A lot of that is intermixed, and it's very difficult to separate out good guys from bad guys, population and insurgents.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: A lot of americans when they last kind of checked in on this war through news coverage, associate the Taliban with the face of evil here. They associate it chiefly with the loss of freedoms and identities for women and girls in Afghanistan. Where do you put the Taliban today? How robust a force is it? How insidious, how dangerous is it to doing your job and to everyday life here in Afghanistan?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: A good part of the country, not in every part of the country but especially in the east and southern part of Afghanistan, the terms you used: Dangerous, insidious, I would echo that. Resilient, determined. I wouldn't call them a centralized, coherent command and control. I think they have lots of different levels of organization. I wouldn't use the term that some have used recently called resurgent Taliban. But I do think they remain a very viable, destructive force for the future of Afghanistan.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Would I be wrong to assume that if you and I got in an aircraft and flew just slightly across the border into Pakistan, in the mountains, that we'd be pretty near where Osama bin Laden is hanging out these days?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: You know Brian I don't know. I don't know where Osama bin Laden is hanging out these days, but I can tell you that if we were to fly in that helicopter across the border into the area known as the FATA, or the Northwest Frontier Province we are very concerned that there are, that it is basically an ungoverned area and it creates many resources that allow bad people and bad things to transit back and forth across the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Put it another way. If you had a wall along the Pakistan - Afghanistan border, would your job here be easier?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: If we had a security system where the control of movement across that border. It's a border which, as you know, separates the same ethnic divisions, but if we had a system of security enforced on both the Pakistan and Afghan side of that border that created controlled movement, certainly that would help to build the Afghan government and it's institutions inside Afghanistan. I wouldn't say that completely it would make a secure environment here, but it would be a big step in that direction.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: And to put it yet another way: by percentage, how much of the trouble in Afghanistan comes flowing in across that border?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: I can't put it in a percentage, but I can tell you that recently we've an increase in levels of violence and activities and in the south, that I think is directly effected by organizations and networks able to operate with impunity across the border in the FATA and Northwest Frontier Province.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: As much candor as you can muster would be so appreciated. How important is it still to get Bin Laden? How often do you think about him? How often are your operations aimed at him?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: Well I believe, as others have said, that a future 9-11 is probably being plotted. I think it's very important that we defeat al Qaeda.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: And that means?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: And that means the leadership as well.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: The man whose been made to be the symbol of the face of evil in the United States on 9-11.

GENERAL McKIERNAN: I think that's still a very important national objective that we have.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: After his last visit here, (Retired General) Barry McCaffrey in his executive summary of his findings in Afghanistan says the war in Afghanistan has been shamefully underreseourced by the department of the defense. He wrote those words a year ago. You know General McCaffrey well. Has there been any change in that assessment? This is still kind of known in the business, we still hear the expression the other war. This is the place where kind of intuition and resourcefulness win out because you don't get the money, you don't get the resources that the Iraq war gets.

GENERAL McKIERNAN: I'm going to answer that question given the fact that I'm about one week into the command, so there's a lot I don't know yet.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: I understand.

GENERAL McKIERNAN: My predecessor and most of the military advice has said yes there is a lack of military resources here. Not just a United States problem but an international problem. There are many requirements that have not been filled on the NATO side. I'm making that assessment right now. It's not just a question of additional ISAF forces or US forces, it's also about building capacity in the Afghan national security forces -- their army, their police. It's about getting the rest of the international commitment here in terms of development, in terms of assistance to the Afghan government for spreading the right kind of governance and authorities. All that has to work together, but the short answer to your question is yes there's probably still some significant shortfalls in military capabilities. I'll get smarter on that as quickly as I can, as I make my initial assessment.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Part of your new job to ask for as much money from back home and other governments as you can possibly get, isn't it?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: I will ask for what I think I need.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: How do you prevent what just happened a few days ago, a few days into your command, the loss of upwards of 20 Pakistani military along the border by US hands?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: First I think it's a very unfortunate event, and I think there needs to be  what exactly happened, but I think it's indicative and reflects the fact that along the Afghan-Pak border there is not the right security apparatus. It's a very porous border. It's not clearly marked on the ground. There are insurgent elements that move back and forth across that border that exacerbate any sort of coordination along the border, so I think it's reflective of some of the problems we have trying to set up the right security along the border.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: What would it take?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: I think it would take, my initial impression, it would take a commitment on the part of both countries to establish a security environment along the border.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Give me a little help there. Security environment? It's such a big place.

GENERAL McKIERNAN: Control of movement, of people and materiel, both directions. Control over what we think are some camps and sources of insurgent and or terrorist activity that are in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. So there's got to be some more security on both sides of the border to fix that problem.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: You're a desert warrior in that you were responsible for ground operations in this last war in Iraq. What do you look forward to learning in this job and what are the chief skills transferrable from your last job?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: Given that the environments, as I said before, are totally different; I continue to learn something new every day and every day I'm able to go out and see different military formations and see different Afghan agencies, make different interpersonal relationships. I'm learning and it will help me do my job better. I think, simply put I bring in to this job a perspective that we have to work in a multinational environment. Winning is all about Afghanistan. It's all about building a viable Afghan government. It's about working with Afghan institutions and probably number three, it's a complex environment. At the end of the day, you trust your subordinates if you're a military leader. You trust those junior officers out there on the ground to do the right thing, and they are incredibly capable of doing the right thing, and not just Americans. Across the alliance.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: An overall question if you don't mind General. We've got viewers of our broadcast who are right now probably chiefly worried about gasoline is headed, and you can stand at a gas pump during the course of the day in parts of our country and watch the price rise. They're worried about summer vacation, what form that's going to be this year. The economy, the political race underway back home. If they see this coverage that reminds them there is this so-called other war going on is there a message you can tell them? How is it going here, especially for American forces. Because most people in the town where they live, they know kids who've gone off to Iraq. They may have a kid or two whose fighting here under your command and others in Afghanistan.

GENERAL McKIERNAN: I think what I would ask the American public to do is to continue to support their men and women in uniform here in Afghanistan. They're working at places like altitudes of 12 to 16 thousand feed above sea level in the east. They're working in very harsh desert conditions in the south and the southwestern part of this country. They're working in a very hostile, complex environment and I would simply ask the American public to continue to support the efforts and the resources needed to support the soldiers, airman, sailors and marines that are operating here in Afghanistan. I believe we are being successful. I believe success can be measured in terms of time and milestones, and the more we commit internationally to this Afghanistan problem, the faster we'll get to winning it. Winning it is all about, as I said, a viable Afghan government, and it's hard. Make no mistake about it. So I just simply ask the American people to continue to support their servicemen.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: So you can see that endgame. You can see what would be labeled success or victory here in Afghanistan?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: I cannot see the endgame. What I can see, and what I said in my first week here to my subordinate commanders and staffs is I'm here to win. We're here to win. And winning means we're moving towards a more viable Afghan government, and all the institutions associated with governance, such as security institutions, and we're moving in that direction. If you were to ask me so what year, General, do you think we're going to be where Afghanistan is self-sustaining? I can't answer that question. I don't know.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Is it fair to say this should be a more important conflict to the folks back home, say, in the Pentagon, than it is. The point you made here today that if there's going to be another 9-11 we already know where those guys are. This was the original war in the terms that these were the first boots on the ground, this was a direct outgrowth of 9-11. Can you make that case more loudly and more strongly?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: I think I would say two things. I think number one that this region, not just Afghanistan but this region is of a vital national security interest for the United States of America. Secondly, I would say the same thing about the 40 troop-contributing nations that are part of ISAF that they have national security interests that are directly related to this region so we should stay committed to this region and Afghanistan.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Final question, again for our viewers. The notion of the enemy here can get confusing, you can't blame people. The images we talked about earlier about the Taliban. What's the status of the Taliban, what's the status of Al Qaeda, and do the two get mixed up, do you think, in the public mind?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: I think to a certain degree they do get mixed up. The Taliban, I look at as a regional threat. They do not want a viable government in Afghanistan unless its under their conditions. I look at Al Qaeda as a global security threat, and a global terrorist organization, but there is linkage between the two. Why people fight, here, for the Taliban or for the insurgency I also believe is for a variety of reasons. Poverty, fear, intimidation, some for ideological reasons, some because it's the fighting season and there's a history of violence in this country, some for inter-tribal reasons. There's a variety of motivations that make it a very, very complex security environment.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Can you train the folks here to fight in ways that we're seeing are impossible at the conflict where you last were, in Iraq?

GENERAL McKIERNAN: I think we're moving in that direction everyday to make sure that not only ISAF forces, but more importantly Afghan security forces are able to provide security in this sort of complex security environment.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: General, thank you.