ISLAMABAD: “Media is a particularly useful mechanism for us to come on and explain that what we are trying to accomplish, what our perspective is,” said US Deputy Chief of Mission, Islamabad Gerald Feierstein while talking to SAMAA special on December 2, 2009. He was invited to discuss the new US Afghan strategy. The full transcript of the discussion is as follows.
Ihtasham Ul Haq: Assalam u Alaikum viewers. I welcome you all again to SAMAA Special. As you all know that President Obama has given his new strategy for Afghanistan, a new policy of which there are one or two things that you have already heard. It has been decided to send 30,000 additional troops there, but along with that, it has also been said that within 18 months, withdrawal will also begin. You heard all that, but we have with us in the studio Mr Gerald Feierstein who is the US Deputy Chief of Mission in the Islamabad Embassy who will talk to. Welcome to our show Mr Feierstein.
GERALD FEIERSTEIN: Thank you Mr Ihtasham.
IHTASHAM: Generally, we have seen that people have welcomed this speech of Mr Obama and they say it is very encouraging, and that the people are taking this as an opportunity of engaging with the Obama administration, so that the issue of terrorism is wiped out from the region. How do you look at it?
GF: I think that it is absolutely the right way to look at it, and I think that from our perspective, what the president said this morning was a historic speech. It was a very important speech, not only in terms of the US engagement here, in the region, although it was built as a speech about Afghanistan, we think that equally important was the president’s comments about the relationship with Pakistan, and the centrality with what he said of building a strong strategic partnership between the United States and Pakistan has a critical element of achieving success, in what we are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan.
IUH: Initially General McChrystal had asked for 40,000 troops, but finally they have decided to send 30,000 troops and they have also given some type of an exit strategy, that during this next 18-month period, there will be phase-wise withdrawal of the troops. Do you think that in this period, you will be able to contain terrorism? Many people, like our former president Pervez Musharraf said that you should not have given the time-frame. On the other hand, our foreign minister said yesterday that the American troops should stay there for at least five years…
GF: Right. I think the context in which the former president made his remarks is important. First point is that the announcement the president made today was a result of many months of very careful deliberation. General McChrystal certainly provided his thoughts and ideas about how to go forward. The president also met with his senior civilian and military advisors. There were many hours of review and deliberation before the strategy was developed. And so, what you had today was the announcement that reflected all of those discussions, all of that reflection of the president and his senior advisors, and what they came forward with today was what they think is the right strategy to go forward. Now, the basic principles that the president announced were that we are going to build up our security forces in the next number of months. We are going to increase the amount of training and we are going to increase the civilian support for the government of Afghanistan in that period of time. And the third key element was, of course, building a relationship with Pakistan. And the president’s idea is that if we achieve all of these targets, and we are successful in implementing all of these elements, then he believes and his senior advisors believe, that in 18 months, in the middle of 2011, we will be able to begin the process of transitioning responsibility for security and stability in Afghanistan from the American and international coalition forces to the Afghans themselves. Now, but he was also very clear in saying that the decision to actually begin that transition process will be reflection of the conditions on the ground. So, they will make another judgement, they will continue to evaluate as we move forward. Are we meeting our targets? Is the governor of Afghanistan capable of meeting these responsibilities? But what’s very clear is that the president will not leave a power vacuum in Afghanistan. The transition will be orderly and it will be based on our estimate and the government of Afghanistan’s estimate of whether they have capacity to take over the responsibility.
IUH: Don’t you think this transition will be very difficult, considering the current corruption that is rampant about which Obama has also talked about in his speech?
GF: Well, he did talk about that certainly it’s an issue. It’s an issue of concern for us and an issue of concern for the entire international community, and very clearly to the Afghan people themselves. And so, as we move forward and as we have a parallel civilian surge with the military surge, certainly building strong governing institutions in Afghanistan which is free of corruption, that are capable of delivering services to the Afghan people, is going to be a very important element of a successful strategy.
IUH: And raising an army of 100,000 and 95000 police, do you think, is going to be an easy task for you, for NATO and for everybody in Afghanistan?
GF: It’s a challenge but…
IUH: Do you think there is going to be proper placement there?
GF: I think that our assessment as we have gone forward is that the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) has in fact, improved dramatically over the years. So we believe that we are beginning to build a strong foundation, particularly on the military side on a strong foundation of capacity on the part of the Afghan Security forces and I think that as we move forward, we are going to see very close coordination and cooperation between the international coalition forces and the Afghan forces where they will actually be living and working and cooperating together side by side, and that way, we will be able to accelerate the capacity building on the part of the security forces.
IUH: And it is being feared that in the absence of any strong replacement that is going to be prepared in Afghanistan, people say that Afghanistan will continue to be destabilized…
GF: Well, I think that again, the president’s objectives and the strategy that he laid out today is aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan, providing for security, understanding that its only through stabilizing and securing Afghanistan, that we can begin the process really of reintegrating and bringing the forces that are resisting the government into the fold to begin the process of transition so that people are focused on economic and social opportunities moving into the future and they have a sense of optimism again that Afghanistan indeed has a bright future.
IUH: President Obama in his speech has also talked about constructive partnership with Pakistan, strategic partnership with Pakistan. There are fears at the same time, there are misconceptions and distrust. Do you think in a period of two to three months, this gap can be bridged and there will be no trust deficit so that both countries can work together to eliminate t