General David Richards talks to Sir David Frost
Sir David Frost: Six months ago General David Richards, the head of Nato Forces in Afghanistan, told a conference that Afghanistan was quote "close to anarchy". The number of suicide bombings was increasing, corruption was rife and the ousted Taliban forces were believed to be gearing up to launch an attack on the city of Kandahar. That attack when it came was repulsed and last week General Richards came to the end of his time in command in Afghanistan. He has handed over control and he is here stop press from the scene in question.

In terms of the outcome of Kandahar and so on, what effect has that had on where you would place the Taliban now as between resurgent, static or declining?

General David Richards: Well it is very interesting. I hadn't realised the importance in an Afghan context of beating your enemy militarily in terms of hearts and minds. We tend to associate hearts and minds with good work, reconstruction development and so on, and quite rightly. But in a country that has spent thirty years fighting, you have got to prove unequivocally that you can militarily defeat the enemy, otherwise people understandably are not going to give you their faith. That was what that battle that you mentioned in the introduction was all about. 

And I think while we would have wished to have avoided it and the number of casualties we inflicted on the Taliban, the fact is Nato had to prove itself to come of age and then was able to do the things that we really went there to do, the reconstruction and so on.

Where we are today I think we have got a stabilised military situation, we haven't won, the conditions for winning are now in place and that battle which is what it was, was a necessary pre-cursor to getting to the situation we are in.

DF: And so the Taliban itself having resurged rather to people's surprise, who thought they were out of action soon after 9/11. But they are struggling now. Could they mount another Kandahar if they wanted to?

DR: Oh of that type I doubt. Partly because we should never, and soldiers learn this to their cost, never underestimate your enemy. And I don't think they would make that same mistake, so would they do it in that way, no because militarily they are very clear now that we would defeat them again. 

Could they do it in a different way over time, sort of psychological encroachment on the city, they will try but I don't believe that as we sit here they are a strategic threat to President Karzai's government.

DF: And Nato as such is it at a stage now where it can't be beaten? We may not have won the war but can't be beaten by the Taliban?

DR: I don't think they can. I mean there is 37 nations in ISAF which is the 26 of Nato plus another 11, including countries like Australia and New Zealand. Well trained, well equipped, militarily they will not be beaten and we proved that last year. The trick now is to exploit that situation to deliver on the people's expectations, in terms of reconstruction, development and improvements in governance.

DF: And one or two of the things that come up immediately is obviously the question of what do you do about drugs which according to some reports provide 92 per cent of Afghanistan's receipts. In that situation can we afford to as it were kill off the drugs because it would have such a deleterious effect on the economy?

DR: Well I mean it wasn't my daily bread and butter, the Kandahar narcotics campaign, but it was an inevitable part of what we were doing. So in practice although it wasn't the theory, I was closely involved in it and I think the point you are making is the key issue. 

It has got to be dealt with. It is how you deal with it, what pace you deal with it by and do you sequence it correctly? I mean both from a security point of view as well as from an economic perspective, you have got to get this right because if you don't have alternatives and I mean I'm talking about an alternative economy as your question is suggesting, rather than an alternative livelihood which is a much narrower thing I think, then you are in danger of tipping perfectly otherwise broadly law abiding farmers into the Taliban camp. 

And are we geared up from a security perspective to deal with it? And I suspect not. So we have got to deal with it, we have got to get the sequencing right, we are much more involved in the planning. I think there is a better understanding of that but it can't be done overnight.

DF: There were headlines about suicide bombers suddenly being mentioned in Afghanistan, there have been fewer headlines again recently. Was that a passing phase that you managed to nip in the bud?

DR: Well funnily enough first of all if I may say, suicide bombing while very sad in many respects is a sign of military weakness and if you handle it correctly, I don't think it offers a threat of the type that a successful conventional campaign obviously does. 

The answer to your question is it was not just me or my headquarters and forces, the Afghan intelligence services can bear primary responsibility and take most of the credit for understanding better and better how this threat was manifesting itself and how to deal with it. 

We certainly played a bit role and I would say without wishing to trade propaganda, that the Taliban failed to achieve every one of its stated objectives in 2006. I am not being complacent about it and there will always be gaps in our defences that they will exploit. But they said they would bring to Kabul a winter campaign of terror based on suicide bombs. As we sit here, there hasn't been a successful suicide attack in Kabul now for many months and not a successful rocket attack in Kabul for many months. That is a symptom of what you are getting at, successful counter insurgence.

DF: Did you or your men get any traces on the trail to Osama bin Laden?

DR: It wasn't actually again without wishing to slope shoulders on this, it wasn't my primary responsibility. The American operation Enduring Freedom has primary responsibility for looking out for al-Qaeda, including Osama. I was aware of what they were doing because they kept me fully informed. But it is their pigeon that one and we took on the counter Taliban task.

DF: But you never heard of people getting excited that they were close to the trail or was it just the trail had long cooled?

DR: I think we suspect where he is within a broad brush area but you know he is very canny clearly if he is still alive and I don't know any more than the next man and does it matter, arguably in one sense? But no I genuinely think right now no one is really certain where he precisely is. 


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