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Keeping Up With Jones

Why NATO's commander is cautiously optimistic about Afghanistan.

8:00 AM, Oct 6, 2006 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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General James L. Jones, the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, does not soft-pedal the growing troubles in Afghanistan. Drug trafficking, corruption, dodgy police forces, terrorist mayhem--to rattle off the list can be dispiriting. Afghanistan has held two successful national elections since 2004, but has lately seen a sharp upsurge in violence. And it's not just Taliban fighters wreaking the havoc.

"The narcotics cartels have their own armies," General Jones told the Council on Foreign Relations this past Wednesday. "It is truly the Achilles' heel of Afghanistan." Indeed, drug money "fuels the insurgency" and incites resistance to the government of President Hamid Karzai. The Taliban rely on Afghanistan's booming opium trade to buy arms--and the problem appears to be getting worse. "We're losing ground," says Jones.

What to do? Jones argues that European law enforcement must shoulder some of the burden, since the vast majority of Afghan heroin winds up in their cities. But that's the end of the supply chain. What about the beginning? Jones hopes to boost eradication efforts, tackle the cartels, reform the Afghan criminal justice system, and use reconstruction aid to make drug dealing a less attractive enterprise for potential recruits and a less lucrative revenue source for the Taliban.

Those are big tasks, but they highlight the interdependence between NATO's military mission and its humanitarian chores. "Afghanistan will not be resolved by military means," says Jones. "Everything that we do militarily is perishable if it's not accompanied by reconstruction." According to Jones, the southern region of Afghanistan, where most of the recent Taliban attacks have been concentrated, is largely "untouched" by reconstruction work. But he points to the success of "Operation Medusa," a NATO assault launched several weeks ago near Kandahar.

The NATO forces spearheading Medusa included American, British, Canadian, and Dutch troops, plus an assortment of Afghan soldiers. It marked a costly defeat for the Taliban, says Jones, and the Afghans played a crucial role. He calls the formation of Afghanistan's national army--which now numbers about 30,000 strong--"one of the success stories" of the occupation. Of course the army still needs better training and, as the Afghan defense minister has emphasized, far more manpower. But its performance during Medusa was encouraging.

"We fought in the south in order to set the conditions for rapid reconstruction," says Jones. NATO once had "no permanent forces" there; now there are some 9,000 NATO troops. "Everything that we want to fix in Afghanistan is in the southern region," which remains a Taliban stronghold.

As the Economist puts it, "Northern Afghanistan is calm only by comparison," and wracked by vicious warlords, many of whom supply the Taliban with weapons in exchange for drug money. Meanwhile, bullied and bought-off prosecutors have made the Afghan judicial process a farce. Jones hopes that higher salaries for prosecutors will help place them beyond corruption, citing the remarks of Afghanistan's attorney general.

DESPITE THIS LITANY OF OBSTACLES, Jones is cautiously upbeat: "I'm not willing to concede that anything has 'gone wrong,' per se." He ticks off the two major (and mostly peaceful) Afghan elections, the fact that around 6 million Afghan children are now in school, and the progress of a nascent Afghan military. President Karzai is still relatively popular, the currency is still stable, and the economy is growing at double-digit rates (albeit from a paltry base).

Jones does regret that NATO troops are often hamstrung by "caveats"--the dozens of national restrictions that impede the operational capabilities of individual NATO countries. (Such rules have been especially stifling for the German forces.) He is not quite sure what to make of the Waziristan Accords, signed last month in Pakistan's tribal border region, which many have painted as a surrender to the Taliban. Jones wants to see how they function in practice. He says the Pakistani military understands the border problem, and appreciates the need to stop al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from streaming into Afghanistan.

When pressed by reporters, Jones tiptoes around the anti-Rumsfeld comments attributed to him in the new Bob Woodward book. "I do not associate myself with the so-called revolt of the generals," he says. According to Woodward, Jones has privately called the Iraq war a "debacle." But when asked about it Jones demurs, saying "debacle" is "probably a much stronger word than I would use."