ABC TV (AUS): World in Focus [transcript]

WORLD IN FOCUS Interview with Michael Ware
Interviewer: Jennifer Byrne

Michael Ware is TIME Magazine's correspondent in Afghanistan. With the hunt for Osama bin Laden continuing, and renewed speculation about whether or not he is still alive, Jennifer Byrne talks to Ware about the Afghanis, their government, aid agencies, and the involvement of the U.S. military.

Byrne: Michael thank you for joining us tonight. Now, the majority of British marines will be out of Afghanistan by the end of August - we’ve just seen pictures of American troops reading books in their barracks.... How does this portrayal of men near the end of their mission square with what you’re seeing on the ground?

Ware: Large scale confrontations and large scale operations have certainly... are on the decline.... the problem being, finding the enemy is the difficult part. So the focus now is on much smaller, far more precise, more surgical operations. Very much the special forces are out there pursuing the al Qaeda and Taliban remnants, and in the east of Afghanistan that’s certainly what they’re coming across - Al Qaeda soldiers... al Qaeda foot soldiers, and Pakistani militants who are infiltrating back across the border from the tribal areas in Pakistan.

Byrne: You’re saying that there’s sporadic fighting with the Taliban remnants, but the concensus seems to be that the vast majority of Taliban and al Qaeda forces have withdrawn to the mountains of Pakistan, and are just waiting for the international forces to go before they return... is that your impression also – and if so, when is this mission ever going to end?

Ware: Yeah, I do agree. In my opinion, the greatest problem facing the U.S. led forces at the moment is just finding an exit strategy – When can they get out of Afghanistan? Coming in was relatively easy, on a wave of military success. Staying here and maintaining the peace is increasingly proving to be a losing battle. So how can you get out? If the American bombers in the skies left the airs today, the al Qaeda camps, the Kashmiri militant camps, the Pakistani militant camps would all be back here tomorrow. So when can the Americans leave? Either when they eradicate these hard-core groups – which is not going to happen any time soon – or when they have secured the support of the civilian population so that these people do not want the militants here, or until there are government institutions in place that can secure this country. And again, neither of those things are going to happen any time in the near future.

Byrne: I saw the Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was quoted the other day as saying this dispute could last just as long as the cold war, and I take it the internationals aren’t going to want to stick around that long?

Ware: Absolutely not. For the time being, the military forces seem to have the political stamina to stick it out, but they know that that’s a very limited resource that they have... that political support. There’s talk of some of the international contingents leaving before the end of the year, however there’s a noticeable change in the American attitude. I was in Kandahar when the marines first arrived in December shortly after the fall of the Taliban. At that time the marines were saying, ‘this is an extremely short term mission’ – however now you’ll find that with the 82nd Airborne now in control in Kandahar, permanent facilities are being built. Concrete foundations are being built, air-conditioned barracks are under construction, the tarmac is receiving more and more work, it is becoming an American facility.... a permanent American facility. And the American spokespeople in Bagram Airbase three weeks ago, said we anticipate staying here for between eighteen months and two years. So there’s considerable creep in the time frame for the Afghan mission.

Byrne: Mmm. Mike, let’s talk a bit about the hearts and minds issue – the old hearts and minds stories – particularly around Kandahar where you’ve spent much of your time.... do the people living there, where you say there’s pockets of support still for the Taliban and al Qaeda, do they accept that the Americans are doing the best they can, and yes there’s occasional disasters like the bombing of the wedding party... or basically are they hostile – is it a population that just wants the Americans out?

Ware: The tide has very much turned in the South. I am now hearing far too commonly a statement that though it is without some basis, it is very heartfelt. More and more you are hearing people say 'we were better off under the Russians'. As the Afghans say to me, 'in the first twelve months, the Russians were not bombing our families... however, that’s what the Americans are doing'. At the same time, there’s no sign of humanitarian assistance or roads and bridges and schools. So they’re seeing nothing from the international community except American bombs. There is no security. Outside the city of Kabul it is still extraordinarily difficult and dangerous for NGO’s and aid agencies to be working. Much of the north is currently closed off to aid agencies. In the south, they rarely set foot outside of Kandahar, and there’s only a token presence of U.N., World Food Programme, Red Cross and a handful of other agencies. Every mile you take outside of the major cities, it becomes wilder and wilder country where there is no sign of any assistance.

Byrne: Mike, what of those billions of dollars pledged in Tokyo not that long ago... the international community said 'we will help – we’re going to rebuild Afghanistan'. Has that money not turned up?

Ware: These things take a long time. For example the first tranche of American aid money - $280 million has already been soaked up, and as American diplomatic sources say, the vast majority of that money went directly to the U.N. and its agencies to set up the infrastructure that was severely lacking here. The next series of monies that are due to come through from the international donors, including America, is hoped to go more directly into real, on-the-ground construction projects. However, there’s enormous difficulties... you must work with the Afghan administration to accomplish this – and that is a deeply flawed administration. You have Karzai, who is the Chief of State... he is the President, yet Hamid Karzai has no power in this country. He has no ability to project central government power into the rest of Afghanistan.

Byrne: In fact he now has American body guards, hasn’t he?

Ware: Yes, he does and that was an extremely significant development last weekend. That is a real sign of a sea-change, and that is exactly how western diplomatic sources describe that to me. Karzai is now so threatened both externally and internally – even from within his own cabinet – that he must take recourse to foreign protection. Now of course, that’s an enormous gamble. As a western diplomatic source said to me ‘we knew that there will be great political cost for taking this move, however we know that whatever the price it will be less that losing Karzai. There is very much a perception here among the Afghan people, particularly in the south, but across the country, that this is a country under foreign occupation. And there are many people – and this is a growing view – that regard Karzai as a foreign puppet. The adoption of foreign soldiers to protect him just further entrenches that view – in fact the Defence Minister was privately telling his generals last week, what kind of a situation is it when the Minister of Defence for Afghanistan must seek approval from foreign soldiers to meet with his own president. What does this tell you about the president? What does this tell you about this government?

Byrne: Michael Ware, thank you very much for joining us tonight. Thank you.

Ware: Thank you, Jennifer.