General Jean-Louis Py has been Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) since the deployment of the Eurocorps in Afghanistan in August 2004.
In this capacity, he has overseen NATO's contribution to Afghanistan's historic presidential election, which took place in an orderly and violence-free atmosphere in October 2004, and completion of the first phase of ISAF's expansion beyond Kabul, in accordance with commitments NATO made at the Istanbul Summit. A 55-year-old Frenchman, he has commanded the Eurocorps since September 2003. Before joining Eurocorps, he had a series of senior appointments. This included Chief of Staff of the French Land Forces Command in Lille, France, Chief of Staff of the EUROFOR HQ in Florence, Italy, and head of the Planning Cell of the Implementation Force Headquarters in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first six months of NATO's first peacekeeping operation.
Despite fears of violence, Afghanistan's presidential election took place in a remarkably calm atmosphere. How was this achieved?
In the first instance, the Afghan people must take a lot of credit. They really wanted this election to take place to enable them to build a better future for themselves and their country. As a result, they did their very best to make it a success. Secondly, we received reinforcements in advance of the election. This enabled us to carry out a lot of contingency planning so that we were prepared to deal with the threats that we anticipated might be there. Thirdly, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) did a fantastic job of the technical organisation of the election. It was the first time that such an election was held in this country and 130,000 people had to be contracted to cover the whole event. And fourthly, there was also excellent coordination in Kabul between UNAMA, Operation Enduring Freedom, ISAF, the Afghan National Army and the police force to manage the whole process.
Some non-governmental organisations have criticised the PRT concept for blurring the distinction between civilian and military activities. To what extent should soldiers become involved in reconstruction?
ISAF's mission is to support the central government extend its authority into the provinces in terms of security and reconstruction. On the one hand, the PRTs are supporting these efforts by working together with local administrations to provide security. On the other hand, we find ourselves in a situation where we are obliged to take on certain emergency projects. Wherever we go we are asked to provide various kinds of support. The first request is usually for decent roads to enable neighbouring towns to begin trading with each other. The next is for purified water since at present most people do not have purified water to drink. And then it is for electricity since there is a great lack of electricity. And then it is for a decent hospital. We are only providing emergency solutions to create a starting point for reconstruction in these provinces before the central government is able to step in with its national priority programmes.
How do you assess the security environment in the west of Afghanistan in the wake of elections? Is it conducive to the further expansion of ISAF as planned? And what are the obstacles?
Generally speaking, there are currently no security problems in the four provinces of the west; that is in Herat, Badghis, Ghowr and Farah. When President Karzai decided to challenge Ismael Khan, the most powerful warlord there, and to replace him as governor, in the run-up to the election there was some unrest. This is because Ismael Khan was not willing to step down quietly and felt that he had to demonstrate that he was still a powerful player to avoid losing face. For this reason, there were some incidents in Herat when his supporters ransacked and burned the UNAMA compound. Before the election, Ismael Khan turned down an offer to come to Kabul to become a minister. He might now reconsider that offer. Alternatively, he might decide to remain in Herat, which is less than ideal. Or he might even leave the country and move to Iran. Otherwise, the situation has already stabilised during the past weeks and I expect it to continue to do so. In this way, it should be possible to complete the next phase of ISAF expansion early in 2005.
During the electoral period, US forces in Operation Enduring Freedom became involved in supporting elections in the south and southeast of the country in a similar way to ISAF in areas under your responsibility. What are the prospects for greater synergy between ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom?
As things stand, the synergy is pretty good. Together with Jean Arnault, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, I meet up with General Dave Barno, the Commander of Enduring Freedom, every Saturday morning. At a working level, our people have extremely close links. They work together, exchange ideas and develop concepts together. In this way, we are already coordinating all activities in our area of operations in order to know whether a particular action is appropriate and in line with what Operation Enduring Freedom is doing in its area of operations. There is some talk of merging the two operations, but this is mostly a political issue because it is always possible to find a technical military solution.
What are the greatest security challenges facing Afghanistan today, and how can ISAF and NATO best contribute to the country's reconstruction?
Today, there is a huge desire among Afghans to work for a better future and the election has generated still greater momentum to take the reconstruction process forward. If we can build on this momentum, we will not have so many security challenges to face in the future. This is because people want to live in peace, they want to rebuild their country and they want to look to the future. The last thing they need is the return of instability. The real challenge is to develop the Afghan National Army and police to such a level that they are able to look after their country's security needs and to take on the responsibility that we have today. At present, they have not reached such a level, but they are working towards it. An effective Afghan National Army and police will be critical when it comes to counter-narcotics operations. The drug problem poses the great medium-term threat to Afghanistan and could destabilise the entire country, if it is not dealt with as soon as possible. This is, therefore, an issue, which has to be addressed now.
The disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process is critical to rebuilding Afghanistan. How is it progressing, and what role is ISAF playing in it?
There are two different processes in the DDR. There is the heavy weapon cantonment, on the one hand, and the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of Afghan militia forces, on the other. Heavy weapon cantonment is proceeding very well. More than 80 per cent of heavy weapons of which we are aware, that is more than 4,300 pieces, are now cantoned under the dual-key principle. In the province of Kabul, where we have overseen the process, 100 per cent of heavy weapons are in cantonment sites. What is clear is that the former warlords are no longer interested in heavy weapons and are prepared to give them up as they are very expensive to maintain. As a result, the process is progressing smoothly and should soon come to an end. This endeavour is an ANBP, or Afghan New Beginning Programme, that is run under the auspices of UNAMA and the Japanese government. We are not leading it, just providing some support. The disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process is more difficult. This is because many of the individuals who are involved spent more than 20 years fighting in the name of Afghanistan and expect their war records to be recognised by the country. We, therefore, have to help smooth the process. We cannot go too fast because the Afghan National Army and police forces are not at present sufficiently robust to deal with all possible unrest and fill potential security vacuums.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next spring. How do you assess the security requirements for that poll?
The security requirements for the parliamentary elections will be completely different to those for the presidential election. This is because in the case of the presidential election the threat was to the whole electoral process. Al Qaida , the Taliban and the HIG
How do Afghans view the foreign military presence in their country? And how welcome do you feel?
I feel very welcome as ISAF Commander, and ISAF forces have always been very welcome. Since my arrival, with the exception of a rocket attack on the Kunduz PRT, we have never been directly targeted. This means that the people accept us. They recognise the impact we are having in terms of their security. And they recognise the work we have been doing in the north of the country in terms of reconstruction. The Afghans are happy to see us here and are supporting us as much as they can. This is, in many ways, the greatest achievement of this mission to date.