General Götz Gliemeroth: ISAF Commander

General Götz Gliemeroth is the first NATO officer to command an Alliance-led operation beyond the Euro-Atlantic area. He has been in Kabul, Afghanistan, since NATO took responsibility for the International Security Assistance Force in August 2003. A 60-year-old German, he came to Afghanistan from NATO's Joint Command Centre in Heidelberg, Germany. Before taking up his NATO appointment in March 2001, General Gliemeroth held a series of senior posts in the Bundeswehr, which he joined in 1963 as a paratrooper.

To what extent has the challenge of commanding ISAF lived up to your expectations and how great is the task of rebuilding peace and stability in Afghanistan?

There are significant challenges involved in all "nation-building" operations. Afghanistan's war-torn history, the nature of the country and its rich cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, its harsh economic environment and an almost total absence of modern communication networks are all complicating factors. From the perspective of those who support the Bonn Agreements of December 2001, these challenges are significant. There are many people, however, who oppose the Bonn process. They resist UN-sponsored change because it threatens their own grip on power. They are ready to take up arms against democracy because the lack of central authority leaves them with the freedom to grow rich through criminal activity, to act as local power brokers or to promote religious fundamentalism. It is also clear that these forces are prepared to use violence and terror to impede the growth of a democratic central government.

Afghanistan is probably the most heavily mined country in the world. Reconstruction cannot take off until the de-mining programme has made substantial progress. Ongoing combat operations in the south and east of the country, where Taliban and al-Qaida forces have increased their activity in recent months, threaten Coalition forces both directly and indirectly and undermine reconstruction efforts. In addition, there are some 100,000 members of various Afghan militia, many of whom are still armed. Predicting the intentions and political moves of the warlords who control these men and an array of heavy weapons is extremely difficult. However, progress is being made. One example is the movement of heavy weapons from the Panjshir Valley to the Pol-E-Charkhi Afghan National Army Compound in Kabul, an agreement that was brokered by the Afghan defence minister. This deal is one of three initiatives - the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration process, the cantonment of heavy weapons from the Panjshir Valley and the cantonment of heavy weapons in Kabul - that give cause for optimism.

How has the fact that NATO has taken responsibility for ISAF changed the nature of the mission? And what relationship does ISAF have with the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom?

ISAF's mission remains the same now as it was when led by individual countries or groups of countries: to assist the Afghan Transitional Authority in providing a stable and secure environment in Kabul and its surrounding areas. NATO has, however, brought coherence and leadership to ISAF's mission. In the past, the international community struggled to find new lead nations every six months. Moreover, six-monthly rotations of personnel and equipment undermined mission continuity and made it difficult to develop an effective framework within which to address the complexity of Afghanistan's stabilisation. The Alliance now provides the necessary continuity and is building structures to ensure that ISAF is equipped to address Afghanistan's long-term needs.

The character of Operation Enduring Freedom is different from that of ISAF. Enduring Freedom is best described as a combat-focused mission aiming to counter resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida threats. Nevertheless, the end state for both missions is the same: to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan under the auspices of an elected and democratic government. This is "nation-building" in a very broad sense and ISAF and Enduring Freedom have to work together to achieve their objectives. The framework of cooperation is defined under a formal Military Technical Agreement and is applied on a day-to-day basis through the liaison effort of embedded staff officers.

How much did Afghans know about NATO before your arrival in August and what image do they now have of the Alliance? Given high levels of illiteracy and few indigenous media outlets, how are you seeking to communicate with the local population?

Understanding of NATO among the population at large is modest, but this state of affairs is changing as NATO builds its profile in Afghanistan. What is encouraging is that the Afghan Transitional Authority (ATA) is very aware of what NATO is and how the Alliance can help it rebuild the country. The image of ISAF troops is good in the eyes of the people of Kabul. They have been received with affection and treated with courtesy and respect by the overwhelming majority. Soldiers in the Kabul Multi-National Brigade, who patrol the city and maintain a powerful interdiction presence to counter the terrorist threat, seek to integrate themselves as much as possible in the local community.

Communication networks around the country are embryonic and only 31 per cent of the population is able to read and write. Although there are more than 250 newspapers in Afghanistan, circulation outside the capital and major cities is modest. Radio is a popular medium. Indeed, its potential was recently recognised when the United States announced that it is to distribute 200,000 wind-up radios throughout the country. That said, parts of Afghanistan are too remote to receive signals. ISAF has its own radio station, which is popular among Kabulis, more than a quarter of whom tune in. Soldiers also seek to spread "key messages" among the population through their own contact with Afghans with whom they talk to gain a better understanding of the issues that affect them. In addition, ISAF produces poster campaigns and other initiatives to inform locals about the arrival of new troops and other issues as they arise.

ISAF also conducts regular polls to assess opinion in the local community. A recent survey indicated that almost 70 per cent of those polled believe that Kabul is more secure today than it was a year ago. This compares with about 5 per cent who believe that Kabul is less secure today. In addition, almost 70 per cent believed that they enjoy greater security today than they had when the Taliban were in power, though 10 per cent thought that life under the Taliban was more secure. It is clear that Afghans are eager to see ISAF expand its role beyond the capital so that those who live in more remote areas can enjoy the same degree of stability and security as the residents of Kabul. Given such support, the risk that ISAF will be perceived as an occupation force is minimal. Indeed, the planned extension of the geographical scope of ISAF's operations is perceived as a tool to provide an enhanced and more visible sense of security to the population as well as a signal of NATO's long-term commitment to the country's reconstruction.

How involved is ISAF in reconstruction?

ISAF is aware that many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) voice concerns over the military's close association with reconstruction and the delivery of humanitarian aid, as they believe this may undermine their own efforts. Clearly, reconstruction is not a military task. As a result, the most significant contribution that ISAF can make in this area is to provide a secure environment in which NGOs and other organisations are able to do their work in safety and without hindrance. ISAF does, nevertheless, assist the reconstruction process in some critical areas through our Civil Military Cooperation (CIMIC) teams, whose current activities fall into three categories: education, health, and water/sanitation.

How great a threat do al Qaida and the Taliban still present both to ISAF and to the future of Afghanistan?

The al-Qaida and Taliban threat remains significant. Combat operations are being conducted in the south and east of the country. A central function of Operation Enduring Freedom is to engage the enemy in these areas, attacking its cohesiveness and applying direct and indirect pressure to its centres of gravity. This provides the ATA, which does not yet possess the means to counter the al-Qaida and Taliban threat, with the breathing space it needs to consolidate its authority. The enemy's strategic objective is to disrupt Afghanistan's democratic transformation and to undermine international cohesion. The motivation of al-Qaida and Taliban forces is straightforward. They derive their power and influence in today's Afghanistan as a result of the lack of effective central state authority. Put simply, their influence will diminish as central government grows in confidence and authority. In this way, these groups will do everything in their power to disrupt that process and their tactics are likely to become more desperate as their own position deteriorates.

In what ways does NATO's experience of peace-support operations in the former Yugoslavia help you and ISAF in your daily work?

The ISAF mission is best defined as an assistance mission. As such, it is different from the NATO-led peace-enforcement operations in the Balkans. Nonetheless, ISAF does possess a robust mandate, which provides it with significant political and military clout in its daily interface with Afghan authorities. Key ISAF members of staff have participated in earlier NATO-led deployments, including IFOR, SFOR and KFOR, and experience gained in these operations has been of tremendous assistance in setting up an operational headquarters. It has proved crucial to establishing effective command and control systems and helped optimise the flow of data and information. In this way, it was possible to create a fully functional headquarters in an extremely short period of time.

In addition to NATO forces, ISAF includes contributions from Partner nations and even countries from beyond the Euro-Atlantic area. How have you managed to bring these forces together?

Currently, 17 NATO nations and 13 NATO Partners contribute troops to ISAF. New Zealand, which is not a NATO Partner, is the 31st contributing nation. While in theory it should be difficult to build cohesion among the various contingents, in practice the many nations work extremely well together. This is because NATO has a long experience of bringing forces from many countries together. Moreover, all soldiers are professionals and many have already served in many parts of the world. They are trained to do a particular job and motivated by the challenge of the Afghan mission.

NATO nations are considering ways of extending ISAF's mandate beyond Kabul to cover more of Afghanistan via, for example, becoming more involved in the work of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). How might this be done in practice?

Clearly, ISAF's first priority was to bring a degree of stability to Afghanistan's political and administrative capital. This has now been achieved. As the ATA gains authority and influence elsewhere in the country, ISAF's role and presence need to reflect these changes and to evolve so that the entire country can benefit. UN Security Council Resolution 1510 recognises this necessity and, from a legal perspective, paves the way for it to happen. NATO, too, has agreed in principle to the need for the mission to be expanded. In reality, however, the manner in which this can be achieved is complicated. PRTs provide one possible solution. Small force components dispersed throughout the country in strategic locations, backed up by rapidly deployable Quick Reaction Forces and Close Air Support, would create platforms to boost security throughout the country. This is an effective way to extend influence and bring stability to remote areas without committing many thousands of troops on the ground. Ultimately, it represents a valuable vehicle to nurture a process of good governance in the provinces under the legitimate and accountable ownership of the central government. Moreover, this strategy minimises the risk of ISAF being perceived as an occupying force. Nevertheless, NATO planners are also examining alternative approaches and have yet to determine the best course of action. A detailed plan cannot be finalised until nations have decided on enhanced contribution levels over and above the troops, resources and capabilities that they are currently committing.

The development of the Afghan National Army as a capable force and, in parallel, the pursuit of the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) process are seen as critical to the success of the overall Bonn political agenda. How are these progressing and what role is ISAF playing in both?

Both the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the DDR programme are moving forward. To date, some 7,000 troops and officers have been trained and a significant number have been successfully involved in counter-insurgency operations along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. The role of the police is also critical to the success of the ANA. As more police are placed on the streets, ANA soldiers, who are currently performing policing tasks, can focus on soldiering, thereby increasing the effectiveness of the ANA. The pilot DDR programme in Kunduz and Gardez has already been completed. Additional ideas, centred on the establishment of PRTs, are currently on the drawing board. The DDR programme in Kabul began in early December and we are working closely with the ATA to ensure that it comes together in a timely manner. It is a slow process, but one that needs to take place if the country's various militia are to be disarmed and reintegrated into society. This is but the first step.