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Interview with General Dan McNeill

Aired September 11, 2002 - 07:35   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Our Christiane Amanpour joins us from a U.S. air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, where some other commemorations will be held in honor of Americans who have lost their lives over there during the course of this war -- Christiane, good morning.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Paula.

Of course, Afghanistan, as it's now being coined, was terror university for those who struck America a year ago. Afghanistan one year later is now free. United States-led forces chased the Taliban and are still pursuing remnants of al Qaeda and Taliban who are in pockets around this country.

There are more than 7,000 U.S. military personnel here and in about an hour from now there will be a commemoration service here.

General Dan McNeill, the commander of U.S. forces, will address them. And he joins me here right now.

Sir, thank you for joining us.

LT. GEN. DAN MCNEILL, OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM: Good afternoon.

AMANPOUR: I don't want to steal your thunder, but what is your message today to your men and women on this day?

MCNEILL: Well, we certainly will remember the solemnity of the occasion and we appreciate the fact that many ceremonies will go on not only in the United States but around the world. And we will keep that in mind. We'll also be mindful of the families and the friends who suffered the losses, not only on the 11th of September, but those who have suffered losses since the 11th of September.

We will continue to have the utmost respect for those few who did so much for so many in the days, weeks, months following the 11th of September.

But first and foremost, we'll keep our mind on job one for us, and that is to close with and destroy, kill or capture what remains of the terrorist organizations here or those that support terrorist organizations.

AMANPOUR: And that continues. The war isn't over. The objectives have not been fulfilled. Your people are currently in Operation Champion Strike, as you've called it. What has been achieved under that operation? MCNEILL: Well, what you say is true and I do not dispute it. But I'm one of those types that looks at my glass as half full. And the truth is we're winning. It's not won, but we're winning. As long as we have the support of the people around the world who seek freedom, who seek justice and who want to live in peace, we'll win this thing. It'll take some time, but we will win it.

What has been accomplished is extraordinary. If I just focus myself or just confine my comments to the theater for which I'm responsible, can you imagine that we would have in an interview with people on the street in February, found one out of 10 who would give us any chance of being where we are today, a process that the Afghans ran themselves called the loya jirga. You could argue it's a plebiscite, certainly representative, but plebiscite, nonetheless, and from which they have installed a government of their choice.

It may not be the strongest government anywhere in the world today, but it is functioning. Al Qaeda, while still a menace, is greatly reduced from what it was before. Many of their leaders are captured. Many more are killed. The ones that are left are on the run today. We're going to make sure they stay on the run in Afghanistan.

And the people, or at least the anecdotal evidence we get out in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, the people by and large see that they have a future, they see that they're getting great help from the coalition on marching down the road to their ultimate destiny.

So I think a lot's been accomplished.

AMANPOUR: General, a lot has been accomplished. Tell us your assessment of the situation with al Qaeda right now. We're hearing that they, in small groups, started to infiltrate back from the Pakistani tribal areas. We've seen ourselves some disturbance in this country. Your own forces continue to come up against them.

Give me an honest assessment of how much of a threat they are right now. And are they regrouping here?

MCNEILL: We predicted in June that what we would see in the fall months, on the basis of history, on the basis of the information we had, that we would see them. We'd see them in smaller groups, perhaps more frequently. We would not likely see a massing as we saw back earlier this year in the operation called Anaconda.

Still dangerous. Perhaps trying to recruit and increase their numbers. So we're taking the steps. We're doing the actions to stay just a little bit in front of all and we will continue to do so.

AMANPOUR: Now, you just talked about the transitional government, the legitimate government of Afghanistan for this transitional period. As you know, there are challenges to the authority of that government not far from Kabul. A warlord, Bacha Khan Zadran, has got checkpoints up. Why haven't you ordered him to take them down? MCNEILL: That's the job of the Afghan government to tell him to do that. Now, I do concede that I did meet for the first time with Bacha Khan Zadran recently and I did take him a message, as the coalition commander, that we had problems with his checkpoints, we had problems with some of his crucer (ph) of weapons and that he must take them down. He must not use his crucer (ph) of weapons to train on our aircraft or soldiers or else we would take the actions we needed to take to ensure that we had freedom of maneuver in this country to do our job.

AMANPOUR: Now, you say it's not your job and I understand it's the job of other people, but nonetheless, it also hinders your job, your military operations, these threats to your presence and to the central government, and the United States policy here depends, to a large extent, on the survival of this U.S., pro-U.S. government here.

Do you think there needs to be more international security around this country to try to pacify the remnants of challenges here?

MCNEILL: I don't know if "pacify" is the term I would use, but you perhaps are asking about the debate that seems to rage in the media today on an extension -- or an expansion, I should say, of the International Security and Assistance Force. I simply repeat what has been said by the leaders of the U.S. government, and I think other leaders of the members of the coalition, that we are not opposed to such an expansion. We simply ask three questions, who is going to lead it, who is going to provide the soldiers, and who is going to write the checks?

I will also point out that if we made a decision today to expand ISAF, in my view, it would take some time before you saw the results of such an action. In other words, it will not produce instant gratification.

Over time, yes, I believe it could produce mutual things, but it will not be, if we decide today, it will not occur tomorrow, it will take time.

AMANPOUR: But as you say, over time, it will be successful.

One last question. What is the risk to this entire operation, this entire investment that United States and other forces have made of not bringing more security to this country?

MCNEILL: Well, I think that what is here now in terms of the coalition is doing a fairly good job, I think, that you have to argue that some of the regional leaders, who are acting more responsibly today than they did four months ago, with the remnants of the forces they've had, or providing a certain degree of security, well away from Kabul.

As I see it, the biggest risk is not one that has a military basis, but it is the international community failing to follow through on the generous donations of $4.5 billion U.S., and seeing these turned into projects that the common Afghan man, as Mr. Karzai calls them, can see some results of the efforts here. AMANPOUR: General McNeill, thank you very much indeed for joining us -- back to you in New York.

ZAHN: Thanks so much, Christiane.

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