U.S. Regrets 'Every Civilian Casualty' in Afghanistan

As part of the "Where Things Stand" coverage, ABC News recently sat down with the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood. Wood was brought to Afghanistan in April 2007, from Colombia, where he'd been closely involved with an aggressive military campaign against the world's largest supply of cocaine. Today, he not only faces the challenge of the world's largest supply of heroin, but a country that has never been more violent and a population never more skeptical of the United States, or its own government.

ABC News Interviews Ambassador William Wood

When Richard Holbrooke was appointed the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said that, "Nobody would say the war was going well." Is the war going well?

Parts of what is going on in Afghanistan is very good news. As you know, more than three-and-a-half million new voters have registered for the new elections. This is substantially more than anyone expected. And, in addition to the support it provides for the elections, I think it is the best possible index for the hope that remains in the people. Even in spite of some disappointments. This is a population that wants good government, it wants to be asked about its government, it wants to play a role in the decisions of its government, and elections are a source of energy and optimism.

Our ABC news poll shows that people here still have some hope and a lot of expectations. But it found widespread disappointment. What has the United States done wrong?

I think expectations may have been too high. After the Taliban was ousted from 2002 to 2004, the international community was bent on what was referred to as a light footprint. This is what the U.N. wanted, it's what the Untied States wanted, it's what the Europeans wanted. Having cleansed Afghanistan of the Taliban, we just wanted to provide development, humanitarian assistance and let Afghans sort out their system for themselves. And they accomplished enormous things. They wrote a constitution, they held elections under the constitution, they installed a president and a parliament. And all of that was enormously good.

At the same time, the Taliban was reconstituting in Pakistan, drug production was soaring, the old illegitimate warlords were consolidating power. It wasn't until about 2004 that we realized -- all of us, Afghans and internationals -- that the good news was being counterbalanced by some bad news.

It wasn't really until 2006, the summer of 2006, that we all recognized that what we had hoped was a comparatively benign security environment was really under serious threat. You may remember the discussions of the concern about the spring of 2007 Taliban offensive. Well, the international community stepped up. The United States increased its deployment, increased our security assistance, and that offensive was defeated.

It's really only since 2007 when there have been large foreign military deployments in Afghanistan. And I think we're still working through some of the kinks in that system. But I think everyone today in 2009 realizes this isn't going to be as easy or straightforward as we'd all hoped in 2002.

And do you think the bad guys have gotten worse?

I think the Taliban is not seeking to come to power the way it came to power originally. Originally, it had tanks and artillery. Well, if they had tanks and artillery, we would destroy their tanks and destroy their artillery and that would be the end of that. Their strategy is much more insidious and much more brutal. It is a strategy of infiltration and of terror. They enter villages at night. They send notes to parents that if your ... daughter goes to school tomorrow, something bad will happen to her the day after tomorrow.

Because the communities are exhausted, because there still isn't as much connectivity between the communities and the national government as there should be -- because the national government is also exhausted from 30 years of turmoil -- the Taliban gets a free ride. Much of what we're doing is aimed to give the communities, to give the districts, to give the provinces, the confidence so that if the people resist this kind of infiltration and dark threat -- if they resist -- they will know they will be backed up, they will know they will get support from the police, they will know they will get support from the army, and they'll know they get support from the internationals and from the national government.

That's part of what we mean by a comprehensive approach. Afghanistan historically has been a community-based country. Every valley, every mountain peak, every oasis had its community. And you didn't mess with those communities. They took responsibility for their own area. To some degree we want to see that come back. Now, we don't want to go overboard. We don't want to give them an offensive capability. Because historically there has been lots of skirmishing between tribes, between communities. But to give them the confidence that they can be secure in their homes and that when they talk to their government they'll be listened to and when they talk to the internationals that they'll be listened to. That's the goal.

Afghan Confidence in the U.S.

The United States is supporting a program to arm local community groups that can defend their villages and call Western troops for help. What's the goal? And what's your response to the criticism that we're arming these people when we should be disarming them and instead propping up the Afghan police?

This program, which is at the Afghan government's initiative, is a pilot program. In previous years, mistakes have been made at trying to connect locals with more robust defense. And because it was inadequately led, and because it wasn't adequately connected to the social community, sometimes they were co-opted by whoever the local power broker was. And that's definitely not what we're looking for here.

The new program depends critically on the participation of a local shura, or a local council of neighbors, for a selection of who's going to be in the defense force, who's going to do what, how their performance is going to be evaluated, how they're going to be led. The United States is providing a little bit of training, a little bit of clothing, a little bit of connectivity, and a little bit of money. Again, if we can find a way to get people confident in their own defense of their own valley, we'll have come a long way. And, of course, local defense is something that's enshrined even in the U.S. Constitution. This is something that the United States understands. The United States is one of the few countries in the world whose name is plural. We understand that a nation is a big community composed of smaller communities, states, counties, whatever. So we have an additional element in our connection to Afghanistan, which is also a big community composed of smaller communities.

Our poll found that in 2005, 77 percent said the country was headed in the right direction. Today, that number is 40 percent, nearly half.

There are things we could have done better but, I think to some degree, that number is misleading. I think there were optimistic expectations that began to erode around 2005. And so, to some degree, that erosion simply represents a recognition of how hard the problem really is. I also think that although the national institutions in the country are unquestionably stronger and more secure, when I arrived in 2007 there was real concern that the Taliban was going to take over a major city or a major province. Nobody talks that way anymore.

National security is better here. But personal security isn't. And of course personal security is critical to the hope and confidence of the people. Personal security is under threat not simply by the Taliban. But also by criminality. And also by warlordism. And also by the drug industry.

Have civilian casualties eroded people's confidence in U.S. forces?

Civilian casualties is a problem from every perspective. We're here to protect Afghans. And when an occasional mistake is made, that runs completely contrary to not only everything we're trying to achieve here but, of course, it also is for us a source of human regret too. These are our friends.

I think there's been a mischaracterization of some operations. As you know, the Taliban has increased its number of homemade bombs. Well, unfortunately, homemade bombs are, by definition, bombs made at home. This means that you've got to take action against the home if you want to stop the bomb. I think if there weren't such operations, there would have been more bombs. I think, yes, there were some civilian casualties, in many cases people who knew that bomb-making was going on and tolerated it for reasons that may not have been political. I'm not trying to draw a judgment there. But the problem of homemade bombs made at home is a problem for security and it produces a very nuanced fighting environment.

'We Are Doing Better' in Afghanistan

Lastly, I don't think there's been enough talk about the extraordinary efforts that the coalition has gone to avoid civilian casualties and the new measures it's taken to reduce civilian casualties still further. Bottom line: We regret every civilian casualty, both as a human loss and a defeat for our policy goals. We're trying to do better, we are doing better, and we hope that the Afghan people feel as though we're doing better.

Let's talk about development. Our poll found that 55 percent of people say they have no electricity at all. Sixty-eight percent said they can't afford fuel for cooking. Why has the economy gotten so much worse? How can you turn development around?

The economy has gotten better. Gross Domestic Product per capita is more than twice what it was in 2002. Electricity is getting better. Just in the last two weeks, there's a big difference in the provision of electricity in Kabul. We had something to do with that. Just a few months ago, one of the biggest military operations in Afghanistan brought a third generator to the Kajaki Dam, so that it can, over the next year, year and a half, produce its maximum output of about 51 megawatts. We are testing the reserves of natural gas up in the north to see if that generating activity can be reactivated. We are providing right now the fuel for the generators in Kabul that are producing the locally generated electricity here.

Shortage of electricity in Afghanistan is a problem countrywide. It is not simply a problem of personal convenience. But it places a very low ceiling on development, because you can't have manufacturing if you don't have energy. So we're aiming at this problem, as are others. Provision of energy was one of the themes -- was one of the central themes agreed upon at the Paris donors conference in June. So that's energy.

How big a problem is the poppy trade? How high up the government does corruption from the trade go? And is there a consensus among the allies to go after it with the resources of the military?

The illicit narcotics industry is a huge problem here. No one really knows but the estimate is it's contributing about a billion dollars out of a $10 billion GDP, so that's 10 percent of the activity. It is of course illicit, which means that those funds are available to fuel terrorism and fuel corruption, and those funds do fuel terrorism and corruption. It requires a certain amount of experience to realize just what a cancer that kind of illicit money is in a fragile society. But I can tell you: The illicit narcotics industry threatens our security goals, our governance goals and our development goals in Afghanistan because it threatens security, governance and development in Afghanistan. It's very serious.

The area cultivated in opium poppy went down by 19 percent last year and the U.N. is projecting it may go down by even more this year. Which means it may be reduced by 40 percent in two years. That's not so bad. The number of provinces that are poppy free is growing. That's very important because there's a smaller and smaller percentage of the population who have a stake in narcotics, which means there's less and less political defense for it, which makes it easier to go after.

British, United States, others are all cooperating in interdiction programs to seize traffickers, to seize shipments of ... drugs, to seize precursors, to look at financial flows that might be dirty money. All of this is happening. There is a not a consensus in favor of forced eradication, particularly not a consensus in a military role in forced eradication. We are committed to only carrying out programs that the Afghan government supports and of course we are committed to only carrying out programs with our coalition partners that they also support. So I think we're moving closer to consensus in a number of these areas.

We have a very new and I think very ambitious effort in Helmand province where we have already, in less than 10 days, eradicated this year more opium poppy than we have eradicated in all of last year.

How big of a problem to the security of Afghanistan and incoming US troops are the Pakistani tribal areas?

I think neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan nor the Untied States would say the tribal areas in Pakistan are fully under Pakistani control. Very clearly, this has been a breeding ground for some extremist movements, often extremist movements who are preying first and foremost on Pakistani tribal members. This isn't much fun for the tribes in the tribal areas either.

We're seeing improved cooperation in the relationship between President Karzai and President Zardari of Pakistan ... They are cooperating together. We are seeing more activity by the Pakistanis against extremists. We're seeing more trilateral cooperation in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Untied States to deal with this problem. We haven't reached the tipping point but things are better than they were two years ago.

Secretary Gates recently said that the goals in Afghanistan were too broad. What should the U.S. goal in Afghanistan be and have U.S. goals been too high?

I think expectations may have been too high. I'm not sure our policy goals have been too exaggerated. Indeed, part of the problem that we faced was that many people had expectations about Afghanistan that those of us who were charged with carrying out the policy knew were perhaps a little rosy.

We're in Afghanistan to help Afghanistan develop its own security, its own economy and its own government, so that, as soon as possible, it can sustain a necessary level of security, a necessary level of development, and a necessary level of government. Right now, we are doing more of the job than we would like to be doing. But we are also very impressed with the way the Afghan Army is developing, we are very pleased with the efforts of the new minister of interior to improve the police. We think local governance is better. We have perhaps the best set of ministers, certainly, since I've been here. We're seeing the country respond to the prospect of elections. I think there are lots of reasons for confidence and hope. Not that it's going to be an easy task, but it's going to be an achievable task. And if we keep our shoulders to the wheel -- we and the Afghans and our international partners -- we'll achieve it.