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Last Updated: Sunday, 5 February 2006, 12:59 GMT
Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan
On Sunday 05 February 2006 Andrew Marr interviewed Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, US Army

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Mark Kimmitt
Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, US Army

ANDREW MARR: Earlier in the week we marked the death of the hundredth British soldier in Iraq. Corporal Gordon Pritchard had a further resonance, he had been pictured with Tony Blair a few weeks ago when the Prime Minister made a morale-boosting visit to Basra.

American casualties are of course much higher, they've committed far more troops than the UK and they've lost more than 2000 people.

There are reports this morning of pull-outs beginning in March, elsewhere the situation in Afghanistan, where another 3000 British troops are heading, is very dangerous, and then of course there's Iran.

Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt at US Central Command has strategic overview, of course, of all of these areas.

General, welcome to the programme and to Britain. Can I ask you, first of all, about your understanding of the situation in Iraq.

The Iraqi operation has cost Congress much more money than anybody expected, I think, when people set out on this course, and there are talks about beginning to see troops coming back this year, both from Britain and from the States.

BRIGADIER GENERAL KIMMITT: Well, you're exactly right Andrew. We had 18 brigade equivalents about three months ago. We've brought that down to 15 brigades inside of Iraq, based on the estimate of what General Casey thinks he will need for the next six to 12 months, but we feel confident that we're making progress on the ground, we're seeing measurable progress, particularly with the development of the Iraqi security forces.

ANDREW MARR: And if the British withdrawal starts in March - next month - that's something that, from the American perspective, you can live with?

BRIGADIER GENERAL KIMMITT: Oh absolutely. It is, it is a coalition inside of Iraq, the consultation will be done with the command and with the Iraqi people in Baghdad. We have a set of conditions that we use throughout Iraq for adjusting our force posture, modifying our force posture, and in all the consultations we've had with the British military it is clear that the desire is to do this as a coalition, not as separate nations.

ANDREW MARR: And do you believe that we're, in realistic terms, ever going to get to a position, certainly in the next few years, where the Iraqi forces are strong enough and self-confident enough to operate really without any British or American or other coalition forces in the country?

BRIGADIER GENERAL KIMMITT: I think in the main that can happen. I look at the last two years - two years ago the Iraqi forces were not a force. They couldn't fight on the battlefield, we brought a battalion in April of 2004 to fight in Falluja and it broke and ran. Two years has been a significant difference - has made a significant difference. There are over a hundred thousand troops on the ground now. About 80 battalions in the fight - not all of them are as capable as say British or American battalions but they are gaining the tough experience that can only be gained in combat.

ANDREW MARR: And you can really see a point where you pull back and it's just them?

BRIGADIER GENERAL KIMMITT: I can see a point in the next few years where the vast majority of combat operations on a day-to-day basis are being run by the Iraqi security forces.

ANDREW MARR: Let me ask you about Iran, because this is clearly a very grave situation, it's going to the Security Council - could hardly be more serious - but there is a general belief, I suppose, that the Americans have bitten off as much as they can chew in Iraq and in Afghanistan and therefore the prospect of any kind of military action against Iran is completely off the table.

BRIGADIER GENERAL KIMMITT: Well at this point diplomacy is on the table. We saw the report go up to the United Nations, it will be another month before the United Nations acts but right now we're living in the diplomatic track, go forward. But I think it would be a very dangerous mistake for any adversary to think that our nations don't retain a capability to do whatever our nations ask us to do.

ANDREW MARR: When it comes to the nuclear facilities there, everyone we talk to seems to suggest that although the diplomatic course is being followed, it's not going to get anywhere, nobody is enormously optimistic about this referral, or this discussion, happening, and certainly the rhetoric in Tehran is more aggressive than it's been, not less.

BRIGADIER GENERAL KIMMITT: Well, I think at this point, let's let diplomacy take its course, let's see where it takes us. We remain confident that the UN at this point is the proper venue for the Iranian nuclear file.

ANDREW MARR: And how long does US patience last?

BRIGADIER GENERAL KIMMITT: Well how long does UN patience last?

ANDREW MARR: Okay. Afghanistan: very dangerous, very difficult - another 3000 British troops going down to the south. Why do you think it has taken so long to get any kind of grip on the situation? Indeed you could say in the south of Afghanistan, it is as lawless now as it has ever been.

BRIGADIER GENERAL KIMMITT: Well I think we've made a lot of progress in the south. In fact the British troops, as part of the Nato operation, are coming in to replace the American forces that are there now, and for that we're enormously grateful. And it's proper for Nato to take over more and more of a rule in Afghanistan but there has been progress, measurable progress, particularly in the political front.

Hamid Karzai runs a pluralistic democracy inside the country, it is extending its grip throughout the country -

ANDREW MARR: But the Taliban are extending their grip in parts of the country too.

BRIGADIER GENERAL KIMMITT: Well they are, and the Afghan security forces and the coalition forces are standing up to the Taliban, and the recent operations in the south have been a mistake on the part of the Taliban and they have suffered because of it.

ANDREW MARR: Do you think that we're ever going to get to a situation where Afghanistan is a stable area though? It seems to me that huge amounts of effort, huge numbers of troops, enormous amounts of material have been poured into this place and frankly things are really, really bad, across a lot of Afghanistan and it's hard to see how they're ever going to get better.

BRIGADIER GENERAL KIMMITT: You know I, I think the same thing was probably being said in 1996, 1997, about the former Yugoslavia. What chance could ever be made of that place? It is coming along fine. I think that we have to have that same sense of hope in Afghanistan. A lot of effort going into Afghanistan but a lot of pay off being achieved in Afghanistan. And that's primarily due to the work of a lot of soldiers, a lot of foreign office personnel, and they are making progress in there. I remain hopeful for that country as well.

ANDREW MARR: When it comes to Afghanistan, when it comes to Iraq, lots of optimism and yet year after year, month after month, things don't change dramatically - I mean the security situation, going back to Iraq, is still pretty atrocious. And there is a danger that as you pull people back from the ground, you are left again relying on air power and local people spotting which is going to create more mistakes, going to create more catastrophes of the kind we've seen in the past, going to create more resentment and the cycle goes on.

BRIGADIER GENERAL KIMMITT: Well first I, I would reject the assertion that we're going to just be pulling back. Again, the idea is to hand over, in the case of both Afghanistan and Iraq, to their forces. Because it is proper for their ground forces to take on this fight, these are their countries and they should be the ones that defend it and have the responsibility for that.

ANDREW MARR: Just take me through what you would expect to happen over the coming year in terms of that mix of coalition forces and Afghan forces.

BRIGADIER GENERAL KIMMITT: Well let's talk about Iraq. In the case of Iraq, I would expect over the next year we will see stronger and stronger units being fielded by the Iraqi security forces. We went from 18 to 15 brigades and there could be an opportunity in the next few months for General Casey to look round and say we need fewer coalition troops because of the capability of the Iraqi troops.

But as important with the security environment is the political environment and the backdrop, the military operations are only the backdrop, the real progress that is being made is in the political development. We have a government that's no longer provisional, no longer interim, no longer temporary; a full four year government elected by the Iraqi people, forming now, and that's really the sign of progress that's most important.

ANDREW MARR: But we're told here that there are going to be British troop withdrawals coming next month.

BRIGADIER GENERAL KIMMITT: Well there could be, if the British forces in the south take a look at their situation in those four provinces: Dhi Qar, Muthanna, Maysan and Basra, and determine the security situation is such that they don't need to have the same number of forces in the future, then it's appropriate.

We can't be seen as a force of permanent occupation there. It is not right for us to stay in there permanently. That will defeat the entire purpose of why we're there.

ANDREW MARR: General Kimmitt, thank you very much indeed for joining us.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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