Gen. David Petraeus says Afghanistan war strategy 'fundamentally sound'

U.S. General Petraeus told NBC's Meet the Press that the July 2011 withdrawal date for Afghanistan will be conditions based.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010

KABUL -- In his first six weeks as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus has seen insurgent attacks on coalition forces spike to record levels, violence metastasize to previously stable areas, and the country's president undercut anti-corruption units backed by Washington.

But after burrowing into operations here and traveling to the far reaches of this country, Petraeus has concluded that the U.S. strategy to win the nearly nine-year-old war is "fundamentally sound."

In a wide-ranging hour-long interview with The Washington Post, he said he sees incipient signs of progress in parts of the volatile south, in new initiatives to create community defense forces and in nascent steps to reintegrate low-level insurgents who want to stop fighting.

With public support for the war slipping and a White House review of the conflict due in December, Petraeus said he is pushing the forces under his command to proceed with alacrity. He remains supportive of President Obama's decision to begin withdrawing troops next July, but he said it is far too soon to determine the size of the drawdown.

"We are doing everything we can to achieve progress as rapidly as we can without rushing to failure," Petraeus said in his wood-paneled office at NATO headquarters in Kabul. "We're keenly aware that this has been ongoing for approaching nine years. We fully appreciate the impatience in some quarters."

But he warned against expecting quick results in a campaign that involves building Afghan government and security institutions from scratch, and persuading people to cast their lot with coalition forces after years of broken promises -- all in the face of Taliban intimidation and attacks.

"It's a gradual effort. It's a deliberate effort," he said. "There's no hill to take and flag to plant and proclamation of victory. Rather, it's just hard work."

Petraeus said he would provide his "best military advice" to Obama, who will make the decision on troop levels next year. But the general's presence in Kabul, as opposed to the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, could make him a far more forceful voice for attenuating the drawdown if he chooses to make that case.

He said it is too early to ascertain when Afghan security forces can assume responsibility for various parts of the country. Officials from some NATO nations, where public support for the war is lower than it is in the United States, want to announce at a November meeting of alliance foreign ministers a list of provinces to be handed over. Some Obama administration officials also are pushing for a transition plan before the White House review. But some of the once-quiet provinces in the north and west, deemed likely targets a few months ago, are now wracked by spiking insurgent violence.

"We're still in the process of determining what is realistic," Petraeus said. That, he said, depends on the progress of security operations over the next several months. "It's a process, not an event. It's one that's to be conditions-based."

'Resilient' enemy

Petraeus's return to the battlefield from his perch as Central Command chief was the result of desperate circumstances -- Obama's decision to fire Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal for flippant comments he and his staff members made to a magazine reporter -- yet it has provided the United States and NATO with what almost certainly is the last and best chance to reverse a foundering war. Petraeus literally wrote the military's book on counterinsurgency strategy, and he engineered a dramatic turnaround in Iraq that many assumed impossible. But Afghanistan is in many ways a more daunting environment, and there is no guarantee that the same counterinsurgency tactics applied in Baghdad will work in Kandahar.

Asked whether he was certain that the counterinsurgency strategy, which emphasizes protecting the civilian population, can be effective in a country where many people regard the insurgents more as miscreant relatives than an existential threat, Petraeus refrained from an unequivocal endorsement.

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