Petraeus: 'We're doing everything we can to achieve progress'

Sunday, August 15, 2010; 12:00 PM

Excerpts from Washington Post associate editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran's interview of U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus in his office at the NATO International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul:

On what he has learned about the conflict in his first weeks on the ground that he didn't know before assuming command here:

It's achieving a more granular understanding of some aspects of the mission, as is always the case when you're living it instead of overseeing it. . . . I think again that the general approach here was sound, and is sound. As with any new commander there will be refinements, and we've already undertaken a few of those, but I don't think anything of enormous drama -- nothing very dramatic. . . .

What we've been doing over the course of the last 18 months now is trying to get the inputs right in Afghanistan. And by that, I mean to get the structures in place that are needed for a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign, the people in place to lead those organizations, and General Stan McChrystal arguably did more than anyone else over the last year or so to help get the inputs right, to make sure the big ideas are correct -- that we have the right concepts and plans, and then to ensure the level of resources is adequate to carry out those plans under these leaders in charge of these organizations. . . .

Then what you have to do is to start turning inputs into output. Obviously as we have worked to finalize to get the inputs right, we have been working on outputs.

Our initial focus has been on six central districts of Helmand [province]. There has been progress there. I've been there. I've walked the streets of a number of different districts. I've been to the markets. I've met with the Afghan leaders. Certainly the Taliban has fought back. When you take away Marja, a major command and control headquarters, not just for the Taliban but also for the illegal narcotics industry bosses, they're going to fight back. And that has been the case. But we have continued to push out the security bubble. Those six central districts are a good bit more secure than they were six months ago . . . but it's a tough fight.

On whether counterinsurgency strategy can work Afghanistan:

I think we're seeing the early stages of a populationcentric, comprehensive, civil-military, counterinsurgency effort. We are seeing the early results of the implementation of that kind approach. The enemy has shown himself to be resilient. The enemy does fight back. He is trying, in his assessment, to outlast us. And our task obviously is to produce the kind of progress that can show the contributing nations -- we're up to 47 -- that can show the 47 ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] nations that the investment they've made is producing a dividend, to show the Afghan people that their forces and their ISAF partners are improving security for them over them, even though the Taliban are fighting back.

In fighting back, though, the Taliban is making some significant mistakes. In Herat, they flogged a pregnant woman and then assassinated her. They have kidnapped and intimidated a handful of political candidates in a country that . . . wants to exercise its right to vote. . . . The latest polls show there is no great love lost for the Taliban. There is still a memory of them. Although if there is predatory governance in certain areas, then that obviously can be a cause for the Taliban. And so this is why President [Hamid] Karzai has said there are three enemies of Afghanistan: There are the insurgents -- there is Haqqani and the Taliban and others -- there's insufficient governance that's a product of 30 years of war and the lack of sufficient of human capital, and then the third category he has identified is corrupt or predatory governance.

On operations in Kandahar:

Counterterrorist operations . . . by ISAF Special Operations forces and by Afghan Special Operations forces have tripled in terms of their tempo, and a good bit of their focus has been in the Kandahar area for about four months.

We have established 11 of the 13 checkpoints in the city. No checkpoint is foolproof but it starts to impede freedom of movement of the Taliban, and we've seen that now. . . .

In Arghandab we got intelligence we gathered from the Taliban that said: "Don't worry fellows. The time has come now. Stop fighting, lay down your weapons and fade away, and just wait until they leave." Of course, in this case our forces are not leaving. We're not going to clear and leave, we're going to clear and hold. And then build and rebuild and develop further. . . .

It tells us that we have reached a point where they don't want to fight us in that area any further directly. Now, they'll still come in, put in improvised explosive devices, but the kind of direct fight that they have been putting up at various times . . . has reduced. Gradually over time you begin to reduce the number of IEDs. And then gradually you're able to transition from the clear to the hold, and then you can rebuild markets and establish governance and revive traditional shura councils and all the rest of it.

On differences between Iraq and Afghanistan:

One of the very interesting differences between Afghanistan and Iraq -- touch wood -- is that the capital is not experiencing three car bombs per day and 50 or 60 attacks per day the way Baghdad did the second month I was in command. . . . The city was literally exploding several times a day . . . until we were able to control the population. That's not the case in Kabul. . . . We've got to preserve that. This is a strategically important oil spot in the counterinsurgency campaign.

On the speed at which operations are unfolding:

It is in line with my expectations. This is a deliberate campaign. Counterinsurgency operations are deliberate operations. . . .

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

On the work of Special Operations forces to kill or capture Taliban leaders:

The sheer pace of these is just staggering. In a three-month period, there were nearly 3,000 operations -- more than 350 insurgent leaders either killed or captured. Some 2,500 rank and file killed or captured. Some of those same Special Operations forces treated 12,000 Afghans in medical outreach during that time. Clearly, targeted operations are very important.

[Petraeus's spokesman later provided a more detailed breakdown: Almost 2,900 Special Operations forces operations were conducted over a 90-day period ending Aug. 8, 2010. Those resulted in: 365 insurgent leaders killed or captured; 1,355 rank-and-file insurgents captured; 1,031 insurgents killed; and 11,587 Afghan civilians who received medical treatment from those forces. The treatment was humanitarian assistance, not the result of injuries sustained during those anti-insurgent operations.]

On the Afghan local police community defense initiative:

The local police has real potential to create problems for the Taliban. These are local community members who are want to keep the Taliban out and are willing to defend their homes and their communities and to fight for it. I'm not saying this is going to have the same impact as the Sons of Iraq, but it has some significant potential.

On efforts to reintegrate low-level insurgents:

They're [the government of Afghanistan] on the threshold of beginning reintegration, which has actually taken place in a variety of places around the country but which will be much more substantial in size as the program is rolled out and as the citizens have the confidence that there are good reasons beyond just not getting killed.

On the possibility of reconciliation between insurgent leaders and the Afghan government:

I think you have to be measured in what you think is possible there, at least in the near term. But there are very clear indications that some elements, some leaders of some elements, are certainly interested in reconciling at the present.

There are discussions underway. Some of those you could characterize as meaningful, but I don't want to raise undue expectations in that regard.

On the relationship he is seeking to build with Afghan President Hamid Karzai:

A good relationship, a productive relationship, one where we can have truly candid conversations, where we can discuss not just the easy ones but the tough ones, where we can on occasion agree that we see things slightly differently but ultimately come together on the approach that is adopted. And I think that is the kind of relationship that is developing.

On reports of tensions in the relationship:

[The relationship is] a good one, a healthy one. And a relationship that has included moments in which we have been in total agreement and some other moments in which we have come at different issues from a different perspective. And that's life -- welcome to counterinsurgency operations. . . . It is natural and understandable that leaders of other countries don't always see the situation precisely the same way we do, or have every one of their goals and objectives aligned with ours.

On Karzai's criticism of the arrest of one of his aides for allegedly soliciting a bribe to quash a money-laundering investigation:

We need to see what the outcome is, both in terms of that particular case but more importantly in the outcome of the eventual legal underpinnings that are provided for the major crimes task force and the special investigative unit. One of the legitimate concerns on the part of the Afghan government leadership is that their roles are not spelled out in law, and that needs to take place. I think we need to see what happens with those in the near term.

On his revisions to a tactical directive that limits the use of airstrikes in an effort to reduce civilian casualties but has prompted questions about the ability of troops to defend themselves:

[It says] that no one could add further restrictions, if you will, to what it was that I established. My sense is that the previous tactical directive was on the money but in some of the chains of command out there, a handful of people added further restrictions. . . . In a handful of incidents, it may have had some impact. . . . But I wanted it to be crystal clear that nobody was authorized to do that without coming to me.

On the pace of transition:

We're still in the process of determining what is realistic. [The November NATO foreign ministers' meeting in] Lisbon is obviously several months away. We have three-and-a-half months of operations to carry out before that point in time. What we sought to do when I first got here was to recognize the importance of transition. . . . It's a process, not an event. It's one that has to be conditions based. It works from the bottom up, not the top down.

On what it means to win in Afghanistan:

Success in Afghanistan is not unlike success in Iraq. [It is a condition] where the host nation government is able to secure itself and to govern itself, and to see to the needs of its people. Then you can add some other elements: that it contributes to regional stability and security and prosperity and so forth. In essence, it's a country that can secure and govern itself. Those are conditions and objectives that will be achieved over time at a deliberate pace. Thinning out, rather than handing off, will be the way transition plays out.

On the assumption of command:

When we went in to Iraq, we really did make some very significant changes. . . . Here the plan that I inherited, that I helped to develop as the combatant commander, was fundamentally sound and is fundamentally sound. But having said that, it has been in place for a nearly a year, and any time concepts and plans have been in place for a year, it's time to take a look at them. And we're going through that. But these are more in the manner of refinements -- of greater emphasis here, a little less emphasis there. In many respects, it would have been carried out similarly by Stan McChrystal.

On the pressure of the job and the expectations of progress:

I didn't sign up for a honeymoon. . . .

All of us engaged in this are keenly aware that we have another set of clocks, just as we did in Baghdad. . . . We are doing everything we can to achieve progress as rapidly as we can without rushing to failure. We're keenly aware that this has been ongoing for approaching nine years. We fully appreciate the impatience in some quarters.

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