GENERAL PETRAEUS ON THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN: A COMMENT
"MR. GREGORY: This is a very difficult time in this war, and, and we have talked about your assessment of winning vs. losing. The reality that you understand is that the American public is not behind this war. Our new poll with The Wall Street Journal indicates that 7 in 10 Americans lack confidence in a successful outcome to this war. And yet your position was that we're actually winning because we're making some progress. What is it that the American public is missing?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, I think it's incumbent on us to show greater progress, to show sustained progress. I would argue that the progress, if you will, really just began this spring. Late spring was when we started to see that the operations in central Helmand Province truly were starting to improve security for the people, an up and down process, to be sure. Taliban fighting back very hard as we took away very important sanctuaries from, from him. And now you can see it expanding over into Kandahar Province-again, another tough fight-and in other areas around the country, in southern Herat Province, out in the northwest, up in the north. Again, all of these, though, are small pockets of progress.
MR. GREGORY: But can't you understand, the American people for nine years have been hearing about incremental progress in Afghanistan and remain confused, frustrated and not invested?
GEN. PETRAEUS: I can understand it. In fact, that's why, though, I've sought to explain that, over the last 18 months or so, what we've sought to do in Afghanistan is get the inputs right for the first time. When a lot of us came out of Iraq in late 2008 and started looking intently at Afghanistan, we realized that we did not have the organizations that are required for the conduct of a comprehensive civil/military counterinsurgency campaign, that in some cases we needed individuals in charge of those organizations that we didn't have. We needed to refine the concepts to build, in some cases, concepts that didn't exist; for example, reintegration. If you don't want to have to kill or capture every bad guy in the country, you have to reintegrate those who are willing to be reconciled and become part of the solution instead of a continued part of the problem. And then, above all, the resources. And by the end of August, of course, we will have nearly tripled the number of U.S. forces on the ground, we'll have expanded the non-U.S. NATO forces, tripled the number of civilians, increased the funding to enable 100,000 more Afghan national security forces, and so on. And, indeed, that is enabling already-the inputs already are enabling some outputs. And, of course, what we've got to show is that the-these additional inputs can allow greater progress, and that that's progress that can be sustained over time by Afghan forces and Afghan officials....
MR. GREGORY: Let me talk about U.S. troops. I asked you before, when we talked about this July deadline of next year, how stifling is the, the concept of this deadline and this Washington debate to what you're trying to do here?
GEN. PETRAEUS: I don't find it that stifling. I'm not bowed over by, you know, the knowledge that July 2011 is out there. In fact, the president has been very clear, Vice President Biden's been very clear as well, more recently, that this is a date when a process begins that is conditions based. And as the conditions permit, we transition tasks to our Afghan counterparts and to security forces and, and in various governmental institutions, and that enables a "responsible drawdown of our forces...."
MR. GREGORY: I just want to clarify this. Did-could you reach that point and say, "I know that the process is supposed to begin, but my assessment as the commander here is that it cannot begin now"?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Certainly, yeah. Again, the president and I sat down in the Oval Office, and he expressed very clearly that what he wants from me is my best professional military advice where I understand the mission that's been assigned, we have recommended the strategy and the resources that are required for that strategy, and as there are changes in any of that, that, obviously, I would communicate that to him, recognizing that he has some issues with which he has to deal that we don't have to worry about. But that, that's real life. And, again, that was the process that we worked through last fall, a process that I thought was very good, the outcome of which was something that we, we strongly supported.
Let me point out one other item about July 2011 if I could. Because what I have often noted was that in the speech that the president made at West Point, there were two messages. One was a message of substantial additional commitment, additional 30,000 troops, again more civilians, more funding for Afghan forces, authorization of 100,000 more of them and so forth; but also a message of increased urgency. And that's what July 2011 really connotes. It is to all the participants, those in Kabul, some of us in uniform, again our civilian counterparts, that we've got to get on with this, that this has been going on for some nine years or so, that there is understandable concern, in some cases frustration, and that, therefore, we've got to really put our shoulder to the wheel and show during the course of this year that progress can be achieved. And, and, again, one manifestation of that is out there that you have this date. But, again, we've had good dialogue on this, and I think the president's been quite clear in explaining that it's a process, not an event, and that it's conditions based.
MR. GREGORY: There's a feeling that General Petraeus, with the credibility you have, will be in a position to prevail in a debate about this and say to the president, "Look," you know, "you put me in this position to do a tough job, now you've got to listen to me. I need what I need at the time that I need it."
GEN. PETRAEUS: Look, my job is, again, to provide my best professional military advice, informed, certainly, by an awareness of the context within which I provide it, but not driven by it. And that's the same way that we approached the very difficult recommendations that we made during the effort in Iraq. Over time I think those worked out and, touch wood, that over time they can work out here as well.
MR. GREGORY: Let me talk to you about the Afghan government. Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, is he a friend, a foe, or something in between?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, I think he is the president of a sovereign country, and we have to understand that. In many cases, most cases, we have converging objectives, as is the case in any of these situations, but in some cases we see things a little bit differently. And that's natural. We went through this with Prime Minister Maliki on numerous occasions. We've gone through this in, in virtually every contingency operation which I've been engaged. There's a situation which the security forces from outside and the government officials of that particular country occasionally see things or come at things a little bit differently. And we've had those moments, and we'll continue to have them. When folks ask, you know, "How's the relationship?" I say it's a good relationship because, in fact, we can have those kinds of discussions....
GEN. PETRAEUS: At the end of the day, it's not about their embrace of us, it's not about us winning hearts and minds, it's about the Afghan government winning hearts and minds. This isn't to say that there is any kind of objective of turning Afghanistan into Switzerland in three to five years or less. Afghan good enough is good enough, and that means having traditional social organizing structures as part of the ultimate solution, if you will, where tribal shura councils and so forth-which are quite democratic, by the way-they then connect at the district or province level with what goes up to Kabul and, and, and comes out as well.
MR. GREGORY: Afghanistan good enough, then, does that entail redefining, defining down some of the goals for rebuilding the nation?
GEN. PETRAEUS: I think some of that was done last year, actually, during the course of the process that, that President Obama and the new administration led. I think there was a refinement of objectives, a recognition of the realities on the ground and that we need be-to be measured in what it is that we can actually achieve, and that's why we came-that's where this concept, again, of not trying to turn Afghanistan into a Western industrialized democracy....
MR. GREGORY: If the outcome is like Iraq, is that achieving the mission?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, the outcome in Iraq is still to be written, but if you could reduce the level of violence by some 90 to 95 percent, as was the case in Iraq, to below a threshold which allows commerce and business and outside investment to take place, where there is an election that's certainly at least elected representatives, and now you have to see if they can come together and form a government that is still representative of and responsive to the people, as was the previous one. If that can all be achieved there, that would be a reasonable solution here as well.
MR. GREGORY: I want to ask you about the enemy here. And, and, if you would, we have a pointer here, would you point out on the map where the sanctuaries in Pakistan are that are the biggest threat to U.S. forces, because the Taliban can operate out of those sanctuaries, cross the border and fight, and then run back into Pakistan?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, first let me just point out, of course, that what we face is not some kind of monolithic Taliban enemy. In fact, it's more like a syndicate is the term that we often use for the enemy that, that faces our troopers and our Afghan counterparts and the Afghan civilians. But what we face generally, of course, is, again, in the southern part of the country, this is the Taliban, the Afghan Taliban. And then as you work your way up into the eastern part, you start to get the Haqqani network linked to the Taliban, again has a symbiotic relationship with them, but is not subservient one to the other. And then you do, in fact, have some small elements of al-Qaeda, you have the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, you have some Pakistani Taliban and, and other elements that come into the country. Now this, of course, is the federally administered tribal area, up here is Swat valley, these are the areas where Pakistan has fought so hard and taken such significant casualties over the last 18 months. But there are areas that they have not yet dealt with, and north Waziristan is certainly one of those. They have had operations in south Waziristan. And then there are some of the other agencies. There is a portion of western Khyber Agency that they, they know.
Let me point out one other, one other point, if I could. What is interesting is that the Taliban leads from the rear, as we would say. The Taliban leads from Pakistan. And by the way, the rank and file is just catching on to this. We actually see discussions among them chatter among them, conversation wondering where their senior leaders are and wondering why Mullah Omar hasn't set foot back in Afghanistan or even been heard from now in, in months and months and months. But the senior leaders don't come in and share hardship and risk with their troopers on the ground, they send messages. They do it by cell phone or what have you, and that is actually going to be a problem for them, as, as is what we have pointed out with our Afghan partners, much more in recent weeks, and that is what the Taliban have been doing despite their supposed counterinsurgency guidance of being nice to the people and so forth. And they are much more responsible for civilian casualties than are our forces and our Afghan forces. Most recently they were distinguished by flogging and then assassinating a pregnant woman. They have used children and teenagers to carry out attacks. They have dressed in burqas. Again, what they have done is really quite egregious, particularly in the context of the religion and in the context of, of the normal codes of conduct....
MR. GREGORY: The bottom line question that I've been thinking about asking you is, if we win in Afghanistan, what do we win; and if we lose, what do we lose?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, the, the latter is almost easier because, if you lose, it has, I think, some significant repercussions, not just for this country, although they would be enormous, and start with the cover of Time magazine for starters. Then think about our security interests, and then think about the region and what it could do to the region if, in fact, extremists were able to take over all or part of this country again after what presumably would be a very bloody civil war in which different countries in the region would take sides. And, again, the prospect is, I think, is pretty frightening.
If we succeed, on the other hand, obviously we, we are, again, succeeding in a region that has implications and links to security issues throughout the world. If Afghanistan can become the central Asian "roundabout," to use President Karzai's term, to where it can be the new Silk Road, think of the implications for that, recalling that, of course, Afghanistan is blessed with the presence of what are trillions, with an S on the end, trillions of dollars worth of minerals if, and only if, you can get the extractive technology, the human capital operated, the lines of communication to enable you to get it out of the country and all the rest of that. Very big "if." And of course, there's a foundation of security that would be necessary on, on which to build all of that. But, again, the prospects are very significant if you can achieve objectives.
And, and, by the way, I'm always leery of using terms, actually, like "winning" because it seems to imply that, you know, you just find the right hill out there somewhere, you take it, you plant the flag, and you go home to a victory parade. I don't think that's going to be the case here. I think this is going to-and I've said this repeatedly when I was a Central Command commander, even before that, that this was going to require a substantial, significant commitment and, and that it is going to have to be enduring to some degree, again, albeit its character and its size being scaled down over the years".
Meet the Press, "Interview with General David Petraeus," 15 August 2010, in www.realclearpolitics.com.
"Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war....Countless minor incidents---the kind you can never really forsee---combine
to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls short of the intended goal. Iron will-power can overcome this friction; it pulverises every obstacle, but of course it wears down the machine as well....The good general must know friction in order to overcome it whenever possible, and in order not to expect a standard of achievement in his operations which this very friction makes impossible....As with a man of the world instinct
becomes almost habit so that he always acts, speaks, and moves appropriately, so that only the experienced officer will make the right decision in major and minor matters---at every
pulsebeat of war. Practice and experience dictate the answer: 'this is possible, that is not'.So he rarely makes a serious mistake, such as can, in war, shatter confidence and become extremely dangerous if it occurs often."
Carl von Clausewitz, On War. Edited & translated by Sir Michael Howard & Peter Paret, 1976, pp.119-121.
Reading this interview with the American & NATO supreme commander in Afghanistan, makes overall for a rather positive view of things for a number of reasons: i) the general, who is probably the mieux general field-officer in the entire American army, seems to have a rather realistic view of conditions in the Afghan theatre; ii) he also it appears has few illusions that anything of substance can be done, before the fabled deadline of the summer of 2011. A deadline which has become gradually more akin to an albatross around the necks of the entire American-NATO effort in Afghanistan. AKA, that notwithstanding the hopes of those in the American Administration, around Vice-President Biden, there is in fact little hope of a large-scale troop withdrawal within the two to three years. As the general correctly recognizes, it is going to be a 'hard slog', requiring several years (perhaps half a dozen in fact), to both crush the Taliban and to train sufficiently well the Afghan Army and police. Until both of these occur, there is no possibility of an American withdrawal from this wretched country. The only saving grace is that the top mind in the American military establishment is 'on the job', in Kabul. Following the most plausible strategy that there is to win this war. Let us just hope that the American pays legal is sufficiently intelligent enough to reaslize this essential fact?