ISAF Commander General David Petraeus interviewed on Afghanistan

  • 31 Aug. 2010
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  • Last updated: 31 Aug. 2010 13:57

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): There is a public perception that the mission here has run off course and is increasingly unwinnable. How do you respond to that?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): I think first I’d say is that we’ve spent the last 18 months in Afghanistan trying to get the inputs right – to get the components in place for the conduct of a comprehensive civil-military counter insurgency campaign, which is what is needed, indeed, to reverse the momentum that the Taliban has established over the course of the past few years. The fact is that when a lot of us really focused intently on Afghanistan – in my case when I came out of Iraq in the fall of 2008 and took over as the Central Command Commander and looked at it very very hard, along with those in Washington and then of course with the new administration in the White House – we recognised that this had been an economy of force effort for quite some time; it had been under-resourced. It did not have the organisations necessary. It did not have an operational level headquarters. It did not have a reintegration cell – if you don’t have to kill and capture all the bad guys then you have to reintegrate the reconcilables, yet we didn’t have a cell for that. We didn’t have a sufficient rule of law task force – we didn’t have an anti-corruption element. We didn’t have an information operations taskforce - just a basic little public affairs cell - when what you need is almost the equivalent of a political campaign organisation without the spin. So, again, we set about building those and a number of other organisations. The NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan – another hugely important element in this – because it is about over time developing Afghan capacity, so that we can hand-off tasks to them, so that we can indeed transition as the strategy calls for over the course of the next year.

Then we need to get the right people in place leading those organisations. I would point out, by the way, the contribution that Gen McChrystal made to all of this (my predecessor here). Then you need to get the right plans and concepts and ideas. Again, a concept for reintegration, a tactical directive to ensure there is sufficient focus on reducing the loss of civilian life in the conduct of our operations, counter-insurgency guidance, a civil-military campaign plan - not just a military operational plan. And then, of the utmost importance, of course, is the right level of resources to enable you to carry out all of these plans and ideas and concepts in Afghanistan with our partners. And here of course, over the course of the past 18 months, at least by the end of August or so, we will have added somewhere between 80,000 and 85,000 coalition forces - more than tripling the number of US forces on the ground, most significantly. We’ll have tripled the number of US civilians and other troop contributing nations civilians increases have taken place. And then there has been funding provided for an additional 100,000 Afghan National Security Forces – all very important to the over conduct of a comprehensive effort. Now, those will be in place by about the end of August and for the first time we will then have the tools and what’s required in place to carry out the kind of campaign that necessary here with our Afghan partners. And in the meantime, of course, we’ve set about trying to generate outputs as the inputs have been coming online. We’ve launched the campaign in HelmanVirtually every one 2d Province and the deliberate campaign in Kandahar has begun. There’s been an effort to increase security around Kabul to disrupt insurgents, the Haqqani network in particular, from entering Afghanistan from Pakistan and then to also reverse some of the Taliban gains in the North in Baghlan and Kunduz and then out in the West in Bagdhis and Gormach. So all of that has been ongoing and I think it’s important to note that we are really now just beginning the kind of campaign that some will argue that we might have started sooner.

Melissa Preen: So you’re saying that people should have a bit more patience before they start seeing results?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): We realize it is incumbent on us to achieve results. We have turn inputs into outputs. There has to be a sense among the troop contributing nations, some of whom have been at this for some nine years nearly, that this can indeed succeed, that we can turn inputs into tangible progress and that over time there’s a sense that we can build on that progress to achieve the very important objective that we have here. Let’s not forget in fact why we are here. Because that is truly important. The fact is this is where the 9/11 attacks were planned, down around Kandahar, when the Taliban controlled the country and AQ had significant sanctuaries here. The training of the 9/11 attackers was conducted in training camps here, before they moved on to Germany and flight schools in the United States. It is in everyone’s interest, argueably, a vital national security interest of the TCN that this not become a sanctuary for transnational extremists. To ensure this, to accomplish this, we have to help AFG develop the capacity and capability to secure itself and to govern itself, to basically see to the needs of its citizens itself.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): Now you’ve been recently quoted as saying that the tide is turning against the Taliban. Given the contrary views to that, how do you back that up?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): When what I actually said was we have reversed the TB’s momentum in some areas, and to be very precise about that, because I would not say that we have reversed the momentum in all areas by any means. In some we have reversed it, in some we have blunted it and in some the TB is still trying to expand. But in some provinces, such as Helmand, in the six central districts, you take an area like Marjah, certainly the TB is fighting to take back Marjah, one of the key command and control centers of the TB, and a nexus with the illegal nartcotics industry bosses, is no longer in their control. In fact, last week voter registration was carried out for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Marjah. Something that was unthinkable six months ago. I’ve walked through the market in Marjah and the same can be said in a number of other areas, again in the those six central districts, and even outside them. I was in Now Zad the other day outside those 6 districts, an area that was controlled by the TB until a few months ago. There’s a small Marine contingent from the United States there that’s now partnered with Afghan soldiers and police, supported by the elders, they have taken the village back from the TB, run them out, and where there were only 4 shops in the market a few months ago there are now 200 and it’s growing. Only a few families were there under the TB, there’s now over 10,000 citizens back and growing gradually back up to the 30,000 that it was before the TB infested it, if you will, and caused such problems.

As I mentioned the deliberate campaign has begun in Kandahar in some areas the TB momentum has reversed, but clearly there’s a lot more work to be done, the TB are fighting back very hard because this is Mullah Omar’s hometown, if you will, this is the iconic place of the TB, and so it’s very important to them and that will be tough. Indeed in Helmand, they’re fighting back there as well, that’s to be expected, that’s what happens. This is the same as what happened in Iraq when we took away the sanctuaries and safe havens AQ, the enemy fights back. This why I’ve said for over a year actually, with respect to Afghanistan, in my previous job at Central Command, that the going would get tougher before it got easier, harder before it got easier.

Kabul’s security has been reinforced, this is the strategically important security bubble. It has really gone well in Kabul, and we want to expand that. Certainly the Haqqani network in particular from its home base in N Waziristan, is trying to cause problems, responsible for attacks in Khost the other day in which over 30 Haqqani network members were killed, 7 suicide vests were found on them, a car bomb was diffused and the overall commander of the operation was killed when he was driving back to Pakistan when he was killed. But that’s an example of the scale they can achieve in carrying out attacks on bases and although they have not penetrated a base per say with anything meaningful, the truth is they still have the capability to do that so there’s no doubt about the work that still needs to be done in the East and the approaches and the rat lines that come in from their sanctuaries and in to Kabul.

In the north there’s been some good work by German forces in southern Baglan. More work is clearly recognized as needed in the rest of Baglan, and then also up in Kunduz where there’s the beginning of an operation as well. And then out in Badghis and Gormak, a US, Italian and Spanish force together augmented with special operations forces is seeking to reverse the momentum out there. So as you walk around the country, and even in southern Herat, the Pashtun gateway to Herat province that tide has turned by a great special forces team from the United States with some locals who got tired of the TB and needed some support and linked up with the Afghan police as well.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): This is America’s war isn’t it?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): Well I think this is the world’s war really. I think as I mentioned earlier the interests here are vital to all the freedom-loving people of the world. I don’t think anyone wants to see trans-national extremists able to do what they did from the soil here, what they have planned in some cases from other places in the region, it is a regional problem as well. But certainly all of our countries, many of our countries certainly, have experienced, trans-national extremist attacks and recognize the importance of doing all we can do to achieving our mutual objectives here, that again Afghanistan not become a sanctuary for trans-national extremists.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): TCN’s not doing enough? Is this really one team, one mission?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): Well it is one team, one mission. It is certainly one team in which some of the different members have national caveats. That’s alliance activities, that’s what happens. I’ve been a NATO guy almost all my life, starting as a lieutent and now as a 4 star. As a 1, 3, and 4 star, was in charge of NATO forces or a senior staff member. In Bosnia we had a matrix on the desk I was the chief of operations there, and we had a matrix on the desk that had all the nations down one side and the missions and geographic areas across the top, and there were caveats, there were limits. That’s natural, actually, again, that’s the way these play out. I would point out though that virtually every one of the troop contributing countries here has sustained tough losses and tough casualties, and indeed some of the smaller countries, if you look at their losses per capita, Denmark, for example. You’ll see again that there is a great sharing of the hardship and sacrifice in this effort, without question.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): Are ANSF rising at a fast enough rate, with the right quality?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): Well, you have to be very careful to try to accelerate the development, the growth, of host nation forces without rushing to failure because you go so fast that you jetison quality along the way. You’re trying to achieve quantity and quality. Quantity in a counterinsurgency operation does have a quality of its own but if it’s at a certain quality, and so again, you’re trying to achieve that certain threshold. The fact is that this is another area that we only recently got the big ideas right. I’d say it was only last fall that for the police, for example, we actually came to the concept that you should train them before you put them into their positions. Prior to that there was an idea that hire them, you put them in position, and then you train them when they get to that. That’s obviously not a great formula. It was an expedient formula, because of a variety of challenges, I understand that. And because of lack of sufficient capacity to train all that needed to be trained at that time. We’ve now expanded that capacity enormously with the development of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan and as that has come along and as the troop contributing nations have contributed more to this, this very important effort. Again we have to try to develop both. And I would add that the even bigger challenge than just training individual soldiers and police is the training of leaders. You can’t just put someone right out of high school or college and put them through a 14 week course and label that individual a lieutenant colonel and give them command of an infantry battalian. That requires years of experience, years of training and years of education which is really the process that has to be followed and you can only shortcut that so much. That’s where you really have the biggest of these challenges. As you know I commanded the NATO Training Mission in Iraq, also the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq, and we had the same kinds of challenges there as we grew a force even more rapidly and larger than is the development of this force.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): Are we on track to meet the target numbers to ?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): We actually are on track. In fact we’re slightly ahead of track. The army declared meeting its 134K goal for October at the end of July, for example, and the police are several thousand ahead as well. But the goals are very ambitious. The growth is very significant that will have to take place and again we’ll have to work very hard to do that. And indeed we are short trainers, again, you’d have to say when it is because the growth of trainers and their requirement is commensurate with the growth of the force. We’re short 700 or so trainers alone right now, and then there are the mentor teams, the miliatry liaison teams, again there are different names for the advisor elements that are out there with the military units and police.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): What’s being done to fill those positions?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): Well indeed we’ve just submitted our latest force request up the NATO chain. And then there are also some separate ones that I can submit as a US commander as well, up the US chain.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): Any response yet?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): There are. In fact, as each leader comes through here, we’re quite forthright in making our views and requirements know and a number of those countries have gone back and pledged additional numbers but again there are gaps between the pledges and what we will need.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): There have been a few incidents this year of Afghan soldiers killing ISAF soldiers. Are the Afghans reliable allies?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): They are. In fact, Afghans have been dying at greater numbers than our forces, for what it’s worth. People occassionally say when will the Afghans start shouldering the burden, well, they are, in particular when it comes to casualties. Beyond that they say when will they take the lead in security somewhere. And I say, well you’re sitting in a place typically, if it’s an interview in Kabul, because the Afghans have been in the lead for security in Kabul for some period. And they have done it quite well. And let’s remember that Kabul is 1/6 of the population of this country, so Afghan forces indeed are shouldering the burden, they are in the lead, certainly partnered with a very fine Turkish-led regional command. But nonetheless, they are the face of security for the Afghan people in Kabul. Now with respect to those incidents they are a very tragic reality of this kind of effort, we had those in Iraq as you may recall. An insurgent dressed as a soldier even blew up a mess hall with dozens of our soldiers killed. In some cases we even had it within our own ranks. This is one of those true tragedies of the kind of nature of what it is that we are doing. Obviously we try to vet those in the forces as carefully as we possibly can, we have an extensive biometric campaign and background checks if you will before people can volunteer. But the possibility of an infultrator cannot be eliminated.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): So your message to troops on the ground who have to work day in and day out with ANSF is what?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): I don’t know they need a message from me. I think that they realize that it is essential that we partner. They know that. They send that message to me in fact. They say they have to live with them, they have to plan with them, they have to fight with them. In some cases they have to shed blood with them in the face of the enemy.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): July next year and whether you’ll be ready to start drawing troops down. How are things looking right now.

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): Let me start by reminding you again what July 2011 represents. First of all, what it represented in the speech President Obama gave at West Point on December 1 of last year. I was there, he asked me to be there with him. It represented a message of urgency, that we’d been at it at that time for eight years or more, that we had to make progress. That complimented his message of additional commitement, of an additional 30,000 forces, on top of some more than already that had been committed for 2009, the funding for the additional 100,000 Afghan security forces and the tripling of our US civilian numbers here. And that was how that was presented, with a very clear description then and since then as well, that July 2011 is a time when a process begins, the pace of which is determined by conditions on the ground. The tasks are to hand off to Afghan forces where that is possible, where they can take on the tasks for themselves and the security conditions that obtain and then also to hand off to some Afghan officials and institutions elsewhere so that they can shoulder more of the load themselves. I think that is possible, I supported that policy. As when that date approaches, I will provide my best professional military advice to the President and to the NATO chain of command.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): President Karzai recently came out thought and referenced July 2011 saying that the ISAF strategy is wrong. What do you have to say to that?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): I think that at times there is some misunderstanding about again what July 2011 represents. There has been a misinterpretation that this is when we race for the exits and find a light switch to turn them out before we leave the room. And that’s not the case. So clearly it’s incumbent upon us to explain what July 2011 really is. And the fact that again the pace of what will happen is based upon conditions. And that seems eminently sensible and logical to me. And also that sending a sense of urgency is helpful as well. There is also discusssion about the need to do something about the sanctuaries in Pakistan and I think that’s an understandable topic to be raised. That obviously those at Central Command and beyond and in my position as well have had plenty of conversations about and will continue to have conversations about, not just with our Afghan partners but with our regional partners as well.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): Everyone knows that you’re worried about civilian casualties, but still incidents are occuring. What more can be done?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): Well, we have to continue to reinforce every additional contingent that comes in has to be almost reindoctrinted, if you will, in what it is we’re trying to do and how we’re taking steps to keep civilian casualties at an absolute minimum. Because we have reduced them very substantially and even the United Nations noted that even in a period where we have greatly expanded our forces as I’ve mentioned, increased by some 80-odd-thousand, those civilian casualties attributed to our operations have been reduced by some 30%. That is quite an accomplishment. But clearly there are still civilian casualties. Inevitably, tragically, there will be civilian casualties in the course of military operations. Our job is to drive them down to an absolute minimun while also of course ensuring that as we protect the civilians, we also protect our own forces. That’s a very important balance that we must achieve. But if we incure civilian casualties in the course of a ‘tactical’ victory, in quotes, that often ends up being a strategic setback. Our forces understand that, we have implemented instructions, I revised the tactical directive, tweaked that a bit, issued the COIN guidance that you have seen, all of which emphasizes that we are protecting the population, not inflicting casualties on it. Tragically, the TB has done the opposite, despite their pronouncements about protecting the population, as you know the casualties attributed to the TB has gone up very significantly, as measured by the United Nations.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): But still these incidents are occuring and it appears that we are losing some of the public support. There have been protests in the streets recently in certain areas. What would you say to the Afghan public? Why should they continue to support ISAF’s presence in Afghanistan?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): First of all, those have been pretty isolated incidents and sometimes those have been more about local political powerbrokers pushing something or other through, it is not uncommon to see some of these hijacked for various purposes. Welcome to our world, welcome to the world of counterinsurgency operations. But I think the Afghan people by any polls we have seen, recognize the benefits to their country of having the coaltion here, of having the international community striving to help continue the improvements that have been made in this country. By any measure if you look at the number of thousands of additional miles of road, the additional health clinics, schools, cell phones, you name it, whatever it may be, sheer economic growth, since the Taliban, it has been very dramatic. They recognize it, they don’t want to turn the clock back several centuries to the kinds of practices that the TB inflicted on them, when they closed girls schools. They see it now, the TB recently stoned a couple to death, and in another case, flogged a pregnant woman before assassinating her. I don’t think they want to return to that except in those cases, to be fair, where the governance that has been provided for the people has been predatory in nature, rather than service-oriented in nature. And in those cases again, it reminds you again of the importance of good governance, that it achieves legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): Now the operations in Marjah and Kandahar have dominated the news this year. You already spoke about Marjah, but in Kandahar, it seems that things have really stalled there, what exactly is going on there?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): Well, in Kandahar, the deliberate piece of that really has actually just begun. The first manifestation of that has been the clearance of Argandhab district, the bulk of which has been complete, but certainly again the enemy really fighting back there. But again, that is a step forward, there has been some additional activity in and around Kandahar City, the establishment of checkpoints around the city, the operation in Molojat district of Kandahar City itself. There is the establishment of a battlefield surveillance brigade around the Weesh-Chaman border crossing point to try to interdict more of what comes in from the sanctuaries south of the border. And then over time there clearly will be other operations and those are planned, but we’re not going to announce them in advance.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): There seems to be a lot of activities down there with taking out key TB leaders. That seems to be the majority of the the work if I go by what I read about, if I go by press releases, is that right?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): Well that has been an important feature of what we call the shaping operations. As you begin to approach the conduct of clearing, holding and building operations, you conduct shaping operations. And those are intended to give you better understanding of the nature of the insurgents’ network, to take down some of the leaders and members, certainly, to interdict the improvised explosive device efforts and those kinds of things. And that has been quite significant in the Kandahar area, but it’s also been significant throughout the country. We’ve more than tripled the operational tempo of our special operations forces that conduct the kinds of precise target operations every twenty-four hour period.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): How long is this fight going to take and have you got enough time to achieve what you’d like here?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): Well, no one in a position like this puts a date on this and I certainly would not hazard that. What we do openly acknowledge is that this is going to take a sustained, substantial commitment. We’ve seen again in the last 18 months is that we’ve gotten the inputs right. We’re really now getting on with this, I think in a sense, for the first time in a sufficiently-resourced manner. Over time clearly the character of our involvement will evolve and be reduced in the military sense, even as we may stay engaged in other areas and that’s how we would want to take this forward.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): Where are we heading with this mission? What signs will show if you or ISAF have succeeded?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): Well, I think we’ve seen that in some areas. Again, as I mentioned earlier, the additional security in places like Nawa, or Nad-e Ali, or Lashkar Gah districts of Helmand Province are indicators of that. Certainly, Marjah early initial progress but hard-fought still and the enemy is still fighting to take it back, and that will take more effort. If you look again at Kabul City, as I mentioned, with 1/6 of the population, and a pretty secure city. This is not Baghdad. This is the second month I’ve been in command here and in my second month in command in Iraq there were three car bombs every day on average, and dozens and dozens of attacks, I mean you felt as if you were in a boxing ring with your hands like this literally, there was horrific violence and civilian casualties, Coalition and Iraqi casualties. And so again this is the strategically important oil spot, the enemy knows that, there are threat streams out there. We’ve interdicted a number of those in the course of recent months.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): I just want to jump back to talk a bit more of your current assessment of the fight against the Taliban. Are you seeing much weakness in them, signs of reintegration? Do you think the mission will be able to break them down and that we’ll be able to leave the country in the hands of the Afghans and leave?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): There have been incidents of reintegration. In fact, just a couple more the other day. And the reintegration joint order was literally just published officially yesterday, so these are somewhat pre-mature. That is a hopeful development, clearly we must build upon that with our Afghan partners. It will be Afghan-led. You’ve got to convince the $10-a-day TB, the rank and file, that it’s time indeed to come in from the cold, to be a part of the new Afghanistan, instead of an obstacle to a new Afghanistan. But this is a very comprehensive effort, so it takes targeted operations against the leaders, it takes conventional clear, hold and build operations of coalition and Afghan forces together. The new Afghan Local Police initiative just beginning to get off the ground will provide a very important augmentation and thickening to the effects of our forces by helping local communities that want to defend themselves against the TB to do that but in a structured chain of command that comes out from the Ministry of Interior. There has to be politics, there will be opportunities for reconciliation with senior leaders that should be taken if in fact they meet the red lines that President Karzai has described. There has to be progress in governance so that the people do see the governance that they have in their local areas as legitimate and worthy of their support, being inclusive and transparent, and obviously rejecting corruption and so forth.

There has to be intelligence infusion, there has to be improvement in the correction services and detainee operations so there’s rehabilitiation. You separate the hardcore from the rank-and-file so they can be rehabilitated back into society. And obviously basic services have to be addressed. Because it’s in those areas that you might find individuals, because of inadequate basic services, inadequate opportunities, inadequate education, and so on, that people might be given to extremist leanings in the first place.

There are some challenges outside Afghanistan, needless to say, that President Karzai has highlighted, rightly, and there is going to have to be some work with neighboring countries in that regard and other ways perhaps as well. And then we have to communicate all of this. This is again an information campaign as well as it is everything else. So it takes that kind of comprehensive approach, that’s what can achieve progress, it’s the only sensible approach, I think to achieving our overall objectives to a country that doesn’t have extremist safehavens that could result in more 9/11 attacks or more subway attacks or airport attacks or what have you. It is again an approach that I think is appropriate and very much in accordance with the NATO comprehensive approach as described by the North Atlantic Council.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): And it’s well within our reach do you think if all these elements come into play? Because I think there’s still a public perception that it’s just not doable.

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): Well, I think we have to show the public clearly that progress can be achieved and can be built on and over time our very important objectives here can be accomplished.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): But people are getting weary though. Support is waining in NATO countries, with troops on the ground. I’ve embedded with troops who’ve questioned with this is all about. What would be your message to them -- why should they get up tomorrow and go out on patrol again?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): Well because the mission is hugely important to our countries. That’s why we’re here, it’s important to remember that. I understand those frustrations. With respect, I think I’ve been deployed just about as much as any person in this country since 2001, having been in Bosnia for a year, then four years in Iraq, many 300 days out of 365 on the road at CentCom, and my family and other families, that frustration has a face on it. The casualties have faces on them as well. There is nothing easy about this. It’s understandable that there’s impatience and a desire to see progress right now but the nature of these endeavors is such that that progress is slow, it’s hard-fought, and as I mentioned earlier, the fact is that we are just now for the first time getting the inputs right. Arguably, we had a short war up front, we had number of years of an under-resourced campaign, and again I think at the time, people would not have seen it that way. It’s understandable, but as you look back now, you now realize how the TB were able to come back and reestablish itself. We’ve worked hard over the last 18 months to rectify that. And now what we’ve got to do is make progress and show the world that this can be accomplished.

Melissa Preen (NATO TV): We’ll you’ve got a very tough, difficult job. What motivates you on a daily basis?

Gen Petraeus (COMISAF): Well, what motivates me are the young men and women in various coalition uniforms and Afghan uniforms and then Afghan citizens who have all pulled together to try to achieve something for this country that is of enormous importance not just for those in this country and those in this region, but to those back home as well.