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Petraeus: U.S. To Pursue 'More Nuanced' Operations In Kandahar

David Petraeus

hide captionGen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, at his office in Kabul on Aug. 31.

Mustafa Quraishi/AP

Gen. David Petraeus tells NPR that U.S. and NATO forces are set to begin "more nuanced" major operations around Kandahar to win back areas that, despite the presence of international forces for years, "were never cleared."

Petraeus sought to temper expectations about the Kandahar offensive, stressing to NPR's Renee Montagne that it will be a long-term process and one that is "Afghan-led."

When asked about the Afghan public's distrust of putting Afghan forces in the lead, Petraeus' answer showed how hard it can be to tread the line between candor and diplomacy:  "There is truth, in fact, to the fact that the police in particular have image problems that are based on reality," he said.

Petraeus is a great "get" for journalists in Afghanistan, because he is not only the top military commander there, he's thoughtful and articulate about the challenges of the war. But he's also a master of the talking point, and it takes time and a skillful interviewer to draw out what's really on his mind.

Following are some other themes that emerged when Petraeus sat down in his Kabul headquarters for a 40-minute conversation. Key parts of Montagne's interview with Petraeus will air Wednesday on Morning Edition.

As thousands more American troops have streamed into Afghanistan this year, Montagne questioned the general on the issue of whether the war is winnable, recalling that Afghan President Hamid Karzai "has gone so far as to say that NATO forces cannot win this war."

Petraeus interrupted with: "I'm saying the same thing."

The general insisted that the statement was "not at all damaging. This is the reality. As I said in Iraq when I was the commander there: you don't end an industrial-strength insurgency by killing or capturing all the bad guys.  You have to kill, capture — or turn — the bad guys. And that means reintegration and reconciliation."

Montagne pressed the general on corruption in the Afghan government, asking how that affects his mission.  Petraeus responded that the Afghan government has been doing "quite a bit" to fight corruption, and he cited recent firings of judges, police commanders and customs officials.

Listen to this excerpt from the interview.

But he said that Karzai's concern is that the anti-corruption effort be seen as Afghan led, so that insurgents can't paint him as a puppet of the foreign forces.

Petraeus is still very much concerned about the perception that the on-going fighting in Marja, in the southern Helmand province, means that the February offensive there has somehow failed.

He digressed in the middle of one of Montagne's questions to bring up Marja, stressing that it was important to the Taliban as "a command-and-control center," a base for bomb-making factories and a profitable narcotics market.

Listen to this excerpt from the interview.

That, the general says, is why the Taliban are still attacking U.S. troops on the outskirts of Marja.  He's brought up Marja with other interviewers lately, too, stressing that new schools and markets have opened there.

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