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Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Army Gen. David Petraeus commands U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. One big challenge is fighting insurgents within a civilian population. Petraeus talks with Steve Inskeep about last month's bombing of a target in Afghanistan. Petraeus says the target was a Taliban facility. Critics say most of those killed in the bombing were civilians.
Steve Inskeep: I'd like to ask about an incident in Afghanistan, May 4th, with which I'm sure you are very familiar. I'll repeat it for those who are not. In Farah province — you'll correct me if I get the facts wrong — Afghans allied with the United States were fighting the Taliban. They called for assistance. The United States aided them with airstrikes. Civilians were killed. There's a dispute over how many civilians were killed. U.S. military officers have said that there is video showing that in fact Taliban fighters were the targets. Have you seen that video?
Gen. David Petraeus: I have. In fact, I was in Kabul the other night briefed by the brigadier general who I appointed to carry out an investigation of this particular incident, and there is indeed video from a B-1 Bomber that very clearly shows bombs hitting individuals who are the Taliban who are reacting to the movements of the Afghan and coalition forces on the ground.
How are they identifiable as Taliban? Men with guns? Men who had just been fighting with Afghan allies on the ground? What is it?
It's a combination of intelligence that is then confirmed by this actual video. But we'll lay this out when in fact this brigadier general briefs the press in Kabul, when he's done briefing President Karzai, our leaders in Washington and then returns to Afghanistan.
Are you going to release the video itself?
We won't give it to you, but I believe that we will show it as part of the press briefing.
So, you're that confident that this video will prove your side of events that you're willing to publicize this?What it will prove, is that the targets of these different strikes were the Taliban. What it does not prove, is that there were not civilians killed. I think we agree, actually, that there were civilians killed in this incident along — again — with a substantial number of Taliban. This is a very tough case because this was a very significant ambush of an Afghan force that had our advisers with it, and it was in response to that force — literally rescuing that force at the request of Afghan political leaders as well as Afghan police and military leaders — that our forces then moved in a very tough fight that these bombs were dropped.
Petraeus did not say exactly what the U.S. investigation will find. He does know that incidents like this are setbacks in winning over Afghan civilians. And he recently heard a warning of similar setbacks across the border in Pakistan. There, unmanned U.S. aircraft have fired missiles, killing Taliban or al-Qaida leaders, but also civilians. These drone strikes prompted criticism from a man Petraeus knows well.
Inskeep: David Kilcullen, who was an adviser to you in counterinsurgency strategies in Iraq for a couple of years, wrote an article in The New York Times in which he and a co-author called for a moratorium, and they were arguing that this kind of airstrike costs more than it's worth.
Petraeus: Well, again, I'm not going to talk about specific types of attacks. In particular, again, we never comment on the drone attacks. What I will say is that we should and must be concerned about the incidents of civilian casualties. We are there to secure the people, to serve them; it's a big challenge. Indeed, we don't want our forces going into combat with one hand tied behind their back, but we also cannot take actions that might produce tactical victories but undermine the efforts strategically. And that's this tension, if you will, between, again, employing all the assets that we have but making sure that we do it in a way that doesn't undermine the overall effort, which is the result, if indeed there is significant civilian casualties.
This seemed to be your former adviser's argument: that you were building up what he called a visceral opposition to airstrikes against targets that may well be valid but civilians are killed. That it's undermining confidence, for example, in the government of Pakistan, which is allied with the United States, that it's turning people against your effort. Has the use of air power, the way it's being used in Afghanistan and Pakistan, cost you more than it's worth?
It has certainly cost us. Again, "more than it's worth" is certainly a very, very difficult judgement to make. But what I will say is, again, that there is enough concern about this that first of all, I would send in a brigadier general from outside to conduct an investigation, that I would sit down with him for two and a half hours, real late at night, to go through this with him. And that we will then take action based on the lessons learned from this when it has been finalized.
Your former adviser Kilcullen, a very strongly worded column, there was also an analogy that he uses in that column. He and his co-author say: If you were living in a neighborhood and some burglars moved into the neighborhood and the police came in and began blowing up houses as a way to respond to the burglars, he thinks the people would turn against the police. Is there some power to that analogy?
There is as he laid it out. And again, the challenge is to make sure that that kind of analogy isn't what is reality. It is hugely important that as we bring our additional forces in to Afghanistan, as they begin to go into action, that they not be seen as would-be conquerors, but that they are rather seen as those who are there to help the people, not to endanger them. And that gets at the heart of what David Kilcullen is explaining.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its highest levels since 2001. More U.S. troops are being sent to Afghanistan to try to reverse gains Taliban militants have made over the past three years.
Inskeep: You mentioned the additional forces — tens of thousands are on their way into Afghanistan. I think Americans have heard the one-sentence version of what they're supposed to do: provide greater security to the people. Can you add to that sentence: What will they be doing that's different than what's been done in the past?
Petreaus: First of all, they're going to have very substantially augmented numbers to do it. But let's come back to what our first and foremost mission in Afghanistan is, and that is to make sure that the country does not once again become a sanctuary for transnational extremists.
That's a broad strategic goal, but how do you go about that?
Clearly you have to do more than just kill or capture bad guys. Then you have to help the Afghan security forces develop so they can take over the roles of ensuring the security of their people. And you also have to help the Afghan government.
One of the ways that you did that in Iraq, of course, was move soldiers out among the people — a neighborhood in Baghdad that maybe only saw American troops driving by would suddenly have Americans living around the corner essentially. Is that what's going to happen in Afghanistan?
You have to always apply the lessons that you learned in one place with a very keen awareness of the situation on the ground in another. And what we did in Baghdad, let's say, is not something that would necessarily work in Afghanistan. First of all, in Baghdad neighborhoods, there were enormous areas that were just literally empty: houses that you could move into, large compounds that we could employ for joint security stations and combat outposts. You don't have empty houses in these little villages of Afghanistan. Moreover, they wouldn't welcome you living among them. It's a different culture, it's a different situation, so what you have to do is provide a security presence that is nonetheless persistent but is not right in among them. And so you establish combat outposts, patrol bases and so forth in the neighborhood, but not within it, if you will.
This must be especially challenging in Afghanistan, where there is a great tradition of hostility to foreign occupation.
That's exactly right, and we have to understand that. Again, it's very important to have a nuanced appreciation of the situation on the ground to appreciate the way the system is supposed to work, the way it actually does work, what are the traditional forms of governance, of social justice and all the rest of that — even as we are helping the central government extend its reach and extend the so-called writ of government.
General Petreaus, thanks very much.
Great to be with you, Steve. Thanks.