U.S. General Defends Pakistan's Anti-Insurgent Fight

Gen. David Petraeus i i
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Gen. David Petraeus
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Gen. David Petraeus, in charge of American troops throughout the Middle East and South Asia, says Pakistan is making strides to root out militants along the border with Afghanistan. He also tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that the country's attitude has changed dramatically and says there needs to be understanding about why Pakistan hasn't yet taken action against some extremists.

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STEVE INSKEEP: Who is on the Pakistani side of the border that is of concern to you when you think about Afghanistan? A couple of names come to mind. I just want you to kind of just tell me who they are, how they operate. Maybe this is a name to start with: Who is Siraj Haqqani?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, the leader of the Haqqani network is a big concern because, although their leadership tends to be occupying an area on the Pakistani side of the border or in that border region, that very mountainous border region, the Haqqani network is one of the syndicate of extremist elements that operate in Regional Command East, in the eastern part of Afghanistan.

In fact, also in various other locations, again, along that border region, the leadership of the Afghanistan Taliban tends to be located in various locations in Pakistan and typically in Baluchistan. It's called the Quetta shura, or the city that is the capital of Baluchistan.

And then there are other elements of, again, the syndicate. There are actually al-Qaida elements. There is the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which is the Pakistani Taliban. That is the extremist element with which the Pakistani military and Frontier Corps have been most seized in Swat Valley and in South Waziristan and so forth — and a number of other organizations that are in there that are of concern either because they are fighting in Eastern or South Afghanistan or because they are a threat to our Pakistani partners or even a transnational threat in terms of extremism.

Well, let's talk about this man, Haqqani, for a moment. He has got a base — is it North Waziristan, which is a chunk of Pakistan by the border?

It is in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. And, again, this is this very mountainous border region that is right on the border with Afghanistan — and, again, is the head of an organization that causes significant problems in Afghanistan and also can cause problems for Pakistani authorities as well.

His network — they send people across the border into Afghanistan? Do they send orders to people who are already on the Afghan side?

All of the above. And, again, very remote areas, very difficult areas, high altitude, eight to 12,000 feet in elevation, at this point in the year, of course, already quite cold, snowy in certain areas already as well. So again, these are very remote areas in which these elements have operated all the way back to the decades in which we funded many of them when they were the mujahedeen who were fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

And so, in some cases, many of the — the existence of these organizations, their initial development was actually a reaction to Soviet occupation and funded by, among others, some of the U.S. contribution to the anti-Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

You mentioned the Quetta shura, a leadership group that seems to be centered on the city of Quetta. What is organized out of Quetta and directed to Afghanistan — Quetta, Pakistan?

Well, I'm not sure that folks will say it's right inside the city or precisely — it will move around and so forth. But it is, again, has historically been centered on that city. And when the Taliban were ejected, defeated along with al-Qaida and other extremist elements that were located in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. In the wake of 9/11, when the operations were launched and these various operations sustained such losses, they dispersed in these very rugged areas of Eastern Afghanistan, the tribal areas of Western Pakistan and then down in the Baluchistan area as well.

And over the course of a number of years — and this is captured very nicely in a cover story in Newsweek of about a month or so ago — over time, they reconnected with their former comrades, started to put their foot back in the water, if you will, in Afghanistan; they would come in for a brief period and then go back out to these areas in which they were regenerating, literally. And then, ultimately, a couple of years ago, started rebuilding the infrastructure for their organizations in quite a serious way, started designating even shadow governors, Taliban shadow governors, which have now been designated, of course, for about 33 of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan.

Somebody who says, I am the governor of this province — secretly, of course, or in hiding — but I am the governor of this province; I am making decisions about life or death and I am waiting for the moment when the Taliban is back in charge of this province. That's what a shadow government is.

Well, they are actually Taliban members who are trying to retake control of these different provinces. And that is what has gone on. Now, there is a degree of change in these. There is internal bickering that takes place; there is discord; there is drama; a lot of other things. And periodically we kill or capture senior Taliban leaders and various of the shadow officials, if you will, that have been designated for different districts and governors and so forth.

Mullah Omar, the former leader of the Taliban, the former ruler of Afghanistan, is one of those who is believed to be hiding on the Pakistan side of the border now, right?

Well, he is in fact the leader of the Afghan Taliban; the leader of the Quetta shura and, indeed, he is generally thought to be located most of the time — if not all the time — in Pakistan.

What in your view is Pakistan doing about those specific threats right now?

Well, I think there was a major development there about nine months or so ago that is very worth discussing. And that is a recognition by the Pakistani population, by virtually all of the political leaders, including the major opposition figure, Nawaz Sharif, for example, and the bulk of the clerics that the most pressing threat to the very existence of Pakistan as they know it is the extremist syndicate, again, and, in particular, the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistani, which was threatening at that time further and further out of Swat Valley in North-West Frontier Province in the northern, northwestern part of Pakistan.

Excuse me. Sure they're going after Taliban elements that they see as attacking inside Pakistan, but they're not going after the elements that we just described who are seen as attacking inside Afghanistan.

In some cases they are. Again, it depends on whether those organizations, needless to say, have posed a threat to the writ of governance, as it's termed, of Pakistan. So in some cases there are literally mutual enemies; in some other cases there are elements that they have not yet gone after. And, in fact, I think we need to be very understanding of this, frankly.

There are — you can only stick so many short sticks into hornets' nests at one time. They have done quite impressive operations in Swat Valley or the North-West Frontier Province to clear and then hold and rebuild that very important area, again, of the NWFP — also several other districts of the Malakand division of the North-West Frontier Province.

They have also conducted operations against others of these extremist elements that are part of the syndicate that particularly does operate in, again, Northwestern Pakistan, Eastern Afghanistan. And those are in, say, the Bajaur, the Mohmand and the Khyber tribal agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Agency.

And then now they have gone after the Pakistani Taliban really in their home, which is Eastern-South Waziristan and now, in fact, they are actually operating in North Waziristan in some of the — in Aurakzai and Kuram of the FATA to go after some of the other organizations that have threatened their lines of communication in the FATA as they have carried out these other operations.

And we should define the —

Inexorably, they are going after some of the other organizations because they are also threatening the writ of governance of Pakistan.

We should define that. They are going into, you believe, the area where this man, Siraj Haqqani, for example, is believed to be based.

Well, first of all, they have always had bases in that area. And frankly, what they have also had is they have had understandings with some of these different organizations, some of which is understandable. Again, let's remember —

Pakistan has had understandings with some of these organizations.

They have. Let's remember that these organizations were originally developed by Pakistani — particularly by the Inter-Services Intelligence organization, the ISI, with our money, during the days of the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

And then, these organizations tended to be hijacked a bit, if you will, by outsiders, in particular Arabs and others who came in, extremists from outside Pakistan, ultimately actually married into local tribal organizations and families in the FATA, which is an area, again, you have to understand has never been completely under the rule of law that the rest of Pakistan has.

So in these very rugged tribal areas, there have been for decades actually, in fact all the way back centuries, there have always been agreements between whoever it was that was attempting to rule that area and those local tribal organizations. And that kind of a relationship has continued as some of these different tribes have been hijacked by these extremist elements that have taken over their valley.

Part of what the Pakistanis are doing is helping these traditional tribal leaders to get back in and control their organizations in places like South Waziristan, as I mentioned, in some of the other Federally Administered Tribal Agency areas.

It sounds like you feel there are limits to what the United States can ask Pakistan to do along the border.

Well, there are limits to how fast we can expect or perhaps demand that Pakistan can take certain action. The fact is that they have shifted a substantial amount of their military capability from, for example, the Indian border, from other locations, indeed to deal with this extremist threat. And I think you cannot underestimate how important the steps they have taken in the last nine or 10 months have been.

They have also taken very significant casualties in these fights with the extremists. And their civilians have suffered severe losses as well, as these extremists have fought back. And again, a good bit of this fighting, of course, has been from the former Baitullah Mehsud organization and from some of the other extremist elements that have — as the Pakistani forces, the frontier corps and the military have gone after them — have indeed then blown up innocent civilians in marketplaces, visiting cricket teams, of course all the way back to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. So they have caused enormous damage to Pakistan. And I think the seriousness with which the Pakistanis have now gone after them is quite significant. But we have to be measured in what we can expect in terms of the pace of these activities.

You mentioned that for about nine months Pakistan has been going heavily against some of these extremist groups along the border. But relatively recently, in October, we interviewed the foreign minister of Pakistan and asked him about Mullah Omar who is believed, as you said, to be hiding frequently on the Pakistani side of the border. And the foreign minister, referring to Mullah Omar and his comrades or colleagues said, quote, "If they were there, we could have traced them out by now. But we don't think that they're there." It doesn't sound like the government of Pakistan agrees with your analysis at all as to who is on the Pakistani side of the border.

Well, first of all, I think, to be fair, the intelligence on the whereabouts of these individuals is sketchy in many cases. I mean, when you come to Osama bin Laden, for example, there hasn't been a confirmed location for him for years — not just months or weeks. But again, so some of this is somewhat open to debate.

But by and large, certainly, we think that the bulk of the leaders of the Quetta shura spend at least a reasonable amount of time in various locations in Pakistan.

Why don't the Pakistanis agree with that?

But we can't give them the geocoordinates right here, right now for, you name it, Mullah Omar or some of the other senior leaders.

Is there a bit of a dance that goes on, in that you say, we have intelligence generally that we think they're in Pakistan. They say, show us exactly where. You say, it's your country. You've got the local people on the ground. You need to find them. And they say, no, show us exactly where they are.

I think we're a little bit past that point, candidly, Steve. I mean, let's remember that, number one, manhunts are pretty difficult. I think, wasn't it Eric Rudolph who was in our own country and our — in a relatively small area and managed to hide out for I don't know how many months or years before he finally made a mistake and actually came out when he got hungry or something like this.

I was part of the manhunt for Radovan Karadzic, for example, in the Balkans for a period of time.

Accused war criminal, yeah.

And Milosevic and so forth, yeah, war criminals from the Balkans. And these are very, very difficult. And you have a sense of where someone is. But again, senses don't provide geocoordinates to people. And so, I think you have to be somewhat tolerant, again, of also how fast the dynamic can change. And there has been a significant shift over the course of the last nine, 10 months, as I mentioned.

Our effort is designed to enable them, to support them as they go forward with this, recognizing that there has been the senior leaders of the extremist elements of al-Qaida and the other syndicate elements have sustained some very serious losses over the course of the last year. Some were certainly over 12 or more of a list of top 20 leaders of these organizations have been killed during that time. That's quite substantial progress that has put these organizations under significant pressure. And the actions by the Pakistanis —at considerable loss to their military and frontier corps — and also considerable sacrifice by their civilians have been very impressive. And I think we have to note that and we should not dismiss that as nothing very substantial, because it is very significant.

Can you win in Afghanistan so long as there are apparently safe havens for some of your enemies crossing the border to Pakistan?

Well, clearly to continue to make progress, to keep taking the efforts to the next level, there have to be complementary efforts on either side of the border because, by the way, they will complain about certain activities where, say, we have evacuated a combat outpost on the other side of the border and will present claims or intelligence that say that such and such a leader just skirted across the border and why didn't you guys get him?

So there's clearly the need for very, very close coordination for very much a two-way street, very much sharing and all the rest of that. And ideally, we want to build that not just with us as the go-between but ideally over time the respective intelligence organizations of Pakistan and Afghanistan leaders of the two countries and so forth could coordinate that as well. But again, there's a lot of history here. And nine months of progress against extremists in Pakistan has achieved a good bit. But we have a very long way to go in that regard.

But getting back to that fundamental question, can you win so long as there are safe havens outside of Afghanistan for the people you're fighting?

Depends how large the safe havens and sanctuaries are, obviously. And again, the objective is to see those whittled down on either side of the border. Again, there has to be a continued level of pressure and progress in that regard.

I want to get to the numbers of troops that are being deployed in Afghanistan. The president has said another 30,000 will go. It was widely understood that Gen. McChrystal, the commander there, initially wanted 40,000, although he gave a number of options. What will he not be able to do because he does not have quite as many troops as he had asked for?

Well, a couple of dynamics here: When he asked for those, of course, that was based on a mission set that came out of the late March policy decision and there's been a sharpening — a refinement, if you will, of the objectives and the tasks that need to be performed, with a focusing, for example, on key population center security, lines of communication, production centers and so forth.

So in that sense, there has been a refinement of what he needs to do. Also, of course, there will be additional forces provided by NATO probably somewhere in the five to 7,000 range, plus some non-NATO contributors as well. So by and large, as a result of all of that, we're quite satisfied, frankly, with the outcome of this and with, also, the contribution that's going to come from the civilian and in the funding realm as well.

In the sharpening of the goals, as you said, what's something that may have seemed desirable for Gen. McChrystal to do that is not going to be done because it was decided that's not as essential?

Well, you certainly don't need to secure the every inch of Afghanistan. We don't need to try to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland. Again, there are certain elements that are good enough, if you will. Re-establishing local social structures, organizing structures, for example, is very much part of what we're trying to do; not, again, trying to recreate Denmark or something like that or, you know, an advanced, Western society in a country that has a very different history than those of those societies.

Although you're still trying to provide security, prop up the government, encourage rule of law, improve the economy — it's a pretty wide range of —

Lots of daunting tasks. There's no question that there are many challenging tasks that have to be performed and that none of it will be easy.

When you say securing population centers, some analysts have asked, does that mean you are abandoning large swaths of the countryside, or at least deciding that large parts of the countryside are not so essential to protect?

Well, again, you don't have to control every single inch of Afghanistan to make sure that they are not sanctuaries or safe havens. So it's really about focusing on areas in which, again, there are substantial populations, in which you want to develop Afghan security forces who can take over the tasks from us over time, where we want to try to promote the government of, first, local governmental structures, then at the district level, the province level and so forth to connect with national structures, all of which, or course — or a number of which — focused number of which need assistance in a variety of different ways, including, of course, helping them to combat the corruption that has caused problems for this government with respect to its people.

And it was heartening, frankly, to hear the messages in President Karzai's inaugural address a few weeks ago and, more importantly, to see the actions that have been taken in recent weeks against some fairly high-level officials. And we need to follow those cases, indeed, and if the outcomes are what we hope they are, to applaud pretty vigorously.

There are obviously lots of different ways that armies have battled insurgents — some of them very slow and patient and some of them, very brutal. You now face a demand to make a lot of progress very quickly in Afghanistan against a very strong insurgency. Do you believe that's going to be possible without being brutal — in a way that you have wanted your soldiers and Marines and others to behave?

Well, I think it has to be, actually. I don't think we're in the mode of the brutal approach. We have an admonition that was part of the counterinsurgency guidance that I issued in Iraq that was titled "Live our Values." And we mean that. And every time that we have taken expedient measures in recent years, it has inevitable turned around and bitten us in the backside.

There are two reasons, in fact, to live your values. I mean, one is there's a moral obligation to do that, I think. For those who aren't convinced by that, they should recognize that, as I mentioned, every time we have violated those values, it has turned out to be more than counterproductive.

So what we have to do is to do this the right way. That doesn't mean that we shrink from killing or capturing or running off bad guys. That's what we do. But it also doesn't mean that we shrink from holding out a hand to those who might be wiling to renounce violence, as we did in Iraq, over time, and as was actually part of the president's speech. I think he used those words as well.

So we have learned a good bit about counterinsurgency operations in recent years. There's no question but that counterterrorist operations are a component of that. There's also no question but that reconciliation is a component of counterinsurgency operations. And then in the middle, of course, is population security, support for development of a variety of different endeavors, supporting the civilian component as they, indeed, seek to complement and to capitalize on what it is that our troopers on the ground accomplish.

But knowing, as you do, that it is so hard and takes so much training and discipline for a military force to act amid a civilian population and only hit the right people and not the wrong people, how difficult is it going to be to train Afghans — many thousands of Afghans — very quickly to take over that task?

Again, I think as Gen. McChrystal has said, actually — and I agree with this — he has described the situation as serious but the mission as doable. And I would support that assessment. There is nothing easy about anything in Afghanistan. It's all hard and it's hard all the time. But this is what we need to do and it's what we're going to strive to do.

It sounds like that is a great challenge. Have we touched on, maybe, the greatest challenge here — getting Afghans ready that quickly?

Well, certainly, the Afghan security force development is one of the long poles in this overall tent. I would submit that, probably, the efforts to combat corruption are quite substantial as tasks, as well, as are just the sheer efforts to develop human capital in a country where illiteracy is 60, 70 percent or more.

Again, there's no shortage of challenges in Afghanistan, but we have seen that where we do this properly, that progress is possible. And what we're now going to do is employ a substantial amount of additional resources to try to do just that.

If you had 50,000 American recruits — just to pick a number — raw recruits, just enlisted — would you feel confident that 18 months from now, you could have them all ready to fight a sophisticated counterinsurgency campaign?

Well, the fact is that, that is actually what we do. In fact, it would be interesting to find out how many raw recruits come into, for example, the Army and the Marine Corps each year in the United States and how quickly —

Might be more than 50,000, sure.

I think it is, actually — and how quickly they are transformed into troopers who can perform quite sophisticated operations. Now, having said that, they are fortunate to have leaders who now have a considerable amount of experience.

The fact is, though, that of our brigades that go into a place like Iraq or Afghanistan, typically 40 to 50 percent of them will not have had combat experience — will not have been in Iraq or Afghanistan before. But the leaders have, and that is an important component. And again, developing leaders is a long pole within a long pole, if you will, when it comes to Afghan security force development.

Gen. Petraeus, thanks very much.

Pleasure to be with you again, Steve.

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