NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. General David Petraeus gets much of the credit for the changes that greatly helped reduce violence in Iraq. And for his trouble, he now gets to oversee not just Iraq but Afghanistan as well. He's now commander-in-chief of Central Command. He is in Washington today to testify to Congress about a conflict that is not going so well. U.S. officials concede that the Taliban continues to get stronger in Afghanistan. U.S. forces there are said to increase from 38,000 now to 68,000 later this year.
Today, the Senate Armed Services Committee learned that the U.S. commander in Afghanistan would like 10,000 more. Well, if you served in Afghanistan or Iraq, give us a call. What will it take? Our phone number 800-989-8255, e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. General Petraeus joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have on TALK OF THE NATION.
General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander-In-Chief, Central Command): Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And you famously said Afghanistan is a conflict we cannot kill or capture our way to victory in. Why do we need more troops?
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, we need more troops to provide the security together with our Afghan and coalition partners so that a variety of other tasks can also be performed. You have to provide security for the people. They have to be with you, in a sense. You have to be seen to serve them. And we cannot achieve that threshold of security that's necessary to make the progress in terms of governance of the provision of basic services of improving their basic quality of life without indeed having the additional forces on the ground.
CONAN: And that sounds very similar to the principles that you applied in Iraq that the first - the first priority had to be to protect the people. Is that right?
Gen. PETRAEUS: That's exactly right. In fact, in the guidance that we issued then, the very first words were that we had to secure and serve the people and to be seen by the way, by the people to be doing that. In Afghanistan, it's almost even more important because it's a country that has never taken kindly to those who would be conquerors, if you will, or outsiders. So we have to be very sensitive to that. And you have to have a nuanced appreciation of the differences between Afghanistan and Iraq when applying lessons that we did learn in Iraq over time and applied there. And as we now shift our focus in many respects to Afghanistan and also to helping the Pakistani military with their effort.
CONAN: Two very different countries however: Iraq more populous, a much more urban country than Afghanistan, which is nearly twice its size, obviously extremely mountainous, very rugged.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, you're exactly right. In fact, I gave a speech here in Washington at the U.S. Institute of Peace a couple of months ago that pointed out specifically all the differences between Afghanistan and Iraq. And in fact, cautioned that we not, in a rote manner, apply what we learned in Iraq, in Afghanistan. Having said that, many of the basic principles, as you noted, do necessarily obtain. And the first of these again comes back to the provision of security for the people.
CONAN: One difference - another difference is that, the forces against which you're battling in Afghanistan appear to have pretty much of a safe sanctuary across the border in Pakistan. And many questioned the dedication of Pakistan's government to eradicating those forces.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, you're right. There is no question but that there are safe havens and sanctuaries, areas particularly in the federally administered tribal areas of the rugged Western border region of Pakistan. Also then down and their farther west region in Baluchistan, south of Afghanistan. And in these areas indeed this so-called syndicate - that term that General McKiernan, the commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, uses to describe the group of al-Qaida and the other extremist allies that they have there together with the Afghan Taliban.
All of whom can cause serious problems and do cause serious problems in Afghanistan. And so there's no question but that the Pakistani military, and really the whole of the Pakistani government, has to take action. Now this is important not just for the effort in Afghanistan, this is important to Pakistan because as they increasingly recognize the leaders there, the most important existential threat - the most important threat to Pakistan's very existence is these internal extremists. It's not India anymore, their traditional enemy against whom they have a huge number of military forces arrayed.
And as they shift their own intellectual focus and go through a process almost similar to what our military did several years ago when we transitioned from the focus on conventional military operations, sort of the Desert Storm Model if you will, to one that looked at complex counter-insurgency operations still having offense and defense but now a very substantial component of stability and support operations - that is a very wrenching transformation. That's particularly difficult if you still do have an enemy, in their view India, across the border that vastly outnumbers them in population, economic resources and in terms of military capabilities.
CONAN: One more question then we'll get some callers on the line. And again we want to hear from those of you who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, what do you think it's going to take? 800-989-8255, e-mail us email@example.com. Our guest of course is General David Petraeus.
As you know many in Pakistan believe that the United States is waging war against some forces in the western part of that country, that rugged border area with those drone attacks that we read about that appear two, three times a week, sometimes to be killing 10 people here, 20 people there - too many civilians they say. The attack in Lahore against a police barracks just the other day, well, announced by the Pakistani Taliban to be in retaliation for U.S. raids.
They say you're destabilizing the country. And that the government there looks impotent and looks like it's in bed with Americans, which does not help a fragile government in Islamabad.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, many good points that you've just made there in fact, Neal. This is a government that's just a new - renewed democracy of course. The government that just has been in place now for about a year. President Zardari, Prime Minister Gillani and their team really trying to solidify the structures after a number of years of non-democratic rule. Their country has been through this several times before. So rebuilding that foundation, dealing with the kinds of political challenges that they have had and frankly being against an enemy who is extraordinarily skilled in what we term information operations is a big challenge for them.
This enemy will use any reason they can, of course, to try to put a wedge between the Pakistani government and the United States and others who are trying to help the Pakistanis to deal with the common threat. The fact is again that the threat in the Fatah one that is probably more of an existential threat to the Pakistani government and state and people than it is to the rest of the world. Although clearly, again, the individuals who are there, some of them were behind the 9/11 attacks, were behind the attacks at - in the airport in the U.K., other attacks in Western Europe and as well as attacks of course in Afghanistan and in India.
So this is a skillful enemy and it's an enemy that wants to hang on to the sanctuaries and safe havens that they have. And again it is very much in Pakistan's interest, not just in our interest and that of our Western allies, that these sanctuaries not be permitted any longer. The short-term deals that they have cut in the past have obviously not turned out very well for them.
CONAN: In your view, do the drone attacks help or hurt?
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, let me just say that we never on those, that type of operation. We never go into detail about those, never confirm nor deny. It is noteworthy, though, that as the director of Central Intelligence noted back before the turn of the year that a significant number of the top 20 of the extremist leaders in the federally administered tribal areas have been killed or captured.
In fact, the number is 10 of 20, nine of those killed and one more captured by Pakistani forces. That has an enormously disruptive effect. He explained that effect in a speech that was generally little reported on, but it was a significant announcement.
CONAN: Let's go to the phones, 800-989-8255. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah(ph), Sarah's with us from Tacoma, Washington.
SARAH (Caller): Hi. My husband is currently Special Forces in the Army. He's on his third deployment right now and will be going back to Afghanistan in the fall. And I was wondering, when they come home, they, you know, we have all kinds of stories that we hear, but he always says how can we expect to win the war when he's being shot at, he has to ask permission before he can return fire.
Or when they - somebody they're after is in a building, they need to go up and knock on the door because they can't just kick the door down because they're told the military's worried about the collateral damage. So I'm just curious as to how, you know, he's been there three times. He's dealt with a lot of stuff, and you know, this is what I'm getting from him, how frustrated he is because they're always, oh, don't do this, don't do that.
And he - his weapon discharged once, just, they were sitting outside their Humvee, the weapon discharged into the sand, and he almost got discharged from the Army because he couldn't account for that bullet. So I'm just curious as to how we're ever going to win when there's such strict guidelines on what our soldiers are able to do over there under fire.
CONAN: Let's get an answer from General Petraeus.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, Sarah, let me just start by thanking you for what your husband's done and also thanking you for the sacrifices that your family has made during his long deployments.
SARAH: Thank you.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Let me just set one thing straight. Soldiers don't have to ask permission to pull the trigger. There are very clear rules of engagement and the ultimate rule is that you never surrender the right of self-defense. And so if someone is threatening them or certainly shooting at them, they have every right to return fire, or to engage an enemy who's declared hostile, if you will, and to take him out.
So that may be a little bit garbled in transmission. And to be fair, there are frustrations that our soldiers have. We've all had those over time, but that is not - that should not be the cause of them. Beyond that, there is a very real concern about civilian casualties. And so we have gone to great lengths to try to avoid those because this is another area that, understandably, undermines the trust of the people.
It undermines the entire effort that we're trying to put forth to be seen to be serving the people and securing them. And the enemy uses civilians, in some cases, tries to create situations in these small villages and so forth, and very rugged areas, where we will almost be forced to engage as civilians.
So the units on the ground, the commanders on the ground have indeed taken steps whenever possible to try to minimize to the greatest extent possible, risk to civilian lives.
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CONAN: Sarah, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
SARAH: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking today with General David Petraeus, commander in chief of CENTCOM, normally based in Tampa, in town today to testify to Congress, with us today in studio 3A. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Our guest this hour is General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, he oversees all U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Washington today to testify about the president's new strategy in Afghanistan.
He appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning. Now he's taking your calls. If you've served in Iraq or Afghanistan, what'll it take? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Michael from Fayette, Alabama.
MICHAEL (Caller): Good afternoon. I'm really grateful and honored to be able to speak to General Petraeus. My main concern, I would have to agree with him, is about the impression that we're giving to ordinary Afghani people and Pakistani people - I don't know how to say it - the civilians, and I understand the previous caller's, her husband's frustrations.
Her wonderful husband needs to realize that some of those guidelines are for - to keep the Taliban from, you know, winning over the hearts and minds of the civilians to someday shoot him or any of our other soldiers one of these days. We, ourselves, are not in Afghanistan, but we do have a next door neighbor who was, and I do have a brother…
CONAN: And Michael, please. A lot of people, can you get to the question?
MICHAEL: My question is, towards that end, I don't know what all has happened lately. The news media hasn't told us about rebuilding the infrastructure in Afghanistan, not only with child-sponsorship charities and other charities, with foreign humanitarian aid there, but also with roads and highways, other types of agriculture like they used to grow before the Soviets invaded, alternatives to the Taliban. You know, in treating them - what's the word - tempting them to grow poppies because it pays more.
And I do remember the wealthier countries in Western Europe, New Zealand, Australia, et cetera, promised to join with the United States to help rebuild it, but how much of that has been done for the rebuilding of Afghanistan infrastructure since then?
CONAN: Let's give General Petraeus a chance to respond.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, you've highlighted a very good point, Michael, in fact. And first of all, let me just say that you're exactly right that the guidelines that govern the use of force, if you will, are indeed very important, and they are intended, in fact, to avoid alienating the population that we're actually trying to secure and serve.
In fact, General McKiernan, the commander, the NATO commander, in Afghanistan recently issued counterinsurgency guidance that gets right to this. And we think the operationalization of that guidance over time will certainly help our troopers who are on the ground.
With respect to rebuilding the infrastructure, that's an enormously important task, and I should actually point out that it's not rebuilding. Unlike in Iraq where it was reconstruction, in Afghanistan, in many respects, this is building or construction. Afghanistan didn't have much at all back in the 1970s before they went through these decades of war that have since destroyed much of what it was that they had, but that effort has been ongoing since 2002.
There have actually been a number of important areas of progress in terms of paving roads, building roads, building schools, extending health clinic access and also in the effort to combat illegal narcotics, although the authorities for that were recently revised last year to provide General McKiernan and his troopers much better capabilities and authorities to take on that very, very difficult mission.
The fact is that the illegal narcotics industry provides a good bit of the money that funds the insurgency. It's the oxygen in the movement, in many respects. And as you pointed out, you have to provide alternatives. You have to provide alternative livelihoods. You just can't mow down the crop and tell them, so be it. You have to provide them some other way of earning a living and that's a hugely important part of the overall effort.
CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call. I just wanted to follow up. Does it help that the Karzai government is so widely perceived as being corrupt and inefficient, ineffective? He's often portrayed as the Mayor of Kabul.
Gen. PETRAEUS: It does not. And first of all, just to be fair, I think we should remember the very courageous actions that he took in the very beginning, entering the country in the midst of the toppling of the Taliban, risking his very life, actually, enormous physical danger, almost captured at one point in time, and has done, contributed tremendously to the development of the new Afghanistan.
But there's no question, also, that there are perceptions and realities of corruption in the governance that have grown over time, of linkages to the illegal narcotics industry and so forth. Ambassador Holbrooke, my diplomatic wingman as we sometimes call him, talks of the cancer of corruption that literally eats at the legitimacy of the government in Afghanistan.
President Karzai has very much acknowledged this. He has taken this on. We actually had the representative of the Pakistani embassy with us last night for an event. And they, in fact, fully recognize it, they acknowledge it. And now, frankly, it is incumbent on them to do something about it in a very concrete way.
CONAN: Let's get Lance on the line. Lance calling from Denver, Colorado.
LANCE (Caller): Hi. My question has to do with sort of the bottom line. Our stated purpose for being in Afghanistan is to prevent the re-growth of the training camps and the safe havens, and I'm wondering why that couldn't be done from the air or by increased surveillance as opposed to sending in more troops and attempting to, you know, pull a 10th century country into the 21st century.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, Lance, that's a great question, and in fact, it was a point of some debate during the Afghanistan-Pakistan , the AFAR strategy review, as it came to be known. The fact is this is actually what we tried to do before 9/11. You may recall that we launched cruise missiles into what we thought were camps and were indeed.
We tried a variety of different means, but the fact is that when you do it from afar, it is generally ineffective. And indeed, that was the case at that time. And those sanctuaries existed. They were able from those locations to plan, and then, in a sense, launch what ultimately became the 9/11 attacks.
So, not allowing the very group that allowed those sanctuaries to be created in the first place, that's the Taliban, and of course, allowed al-Qaida to establish those safe havens, and training camps and command and control facilities, is indeed truly a vital interest of the United States. And I think that President Obama sought to focus attention on that quite effectively in his speech this past Friday.
CONAN: Thanks, Lance.
LANCE: Thank you.
CONAN: All right. As you know far better than I, those same groups have now established training camps in Pakistan, in the western part of that country. As you know better than I, the head of the Pakistani Taliban said yesterday that he would soon launch an attack against the United States, against Washington, D.C. that would amaze the world. Can the United States tolerate those camps in western Pakistan?
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, at the end of the day, the answer of course is no. Now, having said that, what we want to do very much, what the Pakistanis want us to do is to enable them, to help them, to assist them as they deal with what is an extremist threat to their own country. No country in the world has suffered more from al-Qaida and its affiliates, including Bitola Meshed, who's the individual that issued this threat.
And by the way, of course people are taking that very seriously. I talked to a senior official of the National Security Council staff this morning about this. Having said that, there are questions about that particular group's transnational capacity. But over time, what has to happen, of course, is that the Pakistanis are able to develop the kinds of not just counterterrorist capabilities, this is much bigger than that.
This requires a counterinsurgency approach that is a whole of government, not just military, but also the other elements of the Pakistani government to go in and literally over time, to clear, hold and build in these areas that currently contain sanctuaries.
CONAN: Would you like to be able to send troops in there?
Gen. PETRAEUS: I don't think so. And not just because we don't want to risk our troops needlessly, if you will, or - but the fact is the Pakistanis are willing to do this. What they need is greater capacity and capability to do it. And as I explained on Capitol Hill today, the resources in some of the various requests that are out there would help us to help them in a much more effective way.
CONAN: Let's get Scott on the line, Scott calling from Jacksonville, North Carolina.
SCOTT (Caller): Yes. General Petraeus, first of all, sir, it's an honor and a pleasure to speak to you. I am an active duty Navy physician serving with the Marine Corps, and I've been to Iraq twice. Sir, my question and my concern is just I've had a chance to see kind of the emotional toll that, as you well know, sir, the long deployments and now with us going into Afghanistan, what you thought, how we're going to be able to sustain this, not only for the troops, but just for the families, the children, everyone involved, long term.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, Scott, first of all, doctor, thank you for taking good care of our troopers during your tours in Iraq. There's been an interesting phenomenon in Iraq and that is that we watched, in a sense, morale. We actually conduct surveys of our own soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen in theaters like Iraq. And we were concerned to watch it go down year after year. And then all of a sudden, as we started to make progress, morale is measured by this survey and that may be a different term for it, but they started feeling much better about what was going on.
And we think again that a great deal of this, of course, is if they feel that they are doing something that is of enormous importance to our country, they see their fellow citizens recognizing the sacrifices that they and their families are making, and they see progress being made in such an important task, they are willing to make continued sacrifices to do that. I have to say I'm pretty familiar with this, having - my family is.
SCOTT: Yeah, absolutely.
Gen. PETRAEUS: I've been deployed for five of the last seven and a half years, and I think that they also all felt better as, indeed, we saw progress being achieved in Iraq. And although, as I always caution, it remains fragile and reversible, it is certainly a much, much better place than it was back, say, two years ago, as you know.
SCOTT: Absolutely, sir.
CONAN: Scott, are you due to go back?
SCOTT: They are telling us potentially we could be going to Afghanistan sometime around the fall. We've been back for about six weeks now. So, you know, it'll be interesting, and like I said, it's always a pleasure. You know, I tell people I have the privilege to serve with some of the finest people in the world. You know, I've been, you know, did medical on the civilian side and being in the Marine Corps, or being with the Marines as a navy officer, it's been one of the most rewarding situations.
And also trying, you know, like anyone can say, it's certainly difficult being away from home. But, you know, like you said, sir, it's - it definitely will be interesting to see how this all pans out. So…
CONAN: Scott, your experience explains why one of the nicest insults in the world is squid.
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SCOTT: I get it all the time, unfortunately. But, you know, you take it with a grain of salt, and laugh and it's always fun. So, I just - it's certainly an honor to speak with the general. So, thank you, sir. Thank you for your service.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Thank you, Scott.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Scott. Good luck to you.
SCOTT: You're welcome. Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with General David Petraeus. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And you were just talking about Iraq. Obviously, we've been focusing on Afghanistan where the policy is new. You have not taken your eyes off that particular ball. We would not be wise to take our eyes off that particular ball. There has been tremendous progress in reducing the level of violence. Nevertheless, there are some troubling indications from Iraq as well, reports today that as U.S. forces leave some places, insurgents are moving back in.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well - and we have always expected that there would be some who would, in a sense, wade us out. But the fact is that what used to be 180 attacks per day - which is a vast number, it's almost hard to imagine, it dwarfs the number of attacks, for example, in Afghanistan - is now somewhere between 10 and 15 attacks. And that includes criminal actions. Now, to be sure, some of these are still suicide-bomber attacks and attacks that are - that represent the latent capability, though much reduced, of al-Qaida and its Sunni extremist partners.
And also of the Iranian-supported Shia extremist elements, the residual militia elements, the - and a number of others that we used to bundle together calling them special groups. So these still exist. In addition, there are still Arab-Kurd tensions. There are disputed boundaries issues. There are internal political-wrangling challenges. But there also were successful provincial elections, and we should see those provincial councils seated within the next two weeks.
There are budget pressures that are substantial because of the reduction in the price of oil, the major source of revenue for Iraq. There's the integration of the so-called Sons of Iraq, these individuals that stood up and said, we'll help protect our neighborhood if you'll get al-Qaida out of them, but now the Iraqis are taking over their salaries and have taken over about 80 to 90 percent of them so far.
CONAN: Yet, just this week, we had reports of the Iraqi Awakening group in Baghdad, well, engaging in firefights with the U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, this is a special case. An individual named Fadil Mashaddani(ph), in truth, this discussion began well back when I was still the commander in Iraq with Prime Minister Maliki. We knew that this individual has implicated allegedly a criminal boss, basically. So, yes, he did help achieve peace in his neighborhood but, he was also extorting, kidnapping and carrying out violent actions.
So, this is a sense, as with the militia, where we knew there was going to have to be an operation, the decision was finally made to conduct it. There were a couple of days of real tough business down there in the area of Fadil, of Baghdad that he controlled, but that seems to have been passed through now, and we'll see how this goes along from here.
CONAN: Some of the success in Iraq due to dealing with people who, backgrounds were questionable, to say the least. Is that going to have to be the same policy in Afghanistan, the so-called moderate Taliban?
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, this is the issue of the reconcilables and the irreconcilables. This is a whole endeavor that requires a very, very nuanced understanding of local communities and areas. And what has to happen is our soldiers have to be so detailed in their knowledge of the situation that they can identify who the no-kidding irreconcilables are. These are the true extremists who are never going to become part of the solution and will remain part of the problem. They literally have to be killed, captured or run off.
That leaves the remainder, who in many cases, have, because they were intimated, paid or just tacitly went along with the bad guys, accepted the bad guys in their neighborhood. And they can then be embraced and the traditional authority structures can be returned to an area and they can move forward.
CONAN: And we'll end with this email from Gary in San Antonio. I think if the U.S. mission in Iraq is to be a success, it will due almost entirely to the tremendous efforts of General Petraeus. I think it can easily be said he's taught us much about how we will succeed in future conflict with insurgent groups. However, I must ask an important question: What was it like to toss the coin at the Super Bowl?
Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, let me just say that this was a team effort. And it was truly a team of teams. This was everybody. And it wasn't just U.S., it was coalition, it was courageous Iraqis, it was everybody achieving unity of effort in an important task. And as to flipping the coin, I felt like a pretty small individual out there next to all these guys who were kitted up, and 6'5", and weighed twice what I did and unfortunately, can probably run twice as fast.
CONAN: General Petraeus, thanks very much for your time today.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Thank you. Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: Coming up, April Fool's day, we want to hear one good joke. Stay with us. This is NPR News.