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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep. Renee Montagne is reporting this week on the promise and danger of talking with Afghanistan's Taliban. The challenge is reintegrating insurgents into society and reconciling with their leaders. Renee spoke about that with the American now commanding the fight, General David Petraeus.

RENEE MONTAGNE: To get to the generals office in Kabul, one passes by the flags of all the countries that make up NATOs International Security and Assistance Force, or ISAF. The wall directly behind his desk is filled with images of Afghans - the most powerful a large painting of Afghan horsemen, traditional robes flowing above pounding hooves, as horses and men charge right at us.

We began our conversation with the campaign that's just begun in the southern city of Kandahar. That's the heartland of the insurgency, which makes it a key area to take back. General David Petraeus pointed to one area in the city called Malajot(ph), where Afghan forces, soldiers and police, took the lead in going after insurgents there, and he says succeeded.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army): Well, a month ago it was a sanctuary for certain elements of the Taliban who were carrying out assassinations, intimidation activities, extortion and a variety of other illicit acts.

MONTAGNE: So (unintelligible) owned this district.

Gen. PETRAEUS: They largely controlled it. That Malajot district was one in which the Taliban had freedom of movement, freedom of access, and again, considerable influence in that area.

MONTAGNE: Now what's going to stop the Taliban from just not flowing back in?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Really, two important components to that. One is that forces have to stay. They have to, again, establish not just a presence, but a degree of control again, over Kandahar city as a whole. The second is intelligence. This is really about having the population alert the security forces when the Taliban try to return. Our sense is that the people were happy to see the Taliban leave...

MONTAGNE: Were they happy, though, to see the Afghan police come in? Because the Afghan police had their own problem with a reputation for shaking people down.

Gen. PETRAEUS: There is truth, in fact, to the fact that the police, in particular, have image problems that are based on reality, that the police in certain areas have been less a force of serving the people and more a force, in some cases, of actually carrying out predatory actions. But with them were also Afghan army forces, who generally have a good reputation with the people, and then the civil order police. So it's a combination of all these forces together, each watching the other, frankly, as well, that has made this go more smoothly than it might have been if it had just been one of those forces by itself.

MONTAGNE: Weve just come down from what was once the peaceful north of Afghanistan. It is now greatly under pressure from Taliban forces. What happened there? Where are they coming from?

Gen. PETRAEUS: It's a process that has actually been ongoing for years, but it is most marked over the course of the last year. What has happened is that the Taliban each year has sought to expand the areas in which it's able to operate. There are Pashtu elements, as you may know, up in the north, even though the north, by and large, rejected and fought against the Taliban during the Afghan civil war and so forth...

MONTAGNE: And Pashtu (unintelligible)

Gen. PETRAEUS: And this is a Pashtu insurgency, by and large.

MONTAGNE: It's a Pashtu insurgency.

Gen. PETRAEUS: The Taliban is Pashtu. But indeed, they have sought to expand, as you would expect, and what we have sought to do is, we have gotten additional forces, and as additional Afghan elements have come on line, is obviously to counter those.

MONTAGNE: But was that because the - NATO dropped the ball - ISAF international forces dropped the ball, weren't paying attention, weren't prepared to fight?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, as I have said publicly as well, we have spent the last 18 months in Afghanistan striving to get the inputs right in Afghanistan, after looking very hard at it, as a number of us came out of Iraq in late 2008, the final weeks literally of the Bush administration, the early months of the Obama administration, and recognized that we did not have in place the organizations in some cases, the people, the plans, and above all the resources that were necessary to carry out the kind of comprehensive civil military counterinsurgency campaign that is necessary to achieve our core objectives. But the fact is that this was an economy of force effort for years and it was not until just recently that we have approached the point at which we could say that we broadly have the inputs right.

MONTAGNE: So reintegration and reconciliation and talk that's growing louder here about some sort of negotiated peace. But in the midst of that, President Karzai has gone so far as to say that NATO forces cannot win this war. That's -how helpful is that?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, I have said the same thing.

MONTAGNE: How damaging is that to your mission?

Gen. PETRAEUS: I've said the same thing. It's not at all damaging. This is reality. As I said in Iraq, when I was the commander there, you dont 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. In the case of Iraq, we reconciled with tens of thousands. It was, in Iraq, a major decision. We were actually going to sit down with individuals who had our blood on their hands and talk about reconciliation. Again, you're not going to kill or capture your way. Military action is absolutely necessary, but it is not sufficient.

MONTAGNE: While you were working with what is a certain there's a certain tension in fighting and dying at a point when you're goal is to not to win the war but to bring back into the fold what you're fighting...

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, winning winning is achieving your objectives in an effort like this. Again, we have to remember this is not a conventional battle, it's not a conventional war in which you take the hill or take a country, you plant the flag, and you go home to a victory parade. It is slow progress. You take steps forward, but you also take steps backward. And indeed, the political activity, that component, is a very important element in the overall approach. That's why we call it a comprehensive campaign.

MONTAGNE: In Iraq you were working in a situation where you did not have an exit date. Here in Afghanistan, people - Afghans, I think it's fair to say, mostly understand the date of initial withdrawal of troops that President Obama has set, that's July of next year, to be an exit date. I mean, how do you work with a date that says one thing in America and says a different thing here in Afghanistan?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, with respect let me just remind you, though, that when I was the commander in Iraq and when I testified in September 2007, my recommendation at that time, the first surge brigade would redeploy without replacement in December of that year. The idea of some date out there is not unprecedented. We have sought to explain repeatedly that July 2011 is not the date at which the United States and the other countries of the ISAF coalition head for the exits and reach for the light switch to turn it out before we close the door.

MONTAGNE: Right, but it's hard to explain that now, when people hear heard it that way in the first place, here.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, we just have to continue to explain it. There's also no question, of course, that the insurgents try to use this, saying that of course this is when America is going to head home. And as Secretary Gates said recently, if that's what they believe, they will be sorely disappointed next summer.

MONTAGNE: Do you think - you're a student of history, quite a serious one - do you think having now been here for this period of time that Afghanistan would have been different nine years later had the U.S. never gone into Iraq?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, I'll leave that for history. We'll have to see how this plays out. I did mention earlier, though, that this was an economy of force effort and there was a reason why it was an economy of force effort. But again, I'm not going to we've reached a point in this effort where we've long since felt it was time to take the rearview mirrors off the bus and look forward, and I think that's what I need to do.

MONTANGE: Can I come back and ask you that in five, 10 years?

Gen. PETRAEUS: If you can find me.

MONTAGNE: I'll track you down. General Petraeus, thank you very much.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: General David Petraeus is commander of international forces in Afghanistan, and he was speaking to us from his office here in Kabul.

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