Interview with ISAF Commander Petraeus We're Not 'Going to Turn Afghanistan into Switzerland'
Troops, money and a plan were long lacking in the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a SPIEGEL interview, ISAF Commander David Petraeus, discusses these failures with unusual frankness. The general says he is concerned about the increasingly symbiotic relationship between terror groups in the region.
SPIEGEL: General, we are meeting on the day of the Afghan parliamentary elections. A recent poll conducted by Kabul University and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German political think tank, found that 70 percent of the Afghan population have no confidence in their national parliament at all. Sixty-five percent aren't satisfied with the government's performance. What does that mean for your work?
Petraeus: There are other polls that show that Afghans are optimistic about their future. But I agree, some of these polls show understandable concern about the pace of progress, which also means that there are high expectations. When you look at what has happened in Afghanistan since the beginning of this operation, you'll see enormous achievements. We're talking about thousands of kilometers of roads built. We have, compared to the situation before, seven or eight times the number of children going to school, including girls. You can find broad access to primary health care throughout the country. But all of this has taken place in a context that has seen the Taliban and some of the other extremist insurgent elements coming back and establishing safe havens and sanctuaries. That process has played out in 2002 and 2003 and in increasing numbers each year. It is only now that we are taking steps to reverse them.
SPIEGEL: The whole effort started nine years ago. Why did it take so long to show this kind of more decisive action?
Petraeus: Because the operation was what the military would call an economy-of-force effort for many years. We have spent the last 18 months doing what I call getting the inputs right. The fact is that we did not have the organizations that are necessary for conducting a comprehensive military counterinsurgency campaign together with our Afghan partners. In other cases we didn't have the right people in place, we didn't have sufficient plans and concepts and above all we didn't have the resources, beginning with sufficient troops, civilians and even funding. That has changed: Over the course of the last one-and-a-half years, the United States alone has added some 60,000 additional troops on the ground, we have tripled the number of special forces and of civilians in Afghanistan and funds were provided for 100,000 additional Afghan forces. Other countries have also made notable contributions. This is not to say that what was done prior to that time was not of enormous importance to Afghanistan. Still, we had to recognize in 2008 and last year that we need considerably more resources to carry out the kind of campaign we need to succeed.
SPIEGEL: It is amazing though. Only a few months ago, nine years into this war, a high-ranking officer like Major General Michael Flynn, deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, noted in a paper that "eight years into the war in Afghanistan the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade." How is that possible?
Petraeus: We have not had a sufficient take on each of the valleys and villages in which we're operating. But again, you only get there when you have a sufficient density of forces on the ground. I'll give you an example: We didn't realize that two districts west of Kandahar had developed into very important Taliban sanctuaries over the period of five years. It was only recently that we realized the extent of those safe havens. The lesson from this is that all counterinsurgency efforts must be local, which means that you must really understand the dynamics, the personality, the customs, the system, the traditional mechanisms of a given place -- and you can't develop that kind of understanding until you have enough forces on the ground.
SPIEGEL: Who are your opponents then? What do you mean when you say Taliban? It sometimes seems like we don't even know who they are ...
Petraeus: I don't agree. The Taliban movement is a very structured hierarchical organization that we can well describe. Certainly, when you go down into the rank and file, the picture gets less clear. There is the $10 Taliban or others who are sort of chameleon-like in their behavior. But, overall, I can draw you a diagram which shows Mullah Omar on the top and then his lieutenants and his deputies, if you will. We also know the different elements of the greater Taliban organization. Further, we have a clear view of the symbiotic relationships between the Pakistani and the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani-network (connected to Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani), al-Qaida and other extremist organizations.
SPIEGEL: How sophisticated is that network you describe?
Petraeus: It is quite sophisticated. It certainly doesn't have the high-tech apparatus and equipment of a modern military force, but they have figured out how to establish functioning communication and information lines, for instance. The construction of improvised explosive devices as well as home-made explosives, tragically, is quite advanced and sometimes even innovative. They know how to use off-the-shelf technology and use it effectively. That is why this symbiotic relationship between the many different groups is so important: Al-Qaida might have a particularly skillful IED maker who shares his expertise with other organizations. Another group might have effective skills in information technology that is passed on to others. There may be some who are good in false documents, again others in weaponry -- and they all share their knowledge, which all adds to our great concern. We're not talking about a threat to Afghanistan alone. It's a threat to the world. The attack on Times Square was not done by al-Qaida, it was launched by a Pakistani Taliban. And other groups are carrying out or wanting to expand their own transnational attacks, too.
SPIEGEL: In order to defeat them you are following a strategy very similar to the Iraq campaign: The three pillars are Special Operations, the troop surge and reaching out to local and tribal leaders ...
Petraeus: You need, in fact, counter-terrorist forces that go after the leaders and the key cells, but that's not enough -- and that is what we have learned in Iraq. We killed (Abu Musab) al-Zarkawi (the "Emir" of Al-Qaida in Iraq, who was killed by US troops in June 2006) and still the levels of violence kept going up, they even skyrocketed. We had operations in Ramadi for five years, night after night, with multiple operations -- but we never brought the violence down until we used conventional forces to clear, hold and build. We need this in Afghanistan, too, and here it will be the Afghan security forces, the military and the local police. The latter will start to work in 68 communities soon, think of a community watch with AK-47s, legitimized by local shura councils and highly controlled by the minister of the interior.
- Part 1: We're Not 'Going to Turn Afghanistan into Switzerland'
- Part 2: 'How Can You Tell Them to Enforce Laws When They Can't Read?'
- Part 3: 'The Country Has Enormous Potential for Wealth'