Interview with ISAF Commander Petraeus We're Not 'Going to Turn Afghanistan into Switzerland'
Part 2: 'How Can You Tell Them to Enforce Laws When They Can't Read?'
SPIEGEL: Your European allies in NATO have highly criticized the local police initiative. Can you understand their concerns that you are equipping new militias that you can't control in the long run?
Petraeus: Perhaps they didn't understand the safeguards that have been established. There are understandable concerns about it, which have also been voiced by President Hamid Karzai and some of his ministers. But we've worked hard to get adequate safeguards to mitigate the risk of institutionalizing warlord-style militias. And you can't see this as being isolated. Its part of a comprehensive approach, local politics play a big role, reconciliation efforts ...
SPIEGEL: ... reconciliation with the Taliban?
Petraeus: President Karzai will announce the members of the national peace council tomorrow to organize this process, this will be followed by the formation of provincial and district peace councils so that the elements of the Taliban or other insurgent groups that want to reintegrate can, indeed, do that. It all depends on whether they accept the criteria President Karzai has defined: They have to lay down their weapons, observe the Afghan constitution, cut their ties with extremists and essentially agree to the values of this society. Right now, we have a number of whole groups raising their hands, wanting to lay down their weapons and stop running for their lives.
SPIEGEL: Insurgents willing to change face a very tough decision. First of all they have to figure out what the future brings, including the question of how much longer the ISAF operation will continue.
Petraeus: Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the other day that if the Taliban think that we'll have a large number of American forces leaving in July 2011, they are to be sorely disappointed. July 2011 will mark the beginning of a process, as President Obama announced it, of transitioning tasks to Afghan forces at a pace that is based on conditions on the ground. There will be a process that we call a responsible draw-down of forces which, in my view, is a fairly sensible approach.
SPIEGEL: Was it a mistake for President Obama to announce both the surge and the withdrawal date in the same speech?
Petraeus: My understanding of the meaning of July 2011 has been a bit different from what others have taken it to represent. First of all, it was an announcement of an enormous additional commitment of forces, civilians and dollars. Then, at the same time, a message of urgency was sent out, to Kabul, to some of us wearing a uniform and maybe to some of our partners as well. What has happened is that this message has been misinterpreted by some -- in some cases wilfully by the Taliban, for example. It has been politicized as well, and, overall, just not completely understood.
SPIEGEL: Whatever the reasoning behind it, you are facing a big problem now. Ask Afghans and they will tell you that they see a major withdrawal coming or even the beginning of the end of the ISAF effort as a whole.
Petraeus: If that was the case, we would have to keep on explaining what July 2011 really means and what it doesn't mean.
SPIEGEL: The surge itself is underway. Where do you stand?
Petraeus: The final 30,000 US forces are on the ground, the vast majority of the different national contributions are deployed, the civilian component is built up, the funding for 100,000 additional Afghan security forces is at hand. So I'd say we're on track.
SPIEGEL: The build-up of an Afghan security apparatus is a key element of the whole effort. How concerned are you about corruption in the ranks of police and the army?
Petraeus: Corruption has to be put into context. We have to recognize that the Afghan government has taken numerous steps against corruption. The border police chief for western Afghanistan is in jail, a number of provincial police chiefs have been fired or put into custody. Numerous commanders as well as provincial governors have been replaced. In the broader Afghan administration hundreds of judicial workers, including judges, have lost their jobs due to problems with their integrity. Having said that, President Karzai is the first to announce publicly that more needs to be done because corruption undermines the legitimacy of governance on all levels.
SPIEGEL: It might sound disrespectful, but one could also say that if President Karzai wanted to fight corruption he could start doing so within his own family ...
Petraeus: There are plenty of locations in which corruption can be countered, there are plenty where it has been countered and there are plenty where it needs to be countered.
SPIEGEL: What steps are taken to counter corruption in a practical manner?
Petraeus: I have just issued a "counterinsurgency contracting guidance". You know the saying that in counterinsurgency missions "money is ammunition," but we have to be careful into whose hands we put that ammunition, that money. The new guidelines are issued to make sure that we supply people who support our policies and not those who oppose them. We also created a new agency to oversee and implement greater transparency within all the organizations that are involved in contracting issues. But again, I don't think that anyone is under any illusion that we're going to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland in five years or less. President Obama has said that our aspirations should be realistic. We are not going to turn one of the poorest countries in the world, that was plunged into 30 years of war, into an advanced, industrialized, Western-style democracy. What we want to achieve is Afghanistan's capacity to secure and govern itself.
SPIEGEL: Security is a main issue, but also a very tricky one. The recruits you have to deal with in the police as well as the military quite often lack even basic education. How realistic is it that Afghanistan will be able to control its own security?
Petraeus: We have, indeed, very low levels of literacy. On the other hand, you have very tough, very "hardy" Afghan young men who are not used to having a lot and don't expect a great deal. So they may be less educated, but they are very determined to fight.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean you have to teach them how to read and write first?
Petraeus: We actually are. There are over 30,000 Afghan security force members right now in literacy courses.
SPIEGEL: That's not very encouraging.
Petraeus: Well, we simply have to do it. How can you tell them: Watch for a car with this or that licence plate, if they aren't able to read a licence plate? How can you expect them to enforce laws that they can't read? So this is a substantial task, and here again I can tell you that we haven't tackled it properly until recently, together with our NATO partners.
SPIEGEL: Are you satisfied with the work of your allies here? Are you satisfied with the German contribution?
Petraeus: Yes, very much so. The Germans have done wonderful work. Not long ago, a German battle group battalion conducted a very impressive counterinsurgency operation in a portion of Baghlan province. I think these are the first counterinsurgency operations conducted by any German element after World War II. And they did a very impressive job.
SPIEGEL: How do you explain the critique, and even mockery, that the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, have to face here, given the many rules they have to obey instead of getting things done?
Petraeus: Every nation, and I stress this, every nation has its caveats, its own rules. Even the United States has a caveat -- it might be more aggressive, more permissive than others, but they all have one. The art of coalition command -- whether it is here in Afghanistan, whether it was in Iraq or in Bosnia or in Haiti -- is to take the resources you are provided with, understand what the strengths and weaknesses are and to employ them to the best overall effect.
SPIEGEL: But you can't be happy with the fact that the Americans are forced to do most of the "dirty work" because other nations hold back.
Petraeus: I don't think that this is true. If you look at casualties, you find countries that had much higher loss rates per capita than the US. Denmark comes to mind, the United Kingdom, they have suffered heavy losses at various points, the Germans as well.
SPIEGEL: The surge will bring the number of US soldiers to over 100,000 -- that's two-thirds of the ISAF-contingent. Do you fear that the actual surge will foster feelings in Afghanistan that make people think or say: "Now it's an American war?"
Petraeus: Frankly, I don't. This is a NATO-ISAF-operation. It's the effort of a coalition and I work hard to strengthen the sense that this is an allied campaign of 50 or so countries. We have had a steady increase of forces even as the Netherlands' contingent had to draw down for political reasons.
- 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'