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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.

'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.

'The Country Has Enormous Potential for Wealth'

SPIEGEL: You accompanied President Karzai two days ago on a visit to Pakistan. It is an open secret that the US forces are leading drone attacks inside Pakistan. How could one imagine your talks with Pakistani generals on that matter?

Petraeus: It never came up as an issue.

SPIEGEL: But these drone attacks are taking place ...

Petraeus: As you know we never comment on campaigns that are carried out in the Pakistani tribal areas or on the source of the explosions that periodically kill international extremists.

SPIEGEL: These "explosions" are not an issue when, say, US Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke travels to Pakistan for meetings?

Petraeus: I can't speak for Ambassador Holbrooke. But I can tell you that it wasn't a topic of conversation the last time I was there.

SPIEGEL: In the American political debate opinions are voiced saying that the whole ISAF operation is, in fact, not about Afghanistan but about containing Iran. What do you think of those ideas?

Petraeus: Not much, to be honest. Afghanistan is about Afghanistan. The core object, the reason we've all come here is to make sure that Afghanistan is not becoming a sanctuary for terrorists and other extremists who intend to attack European and other societies.

SPIEGEL: Is that really a good justification for this war? Safe havens for terrorists can be found all over the world -- in Yemen, Algeria or, as we just discussed, Pakistan.

Petraeus: We have a different approach for each specific case. In Yemen, for example, we sought to bolster the capabilities of the Yemeni security forces, which produced considerable effects. The preferred option always is to assist countries to deal with their different kinds of challenges rather than us having to do it. That can mean a lot of things like sharing intelligence or providing training materials, it can mean equipping (them).

SPIEGEL: How much time have you got to resolve this conflict in Afghanistan?

Petraeus: There are different watches out there ticking, as always. The Afghan clock is certainly ticking ...

SPIEGEL: ... with President Karzai wishing to have a national security force taking over entirely by 2014. Is that realistic?

Petraeus: What he has said, to be precise, is that he wants to have Afghan forces in the lead throughout the country by 2014.

SPIEGEL: Is that realistic?

Petraeus: Afghan forces are in the lead in Kabul and in some other locations. That shows that it is possible for them to provide security in difficult areas with constant threats. We will try to make considerable progress with each year.

SPIEGEL: What has to be achieved to say, in the end, this was a successful mission, it's good enough now, we can leave?

Petraeus: Afghan good enough is good enough. In other words: When we get to a situation where traditional, local structures can resolve conflicts -- that would be good enough. Good enough means Afghan forces that are capable of securing their own people. There are economic perspectives, too. Afghanistan has minerals in the ground worth trillions of dollars and other natural assets.

SPIEGEL: You refer to a study leaked by the Pentagon that is doubted by many ...

Petraeus: There aren't any doubts.

SPIEGEL: But so far nobody seems to have read the study. It hasn't been published.

Petraeus: Well, I have read it, the American ambassador has read it. And we believe that it is very credible.

SPIEGEL: What is your outlook for Afghanistan?

Petraeus: The country has an enormous potential for wealth. I mentioned the raw materials, I could mention a lot of other things. If the human capital can be developed properly, we will see a much better future. If the infrastructure can be developed further, if the value chain can be created, then we will really get somewhere. I know, these are big ifs, and it certainly will take years to get there, but it is possible.

SPIEGEL: General Petreaus, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Ullrich Fichtner
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