SPIEGEL: General, on Oct. 31, 2008, you will take over as the new head of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which coordinates the deployment of the US Armed Forces to the most diverse regions in the world. You will be in charge of such difficult countries as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon ...
Petraeus: ... Yes, and don't forget Yemen, where there are also extremist elements, as we saw recently.
SPIEGEL: Saudi Arabia is on the list, too.
Petraeus: The situation there has improved tremendously. Over the last four years they have done a superb job in their fight against al-Qaida. As you may recall, our embassy in Jedda (in Saudi Arabia) was overrun some four years ago and a number of foreign workers went home because of violence against them. Even the Interior Ministry in Riyadh was hit. Since then, the Saudis have employed a very intelligent and comprehensive approach to counter al-Qaida, including precise operations based on good intelligence, changes in their corrections facilities, superb strategic communications programs and a host of other initiatives -- all of which, together, have helped Saudi Arabia achieve impressive results in their fight against extremists.
SPIEGEL: Many countries on your list are less successful. How are you approaching your new job?
Petraeus: Soberly, and I truly mean that. I'm approaching it with a coldly realistic appraisal and a keen awareness of the challenges.
SPIEGEL: Is that the attitude you are taking with you from Iraq, where you were in charge of the Central Command for 19 months? Recently, while the rest of the world was stunned by the progress in Iraq, you almost sounded like the greatest skeptic.
Petraeus: There has, indeed, been very substantial progress in Iraq over the past year -- violence is down by 80 percent, civilian deaths by about the same, and so on. Nonetheless, US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and I have repeatedly sought to emphasize that the progress in Iraq is fragile and also, possibly, reversible. Having said that, it might be a bit more durable now than it was a few months ago when we last testified together before Congress. In fact, the Iraqi Council of Representatives just passed the provincial elections law and that is very important because it represents the kind of broad consensus that is necessary in the Iraqi system. As you know, according to the constitution, the Presidency Council has to approve all legislation that is passed by the Council of Representatives. This means that the Kurdish president and his Sunni and Shia vice-presidents all have to approve legislation; this means, of course, that each of them thus has a veto. Thus, without a reasonable degree of consensus there are clear limits on what it is that can be done.
SPIEGEL: But how stable has Iraq become as a country?
Petraeus: Ambassador Crocker and I, as well as our bosses, are cautious about this -- properly so, we believe. We have had innumerable surprises along the way in Iraq and we have made mistakes along the way as well. The appropriate assessment is therefore one that reflects a degree of caution when it comes to Iraq.
SPIEGEL: Has experience turned you into a pessimist?
Petraeus: I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist. I am a realist, and the reality in Iraq is that it has been very hard and it continues to be hard. We should accept and acknowledge that even as we recognize that the improvements in the security situation are allowing us to reduce another 8,000 US forces over the next four months -- reductions that, again, reflect an assessment that there has been significant progress and that the Iraqi forces are indeed shouldering more of the burden.
SPIEGEL: How strong are the enemies of the new Iraq?
Petraeus: There is still a level of violence. Al-Qaida in particular remains dangerous, and there is some residual militia and special group presence. There are still between 20 and 30 attacks per day, still periodic car bombs and still loss of innocent civilians. However, the level of violence is down considerably from last June, when there were some 180 attacks a day and civilian (and military) losses were considerably higher.
SPIEGEL: Do you still see the threat of a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites?
Petraeus: I think that is much less likely and this a remarkable fact. The level of sectarian violence was horrific in the winter of 2006-2007. There were, for example, over 50 dead bodies every 24 hours in Baghdad alone in December 2006 just from sectarian violence.
SPIEGEL: One of the great miracles in all this is the behavior of Moqtada al-Sadr, who for some time now has kept his Mahdi Army quiet.
Petraeus: It was not a miracle at all. It is very easily explained. The Sadr movements reputation was tarnished badly by the actions of the militia that bear the Sadr name. The Shiite population came to reject the militia as it no longer needed militia protection from al-Qaida. Elements of the militia were extorting money from shopkeepers, they were kidnapping for ransom, they were linked to the killing of two southern governors and three police chiefs and they caused reprehensible violence in the whole city of Karbala in August 2007. Al-Sadr realized that his movement was on the verge of the worst possible situation -- popular rejection -- and he declared a cease-fire. The same followed the violence precipitated by the militia and so-called special groups in March and April of this year, when those elements sustained very significant losses in terms of leaders and fighters -- and was, again, in jeopardy of being rejected by the people. Al-Sadr really had no logical alternative.
SPIEGEL: And the Sunnis, on the other hand, were bribed into cooperation, as Bob Woodward writes in his new book "The War Within"?
Petraeus: That's not completely accurate. I will tell you what we have done. The Sunni Arabs began to realize that they had made a huge mistake by not voting in the election of 2005 and by not being part of the new Iraq. They had reasons for this: They were effected by the disestablishment of the military and by de-Baathification (the dismantling of Saddam Hussein's party) in winter 2007-2007. They increasingly recognized that their future lay in being part of the solution rather than a continuing part of the problem. But they couldn't reject al-Qaida without our provision of security. So we took care of their security, we moved into their neighborhoods, we protected their tribal leaders who led the rejection of al-Qaida. And then we cleared many of their towns and cities and rural areas of al-Qaida Iraq and other insurgents, sometimes with their help, but often without it. And once their areas were clear, many of them sought to help us keep them secure -- and, over time, we began hiring them to man checkpoints and help keep their areas clear. You know, we had money for emergency reconstruction programs, and this seemed a wise investment -- as reconstruction is not possible without security -- and they helped to maintain it.
'In Afghanistan, You're not Rebuilding, You're Building'
SPIEGEL: Hardly anyone disputes that there has been great progress in Iraq. On the contrary, you have been credited with a huge success. And now they want you to repeat this success in Afghanistan?
Petraeus: (laughs) I was hoping to run this interview out before we got to that question ...
SPIEGEL: Do you think it is possible that you could also get that far in Afghanistan?
Petraeus: First, let me say that this has never been about one person. Progress in Iraq has always been about teams of people and teams of teams -- and ultimately about young men and women, Iraqi as well as people from the coalition. There are some ideas that will translate from Iraq to Afghanistan and there are many that will not. The first lesson of counterinsurgency, in fact, is that every situation is truly unique, has its own context, its own specific set of factors -- and you have to understand that context in enormous detail to be able to craft a sound and comprehensive approach. In Iraq 18 months ago, I often envied the commander in Afghanistan, truly. Now, Iraq has gone from being on the brink to being on the mend, and it clearly has some big advantages. It has enormous oil reserves, it has virtually untapped natural gas resources. It also has water, many Iraqis are well-educated and it has considerable infrastructure.
SPIEGEL: Afghanistan is the opposite in many ways.
Petraeus: In many respects you're right. In Afghanistan you are not rebuilding, you are building. There is very limited infrastructure and extreme terrain, with deserts in the south and mountains so high in some areas that helicopters don't even fly well at a certain altitude because the air becomes so thin. The country has a serious problem of illiteracy, especially after so many years of war and Taliban rule. It has other enormous challenges as well, including a political system that is still very much developing, although there has been some progress in the past several years. There is also a growing insurgency threat from al-Qaida, the Taliban and other extremist elements, some of which comes from the tribal areas of Pakistan, as well as from the Northwest Frontier province and Baluchistan. The ISAF commander, General David McKiernan, calls it a syndicate. Given the cross-border threats, you have to approach the situation as a region, not as one country or the other.
SPIEGEL: Is the new government in Pakistan determined to go after the insurgents in the tribal areas?
Petraeus: The first official statements of President Asif Ali Zardari's new government have been firm and robust. Pakistan is obviously a renewed democracy.
SPIEGEL: Isn't stability more important than democracy for a country like Pakistan?
Petraeus: Both would be best, of course. As you may have heard, several of us met with General Kayani and we got the impression that Pakistan increasingly recognizes the extremists in western Pakistan as an existential threat to their country. They are very keen to carry out the operations themselves. And there's significant effort on the part of the US and other countries to provide assistance that can enable Pakistan to do just that.
SPIEGEL: The US Air Force recently conducted several strikes against terrorist camps on Pakistani soil. But that can only happen with the permission of the government in Islamabad, right?
Petraeus: There is recognition on both sides that the extremist threat has been causing significant problems, including of course the Marriot hotel bombing. There is renewed commitment and close dialogue with the new government to act against the extremists.
SPIEGEL: Nonetheless, you still don't have enough troops in Afghanistan.
Petraeus: That's correct. Although US forces have been increased from some 21,000 to about 31,000 over the past two years and a number of coalition countries have also increased their forces, there still are not sufficient troops.
SPIEGEL: Former ISAF commander Dan McNeill, who led the troops until this summer, has said that under the current doctrine, 400,000 troops would be needed on the ground to bring peace to the country.
Petraeus: The question is always how you get the number of troops needed. They do not have to be coalition forces. We also have to expand the training program for the Afghan National Army and the national police, in particular. and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already announced support for a significant increase in the Afghan army. Meanwhile, there will also be additional help provided to the local police, as they are the most vulnerable personally, especially when one thinks of their families.
SPIEGEL: What adds to your difficulties as you enter your new position is that elections are taking place everywhere -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan and of course back home. The next president will be under enormous pressure due to the current economic crisis, and voters will be asking themselves why the US spends so much money in remote countries like Afghanistan instead of investing it at home.
Petraeus: Well, let's remember that the reason we are there is that we have vital interests in Afghanistan, hugely important national interests, as do the other countries involved.
SPIEGEL: Where does this interest lie?
Petraeus: First and foremost is to not allow the reestablishment, if you will, of an extremist sanctuary that can export the kind of terror that ended up with terrorists taking down the World Trade Center and plowing into the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. That's the point: We started this war because the Sept. 11 attack came from this area. And we do not fight alone, but with some 40 allies who share that view.
SPIEGEL: How long will it take to win this fight, according to your cold realism?
Petraeus: I did a week-long assessment in 2005 at (then Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld's request. Following our return, I told him that Afghanistan was going to be the longest campaign of what we then termed "the long war." Having just been to Afghanistan a month or so ago, I think that that remains a valid assessment. Moreover, the trends have clearly been in the wrong direction.
SPIEGEL: As long as there aren't enough troops available on the ground, you have to stick with air raids, which again and again results in the loss of civilian lives.
Petraeus: There is very careful examination of that ongoing. The employment of close air support has recently been reviewed by General McKiernan. And he has put out instructions with considerable clarity about the employment of air support in a manner that strives very hard to avoid civilian casualties. There is enormous concern about this issue in Afghanistan right now, and we obviously don't want it to cause problems for the Afghan government, President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan people. In fact, we want them to support our efforts on their behalf and not see us as unwelcome occupiers. So the task is to reduce civilian casualties while still not hesitating to respond to enemies who are trying to kill our soldiers.
SPIEGEL: What do you expect from the NATO allies?
Petraeus: It is not up to the US Central Command to expect something, it is up to the NATO command. Secretary Gates suggested the other day that the allies can contribute in many ways, not just in the provision of significantly larger numbers on the ground. They can provide additional financial and equipment support for the Afghan National Army, for example, or for reconstruction and capacity building efforts.
SPIEGEL: In Iraq you kept saying that "money is ammunition."
Petraeus: Money can be a very important form of "ammunition," although we should never forget that when you're being shot at the most important ammunition is real ammunition.
SPIEGEL: General, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Ullrich Fichtner and Gerhard Spörl.