JUDY WOODRUFF: Wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, tensions within the Gulf states, and a new administration trying to manage an exploding region, all topics for retired General David Petraeus.
He commanded American and coalition forces in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served as overall commander of U.S. military operations in the Middle East. He later served as director of the CIA in 2011 and 2012. He’s now with a global investment firm.
We spoke a short time ago.
And I started by asking him about reports that the Trump administration will soon send 4,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and whether he thinks it is a smart move.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS (RET.), Former Commander, Multi-National Force Iraq: I think it is, and it’s heartening.
I think what we need to get to in Afghanistan is a sustainable, measuring the expenditure of blood and treasure, a sustainable, sustained commitment. We need to recognize that we went there for a reason and we stayed for a reason, to ensure that Afghanistan is not once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida or other transnational extremists, the way it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.
That’s why we need to stay. We also have a very useful platform there for the regional counterterrorist effort. And, of course, we have greatly reduced the capabilities of al-Qaida’s senior leaders in that region, including, of course, taking out Osama bin Laden.
But this is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable.
We have been in Korea for 65-plus years because there is an important national interest for that. We were in Europe for a very long period of time, still there, of course, and actually with a renewed emphasis now, given Russia’s aggressive actions.
And I think that’s the way we need to approach this. Now, to be sure, the forces …
JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you saying we may need to stay in Afghanistan 60, 70, 80 years?
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: I wouldn’t say 60, but I think we shouldn’t approach this as a year-on-year mission.
I think that was actually harmful. I think it gave all of the Afghan leaders and so forth were — basically get the jitters. Those who are investing money consider every year whether to keep it there or whether to go to Dubai.
I think this is an important interest, and I think we ought to have a sustained commitment, but at a level that is sustainable. And I think a few more, 3,000 to 5,000 more troops, are very sustainable, but also we should relax the remaining restrictions on the use of our airpower to support our Afghan partners who have shown that they are willing to fight and die for their country against al-Qaida, the insurgents of various types and so forth.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But, of course, the reason I’m asking, as Americans look at Afghanistan, you say we may need to stay decades and decades. We have been there, the United States, 15 years. At times, we have had over 100,000 U.S. troops there. That didn’t turn back the Taliban. Why should 3,000 or 4,000?
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: It did actually turn back the Taliban.
You will remember I was the commander.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But not permanently.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Not permanently.
As I said, we are not going to permanently win this. Keep in mind, there’s a huge difference between Afghanistan and even Iraq when we did the surge there. You can’t pressure the leaders of the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and even some of the other insurgent groups, because they’re out of our reach. They’re in sanctuaries inside Pakistan.
And, indeed, there should be a regional effort there to try to get our Pakistani partners to do more to deny this sanctuary to those elements that are making life so difficult for Afghans and the Afghan government.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The other comment being made, General Petraeus, though, is that the administration has not laid out what its strategy is for Afghanistan. General Mattis himself said this week, we’re still working on it.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: They are.
And, indeed, I understand there have been a number of meetings at the principals level and so forth. The national security team is working on that. I do think you can anticipate an integrated strategy.
Again, the troops are just a part of this. They’re an important part, because, without them, without halting the erosion of security that has characterized Afghanistan over the last year or more, then you’re going to have a serious problem on your hands.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s talk about ISIS in Syria — you mentioned Syria — and in Iraq. We are told progress is being made against ISIS on the battlefield, but the coalition airstrikes, we are now told, these Strikes are resulting in hundreds and hundreds of civilian deaths.
Is that the price that Americans should be prepared to pay to get ahead of ISIS?
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: We should absolutely minimize the civilian deaths, and there’s no question that there will be more of these. This does happen in wartime.
There will be far fewer than certainly what the extremists, these very barbaric Islamic State forces, have done. But this is an enemy that’s literally sheltering among the civilians. That’s what’s making it so difficult to take this last remnant of the Islamic State in Mosul.
This is now old Mosul, the Old City. And, remember, I spent a year there as a two-star when we were in charge of Northern Iraq with the 101st Airborne. It’s a rabbits warren. It’s very tight. It’s very difficult.
And the enemy has literally just — literally barricaded itself in there with snipers, with suicide bombers, with explosives, rooms and houses rigged, surrounding themselves with civilians. And this is the most diabolically difficult challenge, even for the very skilled counterterrorism forces of the Iraqi army.
That’s what’s really slowed this down. We can expect some of that in Raqqa. That operation has now began in Syria. That was until recently presumably the Islamic State headquarters. There are reports that some of these leaders have already led and moved town the Euphrates River Valley further to Deir el-Zour.
That’s going to be a tough fight, but it’s a much smaller city compared to the two million, let’s say, of probably a quarter or less the size of Mosul.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m moving us through some very difficult areas very quickly, but I now want to turn now to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf nations.
President Trump was there just very recently trying to put — present a united front with the Saudis and these other countries, mainly against Iran, but it turns out they are — they have turned against Qatar, and the president has signaled that he has problems with Qatar’s support for terrorist activities.
At the same time, his administration has said, we hope these countries can work together.
What is the strategy, the approach that the United — that we should expect, that we should understand as Americans about the administration’s policy there?
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, Secretary of State Tillerson is taking charge of this now. He’s trying to get the temperature down some.
Clearly, there’s been a frustration that boiled over with the Emiratis, our close partners the Emiratis and the Saudis, against our other close partners the Qataris. Of course, it’s the Central Command forward headquarters. My forward headquarters is inside — outside Doha at Al Udeid Air Base.
They gave us $100 million for that. But I have to say, at times, I went there and said, look, you’re giving us all this money for our forward headquarters, and then Al-Jazeera is hammering us every day in the news. There is something not right here.
And similar frustrations have, again, just boiled over, also, the allegations of support of political Islam. You have to understand that, for the Emiratis especially, there is more worry about Muslim Brotherhood kind of activity than there actually is with Iran or even the Islamic State.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed will explain, we can see the extremists, we can see the Iranians. The insidious creep of political Islam is more difficult. And Qatar has allowed the heads of Hamas, Muslim Brothers, other political Islam organizations in the region to locate there.
These are all three our friends, our partners. I hope would be that, in this case, Secretary of State Tillerson can indeed get the temperatures down, get talking going on behind closed doors, rather than out as visibly as it has been, because that makes it very difficult, and you start to back different friends into corners.
But it’s hard. The United States, in some respects, needs to avoid being engaged in a beauty contest, where we have to say which is the fairest of them all. That’s not fair to us and it’s not fair to them. And I think that this is resolvable, but it’s not going to be easy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: General David Petraeus, thank you very much for stopping by.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Pleasure, as always.