Interview: General David Petraeus
June 14, 2011, 4:18 pm ET
He is the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and was previously the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. He maintains that military strategy in Afghanistan requires a comprehensive civil-military approach. “When you’re faced with a serious, deteriorating situation, you have to do something about it,” he says. “And the best way to do something about it is to use every tool available to you.” He adds the U.S. has more work to do in reducing civilian casualties, whether they are caused by U.S. operations or insurgents. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Jan. 29, 2011.
What did the president ask you to do when you took command?
First of all, he asked me to take command, which was somewhat unexpected, needless to say. I actually went to the White House that day as the commander of U.S. Central Command [CENTCOM] to attend the monthly National Security Council [NSC] meeting that he chairs on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and ended up in the Oval Office being asked to come out and become ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] [commander].
So it was very short notice and, then again, quite unexpected, frankly. But obviously I’d participated in the whole policy review — two of them, in fact — in the previous year and was reasonably up to speed on what it was that we were seeking to do out here. So in terms of the strategy and so forth, it was more a sense of continuity.
“You don’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency, which is what faces Afghanistan. … It takes a comprehensive approach, and not just military but civil-military.”
We talked generally about roles and responsibilities and the obligation of a military commander to provide his forthright advice to the president and leave the politics up to him.
What changes have you made since you took command?
We’ve done some tweaks in certain areas to, for example, ensure that we continue to reduce civilian casualties to the absolute minimum in the course of our operations, which we have done, despite increasing very substantially the number of ISAF and Afghan forces. If you think about it, for example, over 100,000 were added just last year alone. The bulk of it was 70,000 or so Afghan, and the rest ISAF.
We have used precision munitions to an actual larger degree than we did in the past, again, without increasing and actually with reducing civilian casualties. So we’ve sought to continue to protect the population, to do it even better, while ensuring that we also protected our own forces and our Afghan counterparts.
We supported very strongly President [Hamid] Karzai with his Afghan Local Police [ALP] initiative — this in addition to the campaign — where you have essentially a community watch with AK47s, but underneath the Ministry of the Interior chain of command. It’s now validated and functioning in 16 districts in Afghanistan. Over 50 total have been identified, including those 16, and we suspect it will increase.
And that complements very much the campaign in the major population areas, because it covers certain areas that had a very low number of Afghan and ISAF forces, and denies them as safe havens to the Taliban as we seek to very much clear some of these very important safe havens that the Taliban have had these five years: the districts west of Kandahar city, as an example; some of those in central Helmand; and so forth.
We’ve certainly sought to enable our Afghan partners who conduct targeted operations, and that has moved forward as well, to help them develop their Special Operations forces, to bring that into more of an arrest warrant-based — in other words, rule of law-based detention operations, rather than security threat-based, something that is ongoing, [and we've] begun the transition of the detention facility at Parwan.
Another addition, of course, is the support for the reintegration campaign. Of course it’s often said, and I often say, you don’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency, which is what faces Afghanistan. Rather, it takes a mix of every aspect. It takes a comprehensive approach, and not just military but civil-military.
Certainly the military aspects are vital. They’re necessary, but they’re not sufficient, so there has to be support as well for a variety of different political efforts, political initiatives, to reintegrate reconcilable elements of the insurgency, and that is just now starting to gain traction with the establishment of the High Peace Council, the establishment of the reintegration committees in various provinces and so on, and then to support the establishment of local governments in areas that have been recently cleared by Afghan and ISAF forces, local governance that serves the people and can be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people and therefore earn their support. …
So far this has been the most violent winter in the history of the war. So, are you winning?
First of all, I’ve never used the term “winning” or “losing,” actually, in any of these endeavors in which I’ve been engaged, Iraq or prior to that, frankly. I’ve always talked about whether you are making progress or not. And while very clearly noting that this is a roller-coaster existence, what you are trying to do is determine if the general trajectory is upward or not. And I believe that it is.
I think it is indisputable that there has been significant progress in places such as Helmand, Kandahar, the greater Kabul area and so forth, while also noting that along with that, say in Kabul, the longest period without a sensational attack. Of course yesterday there was a sensational attack.
But Afghanistan was able to inaugurate its Parliament despite a very active threat stream that we were able to monitor with our Afghan partners and that they sought to disrupt and to degrade with their Special Operations forces.
But more violence than ever?
There is, yes, again. When you add 100,000 additional Afghan and ISAF forces, when they go on the offensive, when they take away safe havens that the Taliban have had for, again, up to five or six years; when you are in many, many more areas than you have [been in] in the past; when the winter is much more mild than it has been in years past; and then, finally, when the Taliban orders its fighters to stay in the country rather than allowing them the traditional, if you will, rest and relaxation period of the winter, they know that they have to take back some of these safe havens, and they’re doing anything they can. They will use intimidation, assassination, soft targets, whatever it might be. They cannot allow the loss of these very, very important areas in which they operated with impunity and from which they launched all kinds of really quite barbaric and brutal attacks in the past.
When Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal developed the case for surge in Afghanistan, he talked about “reversing the psychological momentum.” And yet right now, the Taliban, at least according to our reporting, still think they are winning. So how do you change that dynamic?
Well, that doesn’t square actually with what we understand. In fact, as I noted in a letter to our troopers the other day, sort of “State of the Campaign” letter if you will, there is unprecedented friction among the senior leaders in the Taliban as they argue about what to do, about the fact that they’ve lost Mullah Omar’s town in the district of Jari and Panjwai west of Kandahar, Arghandab, very important parts of Helmand province.
The reason they are fighting so hard in northern Helmand province is because this is the nexus of the illegal narcotics industry. And that’s what it is: an industry — this is not a mom-and-pop operation — which funds much of the Taliban activity. So again, they have to fight back.
But there is disagreement: Do you let them come home for the winter? Do you force them to stay for the winter? Some of the fighters are saying, “Hey, you guys are sitting there in the lap of luxury in Quetta, telling us to continue the fight throughout the winter, and it may be a more mild winter, but it’s still cold at night.”
You have that kind of, really, [an] argument, not just discussion, and even more so about reintegration and reconciliation. There’s grave concern about the fact that the midlevel leaders and fighters are choosing to reconcile, to reintegrate into Afghan society rather than to continue fighting. Not a huge number yet — still we would say below 1,000 total in the various reintegration events that have taken place in the course of recent months. But nonetheless, you see some degree of traction and some degree of momentum.
In fact, our assessment is that we have halted the momentum of the Taliban in much of the country — not all — and that we have reversed the momentum in some important areas, while noting that there is no question that there is a great deal of hard work to be done, and that we would assess that the Taliban still has momentum in some areas, but not that many, certainly, when compared with what Gen. McChrystal made that assessment.
But you recall that in 2009, he said the situation was deteriorating — “It’s serious and deteriorating” — and I’m not sure anyone would subscribe to that now.
Assessments in Washington released by the intelligence community have still pointed to [the fact] that at the senior leadership level, the Taliban still seem to be quite confident that they could ride out this surge.
Well, they did several months ago. Again, this is more recent. Again, that I think was a cutoff of Oct. 1, was what the intelligence community was working on. I think we have seen greater, again, friction among the senior leaders since then, and again some grave concern by some senior leaders.
By the way, also by Al Qaeda leaders. In fact, it was just released to the press, I believe, that a particular senior leader has publicly actually — or it got out; it was intended originally, I think, for private audiences within the Al Qaeda movement, but somehow it made its way out to the public — the fact that they were under unprecedented pressure, and they were very concerned that their sanctuary in North Waziristan, [Pakistan,] was really in jeopardy.
Your aim has been to protect the population in Afghanistan, but there is still more civilians have been killed than ever.
Yeah, I don’t know if it’s more. I think it’s actually about level. I just looked at statistics recently, at least in recent months.
But that’s a very important point. We cannot be satisfied with the fact that civilian casualties, in the course of our operations, have gradually gone down. I mean, that’s something that is a very, very important objective of ours, but what we have to do is drive down civilian casualties overall, whether it is caused by the Taliban, Haqqani network or by our operations. And in that regard we clearly have more work to be done, without a question.
Still, more civilians [are] being killed by ISAF than American soldiers have been killed by the insurgency.
I’m not so sure about that. Again, I’d have to look at the numbers and see. They are not large numbers in either case. Again, each one of them is large to us, but again, in the comparison to the number of civilians killed by the Taliban, I think it is 8-10:1 by comparison with recent months.
But the problem is that for the Afghan people, even if the civilian casualties are caused by a Taliban explosion, they still tend to blame the coalition for bringing the war into their area.
Perhaps, sure. Again, as I said, we want to improve security for the people, period. It’s not just security from damage or casualties from our operations, but clearly to protect them from what the Taliban or Haqqani network might do to them as well.
Do you need to see change in Pakistan to prevail in Afghanistan?
First of all, let’s remember what has happened in Pakistan in the course of the last two years, because there is quite important change that has taken place. You have a situation where two years ago about this time, the citizens of Pakistan were gravely concerned that the Pakistani Taliban and its affiliates were threatening the very existence of their country as they knew it.
It had taken over the Swat Valley; the Malakand Division of what is known as the North-West Frontier Province, now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa; a number of the agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA]; and it was literally almost a march toward Islamabad, the capital of the country.
There was also radicalization taking place in small numbers then, but growing, of some of the youth of the Punjab. So the people [were] really very, very concerned and conveyed that to political leaders, and the military went into action. And the Pakistani army, the Frontier Corps [FC], the other security forces, conducted very impressive counterinsurgency operations in Swat Valley, in the other areas, again, of the Malakand Division, and in several of these agencies of which the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan [TTP] had taken over.
We should give them enormous credit for that. They sustained significant losses in the course of this, the military — the police and civilians. And indeed they cleared these areas of those insurgent, those extremist elements. But the flood in this past year has caused enormous hardship, took down infrastructure, bridges, damaged areas that had been rebuilt, and that faces them now. And certainly in some areas, as always, the insurgents will try to get back into areas, and so there’s additional work needed in those areas.
We are working to coordinate our operations, ISAF and Afghan operations, with those of the Pakistani army and Frontier Scouts, as they are called now, in some of these different agencies that are contiguous, that are on the Durand Line, so that we are a hammer perhaps for their anvil, or in some cases, vice versa. We had a very successful operation like this in December, where we conducted an operation like this over there. And indeed, we need to continue that.
Now, the Pakistanis, despite all of these operations, would be the first to note that clearly there are additional organizations, additional extremist elements that make up a kind of syndicate, especially in a place like North Waziristan, that not only pose a continuing threat to them, but also pose a continuing threat to their neighbors, and indeed to the rest of the world.
And again, over time they recognize that there will be a need for them to take some action against these elements.
But the allegation, for which there has been quite some considerable evidence, is that the Pakistan agencies have provided direct support or toleration for some elements at least of the insurgency. Pakistan military say quite categorically they do not support these militants, and you’ve met Gen. [Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani, and you must have discussed that with him. When you look him in the eye, do you believe him when they say they don’t support these militants?
The fact is that there is no question between the linkages [of] militant organizations, extremist organizations in certain parts, particularly of the FATA, and attacks that have taken place in Afghanistan. There is, again, indisputable real-time evidence, not just intelligence, that shows that. We’ve shared that with Gen. Kayani. He has acknowledged that in some cases there have been, again, complementary actions. There is also, as is well known, a very intense campaign that has put unprecedented pressure on elements that are in North Waziristan.
Well, let’s look at something they did do, which is the arrest of [Afghan Taliban leader] Mullah [Abdul Ghani] Baradar last February and some of the other Taliban leaders of the time, some of whom were since, according to reports, released. Did the arrest of Mullah Baradar raise your hopes of what Pakistan was doing?
Well, again, there’s still analysis, frankly, about the whole Mullah Baradar situation. There’s one school of thought that argues that Mullah Baradar was taken by the ISI [Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate] because he was seen to be willing to reconcile. …
I’m not one who subscribes to that, frankly. My understanding of the situation is that there was not a clear understanding of who that operation was targeting at the time. … We sought repeatedly, really, to sort out what was in the minds and so forth and awareness of other groups that were involved in that at the time. …
There’s another school of thought that says no one was exactly sure who they were getting in that raid. They ended up getting Mullah Baradar, and they hung on to him, so there’s quite a bit of discussion indeed about the realities in that.
But there have been others who were arrested at the time who have been since released, and there is at least the allegation that the Pakistanis do know where quite a few of these other leaders are. Do you think they could actually make more of an impact in, for example, putting pressure on the leaders of Quetta shura [leadership council] who are living within their borders?
We’ve actually had conversations on this very recently, and in fact there has been a request for information and so forth and pledges that there is a willingness to see what’s possible, and so we will see.
Over the next few months then, what would you like to see the Pakistanis do to support the campaign that you’ve got here?
Well, first, actually, most important is what we want to do to support, again, our Pakistani partners as they solidify gains that they have made, in some cases do some work to resolidify. Because of that flooding and the diversion of resources and so forth, there is a distraction, an understandable one. …
But the focus is now back on dealing with the insurgents again, cementing some of the gains, building on those further. And we very much want to, on this side of the Durand Line, make sure there is not a sanctuary here to which the TTP and the Punjabi Taliban and many of the others that have caused problems for Pakistan could find refuge.
We did that on an operation on this side in the Kunar area [in Afghanistan], killed about 30 or 35 of those that were seeking to evade a Pakistani military operation in Chitral, [Pakistan]. We later were the hammer and pushed them some toward the Pakistanis, were actually able to kill or capture most of those before they got there. But that’s the kind of coordinated operation that needs to go on, indeed to solidify the gains of some of the agencies in FATA, so that the Pakistanis will feel that they have fewer short sticks and hornets’ nests than they do right now — and they’ve got quite a few of those sticks and hornets’ nests at present.
Do you think, then, that there is a strategic calculus within Pakistan and its establishment that does mean they feel some stake in keeping the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan alive?
I think there are some elements, perhaps, in Pakistan that may counsel a hedging of bets, perhaps, that kind of thinking. Again, keeping in mind that there is a limited capacity to deal with this, and if you are trying, again, to solidify earlier gains, in some cases re-establish what you had before, that in particular then is a voice of caution in picking more fights than you already have. So I think you have those kinds of calculations that are going on.
And in some quarters, it may be that some of them are saying, “Let’s wait and see what happens in Afghanistan before proceeding further.”
But do you believe Gen. Kayani when he says that he is not part of that calculation, that he is not one of those who is to some degree supporting those insurgents?
Again, I’ve had a lot of contact with Gen. Kayani over the last, really now, three or four years. I see him on an almost monthly basis. We have very candid and open conversations. I think I understand the challenges that face Pakistan. I think I understand their capabilities. I think I also understand their limitations. He’s got a very difficult hand that he has to play, if you will, or a situation that confronts him. I think they’re going about it in a methodical manner, and we’ll see how the campaign proceeds this year.
Turning to targeted operations, kill/capture missions by Special Operations troops and conventional forces have increased dramatically since you took over. Could you please describe what you remember about the circumstances and the discussion you had when you came in that made you expand this element of what you are doing.
Every element of the campaign has expanded dramatically, and I would hope that the viewers can really take that point from this discussion, because there’s been a certain fascination by the press with that particular element of the overall civil-military campaign. But the fact is that every single component of the campaign has been amped up, as some of our troopers say; has increased very, very substantially.
In fact, I think that the “clear, hold and build” operations have increased even more. The growth of the Afghan security forces has dwarfed that particular effort. The advent of the Afghan Local Police [ALP], the reintegration, the support to our civilian international Afghan partners, is, again, many times larger than it was even just when I took command.
So this is about a comprehensive approach, and what you do is you try to surge in every area that is available, every component, to use every tool that you have in the toolbox. …
[Kill/capture is] a very important tool — by the way, quite a surgical tool. There are very, very few civilian casualties in the conduct of these precise operations.
The ones conducted by the U.S. Special Mission Unit have a very, very high rate of success. Way over half of the operations actually detain the individual, or in some cases kill the individual that they are after. And, by the way, we normally want to detain, because we want to be able to interrogate — humanely. But they will ultimately share information with us.
So it is an important element, but it is not a silver bullet. It’s not something that just by increasing this you can expect that you are going to achieve progress in a particular area.
Now ideally, when you get a certain location to a certain point in security terms, that Afghan conventional forces can do the large measure of the security operations, and you can help them, because in many cases, by the way, these are Afghan-led. We have helped to build Afghan Special Mission Units, Afghan commandos, Afghan police [Provincial] Response Companies, Quick Reaction Forces [QRFs] and so forth. You can reach a point where they can maintain the security by and large.
By the way, that’s generally the case in the broader area in which we are located right now, which encompasses nearly one-fifth of the population of the country. It is largely Afghan operations that have maintained this — again, periodic sensational attacks not withstanding.
On this tool, though, of these targeted missions, what is the reason that you’ve felt that you want to use this tool in an expanded way?
The same reason I want to use every tool in an expanded way: The Taliban have the momentum. As I said earlier, Gen. McChrystal correctly — remember, I was his boss at the time — assessed the situation as “serious and deteriorating.” And when you’re faced with a serious, deteriorating situation, you have to do something about it. And the best way to do something about it is to use every tool available to you, and that includes everything from the very soft end of things — increasing all of the support for civil society, basic services, rule of law, reconstruction, basic health care, you name it; education, roads and so on — all the way to the hardest of the hard end, which is, of course, targeted raids.
The decision to use those tactics, was that colored by the success you had with them in Iraq?
We often remind people that Afghanistan is not Iraq. In fact, in September 2005, I was asked to come through Afghanistan on the way home from the second tour in Iraq by the secretary of defense [Donald Rumsfeld] and to do an assessment and come back and report to him. I did, and, as always, you have PowerPoint slides. That’s how we often communicate. The title of one of those very early slides was “Afghanistan does not equal Iraq” and laid out all the differences.
Now, having said that, obviously there are certain principles of counterinsurgency, of a comprehensive civil-military campaign that are valid. There are certain lessons that were learned that, taken with all due care to the differences here, because every situation is unique, and the truth is that every village, every valley, every district in Afghanistan requires a slightly different, nuanced approach based on the circumstances of that location.
Having said that, obviously there are certain lessons that you learn in other situations, or lessons that I learned in the Balkans, Haiti, Central America, and you bring all of that, and then you filter it through as best understanding you can gain of the local circumstance of the endeavor in which you are engaged and figure out what will work.
But the targeting campaign was quite successful in Baghdad?
It was successful throughout Iraq, but that was by no means — if you were to ask me what was the single biggest development in Iraq, I think you’d probably say that it was reconciliation, which I also strongly championed, having done it, by the way, in 2003, as early as that as a division commander. … By the way, it was done not only with the Sunni population, and the mid- and low levels of the Sunni insurgency; it was also done with a substantial segment of the Shia population and substantial numbers of former Shia militia.
Gen. McChrystal talked about what he called COIN [counterinsurgency] mathematics: that you kill one insurgent, and you end up creating more in the process. Why is it then that you, almost on a daily [basis], release press releases talking about how you’ve killed this Taliban leader, these insurgents have been killed? It sounds like you are now counting the deaths of enemy fighters as a positive score.
We release press releases on everything. Again, the comprehensive efforts of all-the-way, across-the-board conventional operations, rebuilding operations — in fact, if you look at the press releases, you will see that they are actually more about the softer side, about ribbon cuttings for new schools, health clinics, road-pavement projects, planting of trees, repairing damage done in the course of operations and all the rest of that, than they are of kinetic operations, of which these are a subset.
But we do think it’s important to release information about what it is that we are doing. Our Afghan partners do the same, just the same as we release information about our casualties on a daily basis.
So again, I think I’d qualify with what Gen. McChrystal was saying, noting in particular that he was for a number of years, of course, the head of the kill/capture organization, the Joint Special Operations Command [JSOC]. He is keenly aware of the contribution that can be made, both in terms of what it can do and also what it cannot do.
And what we’re trying to do, again, is use every component to increase every component in a sensible way. And again, if you are trying to take down an industrial-strength insurgency, you clear it, take away its safe havens; you take away its leaders by detaining them or in some cases killing them, or running them off. You take away their weapons caches; you interdict the flow of fighters; you disrupt their communications. And you work to support the people and their Afghan local governance, so that they will, over time, reject these individuals that are causing such security problems for them.
Just to understand what you mean, you said, and you reiterate, that you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency. But you still regard the killing of senior Taliban leaders, for example, and their fighters as a net positive in your campaign?
Again, you have to look at each circumstance and ask that question. But those operations that we launched, certainly that’s because we assessed that it would have a contributing effect, a positive effect.
Let’s remember, by the way, these are not necessarily local fighters. In many cases, these are individuals coming in from outside the country, at the very least from outside the village, valley or district. In increasing cases, locals are getting tired of these individuals that are coming in, especially after they start to see the progress that can be made.
When you see in parts of central Helmand, for example, high school for the first time in five years, or the growth of all the different schools, and the ability of girls to go to school again, and markets reopen and [are] selling licit goods rather than weapons and illegal narcotics, the people start to associate that with the fact that the insurgents, the Taliban are not among them, and that is why they are able to enjoy this. And they don’t want them to come back. And again, that’s all part of this comprehensive effort, without question.
Perhaps I could ask you for an example. We’re looking particularly in the north, where, according to your press releases, five Taliban shadow provincial governors have been killed since April last year. Could you tell us about any one of those strikes and really how that improves security in those provinces?
Sure, yeah. I think probably a very good example is in Badghis province, which is out in the west, northwest area, an area [in] which the Taliban indeed enjoyed the momentum for the past several years. It’s largely desert area, but with a green zone in it. You know, the river runs through it. That’s the greenish area; that’s where the population is.
And frankly, the Taliban had run the people out of the villages. They were living in the hills, they were living in tents and so forth.
This is one of those locations in which a handful of targeted operations, kill-or-capture operations, were able to reduce quite significantly the ability of the insurgents. It enabled the return to these green zones, the rightful owners of these houses. …
While there is no question that the Taliban is still contesting this, there’s also absolutely no question that there is a security bubble that exists there now, that did not exist until the shadow governor was killed, his replacement was killed, and his two subordinate leaders were killed, at which time many of the other leaders decamped and left the area either to go back to Pakistan or to bury their weapons, and in some cases also to reintegrate, I might add.
So it’s quite a dramatic change that was brought about by a relative handful of operations in that particular case. Now, there are other cases where you can bang away all day, in Pajary and Panjwai, or in the case of Iraq, Ramadi, where for four years, and it wasn’t until you took away the safe haven, it wasn’t until you cleared the area of the insurgents, that you could provide a more secure environment for the people.
But the security in the north in general — Kunduz, Baghlan and Takhar — many of those provinces, despite some pretty heavy targeting operations, have been deteriorating.
They had been deteriorating, I think would be a more accurate assessment, until probably about two, three months ago. And if you go to Kunduz now, I think you’d find an improved situation. In fact, very recently, in recent weeks, there was a [Taliban] directive to just leave the area, … go away for a couple of months, and we’ll regroup, and we’ll figure out what we’re going to do.
In Baghlan as well, some good operations — a combination again of conventional forces, in this case German, American, other coalition forces with some good Afghan partners, slowly but steadily clearing, again, the green zones in the area. Certainly [there is] more work to be done, but a case in which the momentum the Taliban had probably until last fall, in our assessment, would now be seen as reversed.
Many of these operations take place at night, and even Gen. McChrystal last March talked about night raids coming at a steep cost to the perceptions of the Afghan people. And when you look at what the Afghans were saying, President Karzai and frankly, we haven’t found a Pashtun that doesn’t talk about night raids and the damage they say is caused to –
I’ve found many Pashto who have talked about night raids, actually, and the positive effects of them. Now, they’re not going to do it on camera because there is almost now a refrain about that. Actually, President Karzai the other day in his inauguration address at the Parliament I thought really did this very nicely, and as I’ve been told privately by very senior members of the Afghan government, “You know, General,” they say, “occasionally politicians here have to say something for domestic political consumption.”
But not in public.
Of course that would never happen, of course, in the United States. But the fact is that we have worked very hard to ensure that the night raids are conducted in a way that reduces the possibility of the kinds of concerns — very legitimate, understandable concerns — that arose all the way back in, say 2009, Gen. [David] McKiernan’s time. I think it was, we in fact had to shut down targeted operations for about a three-week period and regroup and figure out, what is it we’re doing wrong?
So Afghans accompany our forces on every one of these. It’s now a minimum of nine per operation, and that operation and that number is growing, and it will continue to grow until it reaches the point, as in the greater Kabul area, where the Afghan forces are completely in the lead of these operations in the cast majority of the cases. They do the call-out; in other words, “Come out! We’ve surrounded the house!” They do it, obviously, in the native tongue that’s appropriate to that area. They do the entry operations. They do the searches, if it’s required, and so on.
So we’ve worked very hard indeed to address the very legitimate and understandable concerns of the people about these operations, and we’re continuing to adjust them. We make mistakes. What we try to do is to learn from the mistakes, to adjust in the wake of them and to truly turn lessons learned intellectually into actual changes in practices.
Here’s what some say about you: “But Gen. Petraeus, he doesn’t understand Pashtun culture, that approaching someone’s home at night” — your target – “regardless of whether someone’s there or not is seen as a violation of their home and stokes up those feelings of revenge that [are] really fueling that insurgency.”
Well, look, I will give you an equal number who will say privately, “General, keep it going; in fact, turn it up even more,” because we are seeing progress for the first time in many years in areas that were deteriorating prior to the surge of all elements.
And again, I think, with respect, that you are focusing unduly on this as well to the expense of the many, many other initiatives that have been launched that are of equal if not greater importance.
To turn to civilian casualties, where there’s been one case that has been raised with us that took place in Takhar province on Sept. 7, 2010, when you announced the killing of an IMU [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan] commander whose name was Mullah [Mohammed] Amin, I believe, who was in the press release described first as a “Taliban deputy shadow governor” in a selective legitimate surgical attack. Then you have a follow-up investigation to confirm that the target was hit. Can I just ask you how that target operation came into being and what made you think this was the man that you were targeting?
Well, we didn’t think; in this case, with respect, we knew. We had days and days of what’s called “the unblinking eye,” confirmed by other forms of intelligence, that informed us that there is no question about who this individual was. Now, there are some complicating factors, because there are some people that didn’t necessarily, I think, in the aftermath want to confess that they were part of this particular convoy. But the individual that was killed, the target was indeed who we said he was. …
Now, it happened that also in that convoy was a political candidate, and I think that was of some source of embarrassment in that particular case.
What can you tell us about the target, who he was?
He was actually the IMU head in the country at the time.
The IMU is?
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. In fact, he had just been in and out of Kabul, where he was orchestrating attacks. So again, a very significant figure, a very precisely targeted operation, and those who were killed were bad guys.
The man who was killed who appears to be the target was a man named Zabet Amanullah. That’s who people identify as the man who was in the car, who was identified by Afghans as a former Taliban commander who had reconciled and was living openly in Kabul. And we have Afghan government officials who say this man was innocent, that he was an influential tribal leader who had been living in Kabul and had gone up to this area to take part in an election campaign for his nephew. So what gives ISAF the confidence that he was who you say he was?
Very precise intelligence that tells us exactly what he was doing when he was in Kabul, and exactly what he was doing up there. So again, there is not a question about this one, with respect. I mean, you can find people in any court of law in any country, who might dispute the facts in a particular case for a variety of different reasons, but I am more than personally satisfied that the days of surveillance that included several different forms of surveillance. Again, you don’t do something like this without very precise intelligence and conducting it in a very precise way as well. So we have quite good, very, very [strong] certainty in this particular case, which we have indeed laid out for some groups confidentially.
… It’s just important to try and understand what lies behind the decisions that are taken. So why not, for example, arrest someone like him? Why just strike out of the air?
Again, when you have a very large target, when you have actionable intelligence, when you have imminent threats, all of these are what factor into that kind of decision. We actually prefer to detain someone, as I mentioned earlier. You get intelligence from someone who is detained and interrogated. And so again, ideally that’s the circumstance you would take. But there are also cases in which you do a targeted kill operation.
What is the aim of the policy of reconciliation? Do you believe that there can be an accommodation of any sort with the Taliban, or is the object to divide the Taliban and to bring them over to the government’s side here?
We’ll have to see. Again, there are a number of components to the effort to take as many Taliban off the battlefield, if you will, through reintegration back into society of reconcilable elements. There are different components to this. There is one that takes place at the district, the province level, by Afghan reintegration councils at those levels. These are midlevel fighters and below who have had enough or are tired of just endless fighting, whatever it may be, the pressure and so on, and essentially come forward and say, “I’d like to lay down my weapon; I would like to be reintegrated into society; I’d like protection as I do that so I’m not now vulnerable to those who were previously my compatriots in the fight.”
And that, as I mentioned earlier, there’s a number of these cases now that have emerged, and there’s somewhere around 800 or so individuals who in the course of recent months have come forward in this regard.
There’s also the outreach by senior government officials, and in some cases some international elements as well, to see if senior Taliban leaders would want to take part in reconciliation. And again, same guidelines. They’ve obviously got to renounce violence and their ties to Al Qaeda and agree to support the Afghan constitution. That means in particular, by the way, that the rights of all Afghans [are recognized], not just men but women as well, who didn’t fare very well, needless to say, under the Taliban rule.
Again, one would hope that you could see this as broadly as possible. We support that very strongly it should be Afghan-led. Again, there are some international elements that are also seeking to support this, to enable it. Obviously it’s everyone’s hope that at the end of the day, all groups could come together, live under the Afghan constitution, lay down their weapons and help make this Afghanistan a country in which the children of today have a brighter future than did the children of yesterday, especially given, by the way, the extraordinary blessings this country has, if it could ever figure out how to get the mineral wealth out of the ground to develop the infrastructure, the human capital, the value chain, the transportation and so on that could really bring this country out of the poverty and war and so forth that it has known for decades and decades.
Do you think there is a way of helping that reconciliation process along, for example, allowing the Taliban to have a political organization or set up a political office so that there can be a point of contact to try and enter into a dialogue?
I’ll leave that to the Afghan government officials, the diplomats and so forth. But again, we’re supportive of Afghan initiatives that seek to engage those who might be willing to agree to what the Afghan government has put forward.
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