Exclusive: Gen. David Petraeus Denies Resignation Threat, Backs President Karzai

In his first interview since the latest WikiLeaks document dump, General David Petraeus brushed aside reports that Afghanistan's former Vice President left the country with $52 million in cash. And he denied rumors that he threatened to resign after Afghan President Karzai criticized his battle tactics in a Washington Post interview.

Here’s the full exchange:

George Stephanopoulos: Let me ask you about some of the other challenges we face. And some of them revealed by these WikiLeaks revelations over the last several days, starting with corruption. Yesterday President Karzai said this claim in the-- in the documents that-- former vice president Massoud tried to leave the country with $52 million is just not true. Is he right?

Gen. David Petraeus: I honestly don't know that case. That was well before my time, George. And I'd literally have to go back and pull that out.

George Stephanopoulos: But this was an operation of the Drug Enforcement Administration according-- according to the cables. Is it conceivable that someone could leave the country with that much money?

Gen. David Petraeus: There is a provision in Afghanistan that, if you declare funds, you can take those funds out of the country. And again, I don't know enough about the specifics of this particular case to confirm or deny it. I really don't want to get into commenting on --

George Stephanopoulos: Well, let me get to the broader issue, then.

Gen. David Petraeus: --what were classified cables, anyway.

George Stephanopoulos: Well—let me present one of the other cables that Ambassador Eikenberry was quoted as saying-- talking about the problem of corruption-- is that, "One of the major challenges we have is how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government when the key government officials are themselves corrupt." That is the key dilemma, isn't it?

Gen. David Petraeus: Well, there's no question that corruption has been, for however long this country has probably been in existence, been part of the-- literally the culture. The question is really whether, over time governance can be seen by the people as being sufficiently legitimate to gain their support. And first of all, by no means-- I don't think anyone has charged President Karzai with individual corruption or enriching himself--


George Stephanopoulos: His brother.

Gen. David Petraeus: --or something like that. There certainly are elements around him that have been alleged to have been engaged in corrupt practices and all the rest. But again, this is Afghanistan. And again, you're not going to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland in a decade or less. I think one of the important outcomes of the policy review that was carried out by President Obama last fall was a recognition of the need to have realistic aspirations. The need to recognize the culture, the history, and so forth, of this country. That doesn't mean that we don't want to enable the forces for good, that we don't want to help Afghanistan develop a tradition of rule of law, of integrity and so forth. It doesn't mean, by the way, that there aren't many, many very fine and honest and decent officials in this country. It does mean that you do have to understand the realities in which you're operating.

George Stephanopoulos: But can the Afghan people support the government, as they must, in order for this to succeed over the long term, and have confidence in the government, if they believe it's corrupt?

Gen. David Petraeus: It is key to earn legitimacy in the eyes of people, that government, wherever it may be, including here in Afghanistan, be seen to be inclusive of the population. In other words, represented above it. And that's true where it's local district, provincial, or national-- to be seen to be sufficiently transparent, and it has sufficient-- again, in the-- in the cultural context of that country, integrity-- to gain, again, the support of the people.

George Stephanopoulos: You mention--

Gen. David Petraeus: I think there's an-- we are keenly aware of that. It's one reason-- by the way, we also have to work on our own practices. Not only did I issue counterinsurgency guidance here after taking command in Afghanistan, I then issued counterinsurgency contracting guidance. Because our contracts, which are the source of enormous funding in this country, were part of the problem.

George Stephanopoulos: Has that been fixed?

Gen. David Petraeus: And we-- it's not fixed yet, by any means. In fact, what was spent the first few months after issuing that is truly understanding the magnitude of the challenges-- to understand, if you will, the problem, and to focus intelligence assets on that particular component of the effort here. Which we didn't have a sufficient understanding of prior to really focusing on it. I've got one of the brightest brigadier generals in the U.S. Army on that mission. We've also brought in others to focus specifically on a couple of different aspects of our contracting. We do have to make reforms in how we operate in addition to supporting Afghans as they also seek to, again, increase transparency, integrity, and so forth.

George Stephanopoulos: Let's talk about President Karzai. You said there are no allegations he personally is corrupt. But there've been some pretty scathing assessment of him, again, in those WikiLeaks cables and by others. And-- and you seem to have a run-in with him a couple of weeks ago when he came out and publicly called for an end to these night raids, to the very aggressive U.S. military operations. It was reported at the time that you even considered resigning in the face of those-- of those statements. Is that true?

Gen. David Petraeus: No, it's not. In fact, what took place is we read the interview, contacted his closest advisors--

George Stephanopoulos: You were surprised by it.

Gen. David Petraeus: It was a surprise. And actually, when I sat down with him a couple of days later, he said, "Hey look, what's the big deal? I've raised these issues repeatedly. All I did was repeat my concerns that I've had for years about civilian casualties in the course of the military operations, night raids that don't do exactly what they're precisely supposed to do, contracting issues, private security contractors, and a host of others." And he was absolutely right. He had the same dialogue with Secretary Gates a day or two after that in a regularly scheduled secure video teleconference, as well. So in his view, this is much ado about just repetition of the same themes that he's--


George Stephanopoulos: But you needed to be reassured after that.

Gen. David Petraeus: I did. And I was. And that was very important. Because in fact, I would-- you know, people say, "Well, how's your relationship with President Karzai?" And my response is that it is a good relationship. In other words, we can sit down, and we do at least twice a week, typically, one on one, during portions of the-- each of those sessions, and talk about the really tough issues that are out there. And occasionally, we do indeed come at issues from a slightly different perspective. I think that's understandable.

George Stephanopoulos: But--

Gen. David Petraeus: And let me finish this, please, George. I'm a military commander. I've got a military mission. He is the leader of a sovereign country. He has a political foundation that he has to maintain. And we do need occasionally, I think, to walk a mile or a kilometer in his shoes and in these mountains to understand the challenge that he has.

-- George Stephanopoulos

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