In my exclusive interview with General David Petraeus he was encouraged by the progress made since President Obama's surge of forces into Afghanistan, but is he confident that the Afghan army can take the lead from U.S. forces by NATO's 2014 deadline?
“I think-no commander ever is going to come out and say, ‘I'm confident that we can do this.’ I think that you say that you assess that this is-- you believe this is, you know, a reasonable prospect and knowing how important it is-- that we have to do everything we can to increase the chances of that prospect,” the top commander in Afghanistan told me. “But again, I don't think there are any sure things in this kind of endeavor. And I wouldn't be honest with you and with the viewers if I didn't convey that.”
After nine years of war fewer Afghans support a U.S. presence in the country and fewer believe that the United States makes their country any safer, according to a new ABC News/ Washington Post poll – something that the U.S. “clearly” needs to continue to work on, Petraeus said.
“Well, we clearly have to continue to provide the message to the Afghan people about why we're here, and what it is that we want to do, not just for our own national objectives and coalition objectives, but also for the people of this country, and for the government of Afghanistan, to enable them, indeed, to secure and to govern themselves,” the top commander in Afghanistan said in an exclusive interview.
Petraeus said he is “not sure” why support for the U.S. presence has slipped over the last year, but suggested that some of the poll cutoff dates were before recent progress began.
For example, the Pentagon report which indicated insurgents are gaining ground. Petraeus said that did not account for some of the coalition’s latest successes west of Kandahar City. He also pointed to gains in central Helmand and Kabul province.
“It's been some time since there's been a serious attack here,” he said during our interview in Kabul. “This is not the Baghdad of 2007.”
But as large numbers of U.S. forces secure these areas, they squeeze insurgents to other parts of the country –which is why we must continue to go after them, Petraeus told me.
“This is actually true of the overall fight against al-Qaeda and trans-national extremists, that as you put pressure on them in one location, they'll seek safe haven sanctuaries in other areas,” he said. “So you do have to continue to pursue them. But they have less capability.”
Petraeus said it is “hard to say” how much of Afghanistan the Taliban control. Recent intelligence shows U.S. gains over the last 6 months, he said -- but he also acknowledged a “resilient” enemy that regenerates, which is why he said this war will take a “sustained, substantial commitment.”
So what does the end of our “substantial commitment” in Afghanistan look like? Victory will not come with the U.S. planting a flag on a hill and going home to a victory parade, Petraeus said. “It looks like an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself. And it's one that incrementally demonstrates the ability to do that, not suddenly. Between the summer of 2011 and the end of 2014 there will be, again, a series of transitions, starting most likely at districts, not in overall provinces,” he said.
The general said the pace of the July 2011 withdrawal will be based on conditions on the ground – or what he deems as the “ability of Afghan forces to take on tasks that, until then, we had performed.”
This will not be a “here’s the ball, you run with it” strategy, he said.