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Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, speaks during an interview June 3 in Kabul. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
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KABUL, Afghanistan — Army Gen. David Petraeus still drinks out of a travel mug that bears the eagle patch of the 101st Airborne Division and a sticker that reads "Eagle 6," his call sign as commander of that division in the early years of the last decade.
His journey since then has led him to the peak of command in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and placed him in line to become director of the CIA, a job contingent on Senate confirmation and one that will see him retire after 37 years of active service.
Military Times met with Petraeus on June 3 at his office in the NATO and International Security Assistance Forces headquarters compound in Kabul. The compound and the adjacent U.S. Embassy villa have been the nerve center of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan for close to 10 years.
Now Petraeus, who took over as commander a year ago, is in charge of planning for the start of a drawdown of the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops still in country.
In a wide-ranging interview, he discussed the state of the war, potential U.S. troop withdrawals, recent incidents of Afghan security forces killing U.S. troops, and more. Here are highlights of the interview, edited for clarity and brevity.
A diminished Taliban
Q. You've been traveling …
A. Yes, we were in south and central Helmand, in Kandahar, including the Najari district, in Khost and in far eastern Kunar, all in the last five days.
The progress in southern Helmand … [has] been quite substantial in the last year or so. Certainly, the insurgents are attempting to launch an extreme offensive in those areas, but we think that [our] progress cannot only be sustained but gradually expanded further as Afghan forces become increasingly capable, as the Afghan national police initiative takes hold.
Q. What does it look like compared to last year?
A. The Taliban begins this spring fighting season in Helmand and Kandahar from a very different, diminished position, not controlling some key areas they used to control that were very important support zones ... significantly Marjah, which used to be the nexus of the illegal narcotics industry and the insurgency.
Q. Where is the fighting expected to be tenacious?
A. The northeastern Helmand area where the Marines continue to expand toward Kajaki Dam remains a very challenging area. So does the area to the northeast of Task Force Helmand and central-north Helmand.
The Taliban has been pushed further out into the desert. The same is true in areas of Kandahar, as well. In some cases, we think they're actually using sanctuaries in Balochistan [in Pakistan] now. They're having to use those areas rather than areas inside Afghanistan to build [improvised explosive devices], do their planning, so logistically it's more difficult for them.
Q. What can you say about possible U.S. force reductions?
A. There are options that I am developing. There is one action officer on this effort — you're looking at him. I've kept this exclusively close hold … because I want to assure everybody above me that there will be no kinds of atmospherics as a result of leaks.
[I will] provide the chain of command and president with options to implement the policy that the president has stated, initiating what he has termed the responsible drawdown of the surge forces, the final 30,000, at a pace determined by conditions on the ground.
Q. Your options are developed by talking to commanders on the ground?
A. They're developed right here at this desk, but they're informed by battlefield circulation. One reason I've done so much travel … is to see for myself what the situation is. My recommendations … [will be] determined by my assessment of conditions on the ground.
Q. Apart from any options you might give the president, do you see a shift of troops away from certain areas, into others?
A. It would be pre-decisional to begin sketching out our thoughts in that detail, but what I would offer is that our Marines, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen have done phenomenal work in Helmand province. They've taken the momentum in areas that were very important to the Taliban, such as Marjah, Garmsir, Nawah.
They have demonstrated extraordinary appreciation for the elements required in a counterinsurgency campaign. They've also demonstrated very impressive innovativeness, determination, initiative and, above all, courage.
Our troops are … truly, I think, versatile in a way that may be unique in our military history.
We will increasingly seek, to use [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai's term, to "Afghanize" our operations. We obviously very much want our Afghan partners out front. They want to be out front. Afghans are very proud people.
Bin Laden's death
Q. What effect has the death of Osama bin Laden had?
A. No country has suffered more from Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida than Afghanistan.
Having said that, I think there is a realistic appraisal and still a wait-and-see attitude about the effect of bin Laden's death on the groups causing the security problems here. Certainly, it's an enormous blow to the al-Qaida enterprise around the world, given the central role he played, not only as the iconic leader and founder but also an individual who did guide, to a degree, various strategic and operational initiatives.
Q. Will his death affect the continued need for U.S. troops?
A. We're obviously evaluating what the effects may be. We are here to prevent al-Qaida or other transnational extremist groups from re-establishing the kinds of safe havens that existed here before 9/11. To do that, we have to help our Afghan partners develop the ability to secure and to govern themselves.
We see steady progress with the [Afghan security forces], not just in quantity but also in capability and quality — recognizing, to be sure, that there's still unevenness among some elements, especially the Afghan uniformed police, but also recognizing that there are increasing numbers of quite capable Afghan forces. There are over 11,000 Afghan special operations forces alone.
These elements are in the lead for targeted operations — so-called night raids in the Kabul area, for example — and they execute those raids based on arrest warrants and they do the detention operations. All of these targeted operations now are joint, with the exception of the occasional kinetic operation in a remoter area.
ASF attacks on U.S. troops
Q. Can we talk about the security of U.S. troops and the attacks by Afghan security forces that have taken place inside forward operating bases?
A. We have taken a variety of steps, which I'm not going to share, but there are a number of actions underway both in terms of counterintelligence initiatives, actions with our Afghan partners to carefully vet those who are recruited and brought into the Afghan national security forces, security checks at our bases and even the posture of our forces in various situations.
I'm not sure that we would say there's a pattern. We think there are different motivations in a number of the cases. Certainly, some have been infiltrators. [But] some of these are arguments which, tragically in Afghanistan, occasionally are settled by shooting rather than shouting.
We have launched a number of different initiatives to do all we can to ensure the safety of our troopers while still ensuring that we carry out the important partnership activities that are such a foundation for our overall approach here. It's a challenge.
Q. President Karzai said [May 31] he did not want any more airstrikes. What does that mean for U.S. forces?
A. We absolutely share President Karzai's concern about loss of innocent civilian life in the conduct of Afghan ISAF operations. We've made progress in reducing civilian casualties over the course of 2010 and through the first five months of this year. We are here to protect the people, ensure their security, not to harm them and damage their property. When we damage property, we compensate them.
Q. Is there a restriction on airstrikes that you must follow now?
A. Just a week ago or so, I put out a memo that reiterated the importance of refamiliarizing all ISAF forces with the tactical directive and other directives that seek to reduce civilian casualties while ensuring that we also protect our forces and our Afghan partners.
We have standing directives that are very clear. I can't go into … precisely when we can and cannot use airstrikes, but I can tell you that leaders are very sensitive to the possibility of civilian casualties and damage to civilian property.
Moving to the CIA
Q. You're retiring from the military before going to the CIA?
A. I am. That doesn't mean that those who have [served as CIA director] in uniform in the past were wrong. [But] for someone who has the relatively high profile that I have had, it is best, I think, to take the uniform off. I think it sends an important message to the CIA workforce.
Certainly, an organization, an institution really, a family you've been a part of for 37 years, plus four years at West Point, I don't think you leave it. There will always be those ties. The familial relationship will endure.
But I feel very much the excitement of joining the agency family, which I've worked with very closely for the past decade.
I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to continue to serve our country.