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updated 8/25/2010 8:55:54 AM ET 2010-08-25T12:55:54

Announcer:  From Afghanistan, this is a special edition of MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.

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MR. DAVID GREGORY:  We have come to Kabul at a critical moment of this war. Nine years into the conflict, President Obama has doubled down, surging U.S. forces in order to root the insurgency and help the government of Hamid Karzai, a government ripe with corruption, stand up on its own.  The man behind this new strategy is General David Petraeus, the commander behind the successful surge in Iraq.  Petraeus has taken over command of U.S. and coalition forces here after General Stan McChrystal was fired by President Obama for publicly airing his grievances with the war effort.  General Petraeus is speaking out for the first time, and exclusively to us, about all of the big issues in this conflict—the public’s frustration with the war, the strength of the Taliban, the government of Hamid Karzai here in Afghanistan, the expected leaking of new secret war documents on the Internet, and whether President Obama’s July of 2011 withdrawal timeline will hold.

At the heart of his challenge is the question we will explore in this special hour:  Is nation building possible in the badlands of Afghanistan?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS:  And begin.  (He does push-ups)

MR. GREGORY:  At 57, General David Petraeus is easily America’s most famous warrior.  On this morning we find him in the middle of physical training as this fiercely competitive four-star general works over soldiers half his age...

GEN. PETRAEUS: Good morning, Marie. How are you?

MR. GREGORY:  ...with the same intensity as he works the war plan.  Despite his reputation for taking on the toughest jobs...

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Sit down, please.

MR. GREGORY:  ...General Petraeus admits he had his doubts about this assignment.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Obviously that crosses your mind and, you know, to be candid, I thought I’d sort of done my last one of this type, but it’s a privilege to do it with the tremendous team that we have out here.

MR. GREGORY:  He recalled the candid one-on-one conversation he had with President Obama the day he was tapped for the job.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, we talked about literally the, again, the importance of the mission, the importance of, of our commitment to it, talked about the way ahead, talked about the various dynamics that are at play here that obviously give impressions about our commitment and so forth.  I didn’t come out here to, to carry out a graceful exit or something like that.  I, I came out here committed to achieving our objectives and doing everything that we can to, to doing that.

MR. GREGORY:  As the former head of Central Command, General Petraeus oversaw the war strategy.

GEN. PETRAEUS: Good morning. How are you?

MR. GREGORY:  Now, as the commanding general on the ground, he’s clear-eyed about how hard this mission is.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  We have to achieve a consensus in...

MR. GREGORY:  His morning briefing, normally closed to cameras, includes a thorough battlefield report.  The general seizes on word of a Taliban attack on a mosque near the border with Pakistan, telling an adviser to get the word out to the local press.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  And this damage to the mosque is a good one to hang around the neck of the Taliban.

(Greeting Afghans) Salaam alaikum.  How are you?

MR. GREGORY:  He is a strategist, a student of the conflict, and savvy enough to handle bottom-line questions very delicately.

You always say you’re a realist...

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Yep.

MR. GREGORY:  ...so are we winning or losing here?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  We’re making progress, and progress is winning, if you will, but it takes the accumulation of a lot of progress ultimately, needless to say, to win overall, and that’s going to be a long-term proposition, without question.

MR. GREGORY:  You faced this before, there’s a Washington clock, and there is talk of a deadline, July 2011, when forces are supposed to begin to come out. Is your job here now as commander to try to slow down that Washington clock?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, I think our job is, again, to show those in Washington that there is progress being made, and to do that we’ve got to build on the progress that has been established so far because there’s certainly nothing like irreversible momentum.  What we have are areas of progress, we’ve got to link those together, extend them and, and then build on it because, of course, the security progress, as you noted earlier, is the foundation for everything else, for the governance progress, the economic progress, rule-of-law progress and so forth.  Obviously, they influence security as well.  They can either reinforce it or they can undermine it.  And the, and the trick is to get all of it moving so that you’re spiraling upward where one initiative reinforces another.

MR. GREGORY:  General Petraeus says he supports the beginning of troop withdrawal next July, but it’s a qualified response to a highly charged issue back in Washington.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Vice President Biden has also commented on it.  He said recently, I think, it could be as little as a couple of thousand troopers who go home next July.  Again, that remains to be seen, and it would be premature to have any kind of assessment at this juncture about what we may or may not be able to transition.  What the president very much wants from me, and, and what we talked about in the Oval Office is the responsibility of a military commander on the ground to provide as best professional military advice, leave the politics to him.  Certainly I’m aware of the context within which I offer that advice, but that just informs the advice, it doesn’t drive it.  The situation on the ground drives it.  That’s what he wants, that’s what he, he told me to provide, and that’s what I will provide.

MR. GREGORY:  You...

GEN. PETRAEUS:  That’s what I owe the country and our troopers who are fighting hard on the ground.

MR. GREGORY:  But you’ll take a hard look at this, and you’ll make a determination about when America’s footprint should be diminished, when that’s appropriate?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Absolutely.  Yeah.  And again, as he has said, as NATO officials have said, conditions-based, and that’s a real key element of this. And then we have since drawn up a number of other principles and guidelines which we’ve provided up our operational chain of command.

MR. GREGORY:  But the level of U.S. troops is not the most pressing concern on the ground.  The biggest obstacle?  Rampant corruption in the Afghan government.  President Hamid Karzai has promised a crackdown, but U.S. officials await results and have grown more suspect since he began to interfere with a U.S. anti-corruption task force.  U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry defends Karzai now, but last fall during the surge debate, he privately warned that Karzai could not be trusted.

And my, my direct question is, you made it very clear you did not trust him as a partner in this debate.  Now, that may not have been a view that, you know, you wanted public, but there it is.  Have you changed your view about that, and based on what?

MR. KARL EIKENBERRY:  We—David, we have a very good cooperation with the government of Afghanistan to work at the challenges we have here of helping to build, a, a capable government.  This is a hard task, and my role here as the United States ambassador is to take forward the president’s strategy here. We’ve got a very clear strategy, David.  we’ve got—for the first time, we’ve got the proper resources.  We’ve got an array of, I think, good programs here in working with the Afghan government and their law enforcement sector, their judicial sector; and we remain, we remain cautiously optimistic of our ability to make progress.

MR. GREGORY:  During our visit with General Petraeus, he focused on examples of that progress:  security gains in the center of the country.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  And you can see, again, a fair amount of construction that’s gone on down here.

MR. GREGORY:  We accompanied him to Wardak Province near Kabul, fly over the sprawling capital city, a much safer city than Baghdad was when he assumed command there.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  That was a tough environment, you know, 50, 60 attacks per day as well during that time, in addition to these car bombs.  Now, touch wood, there are periodic attacks in Kabul; some of them are sensational horrific attacks, but the frequency is vastly less, you know, typically in a six- to eight-week cycle.

MR. GREGORY:  The general speaks of expanding security out from Kabul using the metaphor of an oil spot that grows larger and larger on the map.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, the oil, the oil spot, if you will, is a, is a term in counterinsurgency literature that connotes a peaceful area, secure area.  So what you’re trying to do is to always extend that, to push that out.  Of course, down in Helmand Province what we sought to do was to build an oil spot that would encompass the six central districts of Helmand Province, including Marjah and then others, and then to just keep pushing that out, ultimately to connect it over with the oil spot that is being developed around Kandahar City.  Kabul, a huge—an entire province, not just the city—all but one district in Kabul, by the way, has Afghan security forces in the lead.

Unidentified Man:  This is Governor Fidai.

GOV.  FIDAI:  Salaam.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Thank you, Governor.

GOV.  FIDAI:  Welcome to Wardak.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, tashakur.  Ramadan mubarak.

GOV.  FIDAI:  Thank you very much.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  It’s an honor to see you.

MR. GREGORY:  In Wardak, Petraeus is greeted warmly by the provincial governor.  Security is vastly improved here, and now officials see the area as an emerging model for development projects and good government.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Now, what is this right over here?

GOV.  FIDAI:  Oh, this is a...

MR. GREGORY:  Counterinsurgency at work.

The general’s visit to Wardak Province today was in part to underline the, the importance of that security bubble being extended from outside Kabul to the southwest here to Wardak Province.  But even during this afternoon’s shura, or, or meeting with tribal elders and the governor, the general’s visit was interrupted by rocket fire.  Apache helicopters scrambled in response to the fired round, and security immediately tightened.

The meeting gets interrupted by some rocket fire.  It gets some people nervous.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  I didn’t see anybody in there nervous.  They’re all former mujahideen.  As he said, that was the celebratory fire aspect of the ceremony. But clearly, this is what this is about.  It’s about pushing the security bubble out.  It’s about rooting out every last guy, so that there’s not even somebody who can fire a single, solitary RPG round from some little qalat out here.

MR. GREGORY:  The fight in Afghanistan is village to village, and it still faces tough odds.  Even a Friday morning run with some staff and young soldiers provides little relief.  There is no hiding from the pressure of rescuing America’s longest-running war.

Up next, much more from Kabul, including my exclusive sit-down conversation with General Petraeus when we return.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  My exclusive conversation with General David Petraeus about the future of the war here in Afghanistan when a special edition of MEET THE PRESS continues.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  We are back in Kabul for this special edition of MEET THE PRESS.  On Friday morning, I sat down for a more in-depth conversation with General David Petraeus at the headquarters of U.S. and coalition forces here in Kabul, in the very room where General Petraeus gets a daily briefing on the progress of the war.

General, thank you for having us in the situational awareness room.  It’s good to be here.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, it’s good to have you in Afghanistan, David.

MR. GREGORY:  This is a very difficult time in this war, and, and we have talked about your assessment of winning vs.  losing.  The reality that you understand is that the American public is not behind this war.  Our new poll with The Wall Street Journal indicates that 7 in 10 Americans lack confidence in a successful outcome to this war.  And yet your position was that we’re actually winning because we’re making some progress.  What is it that the American public is missing?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, I think it’s incumbent on us to show greater progress, to show sustained progress.  I would argue that the progress, if you will, really just began this spring.  Late spring was when we started to see that the operations in central Helmand Province truly were starting to improve security for the people, an up and down process, to be sure.  Taliban fighting back very hard as we took away very important sanctuaries from, from him.  And now you can see it expanding over into Kandahar Province—again, another tough fight—and in other areas around the country, in southern Herat Province, out in the northwest, up in the north.  Again, all of these, though, are small pockets of progress.

MR. GREGORY:  But can’t you understand, the American people for nine years have been hearing about incremental progress in Afghanistan and remain confused, frustrated and not invested?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  I can understand it.  In fact, that’s why, though, I’ve sought to explain that, over the last 18 months or so, what we’ve sought to do in Afghanistan is get the inputs right for the first time.  When a lot of us came out of Iraq in late 2008 and started looking intently at Afghanistan, we realized that we did not have the organizations that are required for the conduct of a comprehensive civil/military counterinsurgency campaign, that in some cases we needed individuals in charge of those organizations that we didn’t have.  We needed to refine the concepts to build, in some cases, concepts that didn’t exist; for example, reintegration.  If you don’t want to have to kill or capture every bad guy in the country, you have to reintegrate those who are willing to be reconciled and become part of the solution instead of a continued part of the problem.  And then, above all, the resources.  And by the end of August, of course, we will have nearly tripled the number of U.S. forces on the ground, we’ll have expanded the non-U.S. NATO forces, tripled the number of civilians, increased the funding to enable 100,000 more Afghan national security forces, and so on.  And, indeed, that is enabling already—the inputs already are enabling some outputs.  And, of course, what we’ve got to show is that the—these additional inputs can allow greater progress, and that that’s progress that can be sustained over time by Afghan forces and Afghan officials.

MR. GREGORY:  But even getting the inputs right, can you prevail in this war if you do not have the backing of the American people?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, again, this is why it is incumbent on us to show all—it’s not just American people, it’s the citizens of all 47 or so troop-contributing nations, and of other nations who are contributing money and not forces.  They have to have a sense that, again, we can achieve the very important objectives we have here.  Let’s remember why we are here. We’re here so that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary for transnational extremists the way it was when al-Qaeda planned the 9/11 attacks in the Kandahar area, conducted the initial training for the attackers in training camps in Afghanistan before they moved on to Germany and then to U.S. flight schools.  And, of course, other attacks have, have emanated from here or the region because, of course, it’s a regional issue as well.

MR. GREGORY:  You talk a lot about unity of effort, but the national security team, under this administration, has not had that.  And I wonder what you think the impact is, the residual impact is, of General McChrystal being fired because his speaking publicly aired some real differences within the national security team which undermine the effort.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, first of all, let me just start in Afghanistan and state very clearly that there is very good civil/military unity of effort. Ambassador Eikenberry, my U.S. diplomatic wingman, if you will, Ambassador Mark Sedwell, the NATO senior civilian representative, we are like this.  In fact, we have done numerous meetings with President Karzai together when there have been particularly important issues at hand.  And for what it’s worth, my sense is, from dealing with the national security team, that since President Obama made this decision, that everyone has linked arms and is moving forward together.

MR. GREGORY:  There’s another developing story that the military’s very unhappy about, and that is the leaking of secret war documents that were put on the Internet by WikiLeaks.  There’s another 15,000 documents that are coming out.  What’s in those documents?  How damaging will they be?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, first of all, this is beyond unfortunate.  I mean, this is a betrayal of trust.  I mean, someone who had apparently had access to highly classified material, albeit not top secret, I don’t believe, and not the code word and so forth.  And, in fact, a lot of this, when we first looked at it, we saw it as what we call first reports.  It’s, it’s undigested.  It’s not the final analysis.  However, as we have looked through it more and more, there are, there are source names and, in some cases, there are actual names of individuals with whom we have partnered in difficult missions in difficult places; and, obviously, that is very reprehensible.  I’m not sure what’s in those other 15,000 or, or whatever it is, and we’ll have to see what that is when it comes out.

MR. GREGORY:  There, there’s some talk that it could be worse than the previous batch.  Can you add to that?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  I can’t.  No.  No.  No.  It—until we see what it is and evaluate it as we have now been able to do with these previous materials released.

MR. GREGORY:  You’re a unique, a unique figure in this situation. Conventional wisdom about a war that is effectively lost, without public support, with corruption and lack of confidence in a host government, sounds like the dark days of Iraq when you came to lead the surge.  Is it comparable?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, it’s different.  It is comparable in some ways.  You know, there’s a reasonably heavy rucksack of responsibility that goes with a position like this.  There is a host of great individuals out there—our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and civilians, who all shoulder this rucksack as a team of teams, and then, of course, all of our international partners, and, of course, our Afghan counterparts as well.  And let’s not forget the enormous sacrifice that our Afghan partners are making, because the Afghan army, the Afghan police, are taking much higher casualties than our forces are.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me talk about U.S. troops.  I asked you before, when we talked about this July deadline of next year, how stifling is the, the concept of this deadline and this Washington debate to what you’re trying to do here?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  I don’t find it that stifling.  I’m not bowed over by, you know, the knowledge that July 2011 is out there.  In fact, the president has been very clear, Vice President Biden’s been very clear as well, more recently, that this is a date when a process begins that is conditions based. And as the conditions permit, we transition tasks to our Afghan counterparts and to security forces and, and in various governmental institutions, and that enables a “responsible drawdown of our forces”...

MR. GREGORY:  Let me just stop you.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  ...of the service forces to begin.

MR. GREGORY:  I just want to clarify this.  Did—could you reach that point and say, “I know that the process is supposed to begin, but my assessment as the commander here is that it cannot begin now”?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Certainly, yeah.  Again, the president and I sat down in the Oval Office, and he expressed very clearly that what he wants from me is my best professional military advice where I understand the mission that’s been assigned, we have recommended the strategy and the resources that are required for that strategy, and as there are changes in any of that, that, obviously, I would communicate that to him, recognizing that he has some issues with which he has to deal that we don’t have to worry about.  But that, that’s real life. And, again, that was the process that we worked through last fall, a process that I thought was very good, the outcome of which was something that we, we strongly supported.

Let me point out one other item about July 2011 if I could.  Because what I have often noted was that in the speech that the president made at West Point, there were two messages.  One was a message of substantial additional commitment, additional 30,000 troops, again more civilians, more funding for Afghan forces, authorization of 100,000 more of them and so forth; but also a message of increased urgency.  And that’s what July 2011 really connotes.  It is to all the participants, those in Kabul, some of us in uniform, again our civilian counterparts, that we’ve got to get on with this, that this has been going on for some nine years or so, that there is understandable concern, in some cases frustration, and that, therefore, we’ve got to really put our shoulder to the wheel and show during the course of this year that progress can be achieved.  And, and, again, one manifestation of that is out there that you have this date.  But, again, we’ve had good dialogue on this, and I think the president’s been quite clear in explaining that it’s a process, not an event, and that it’s conditions based.

MR. GREGORY:  There’s a feeling that General Petraeus, with the credibility you have, will be in a position to prevail in a debate about this and say to the president, “Look,” you know, “you put me in this position to do a tough job, now you’ve got to listen to me.  I need what I need at the time that I need it.”

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Look, my job is, again, to provide my best professional military advice, informed, certainly, by an awareness of the context within which I provide it, but not driven by it.  And that’s the same way that we approached the very difficult recommendations that we made during the effort in Iraq.  Over time I think those worked out and, touch wood, that over time they can work out here as well.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me talk to you about the Afghan government.  Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, is he a friend, a foe, or something in between?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, I think he is the president of a sovereign country, and we have to understand that.  In many cases, most cases, we have converging objectives, as is the case in any of these situations, but in some cases we see things a little bit differently.  And that’s natural.  We went through this with Prime Minister Maliki on numerous occasions.  We’ve gone through this in, in virtually every contingency operation which I’ve been engaged. There’s a situation which the security forces from outside and the government officials of that particular country occasionally see things or come at things a little bit differently.  And we’ve had those moments, and we’ll continue to have them.  When folks ask, you know, “How’s the relationship?” I say it’s a good relationship because, in fact, we can have those kinds of discussions.

MR. GREGORY:  How often do you discuss things with them?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, we—I have literally talked to the president on average about once a day.  There have been a couple times where we’ve had multiple meetings on a given day.  Every now and then we’ll go a day without talking. But we have had numerous conversations, and a couple of those have been at his residence, even, you know, walking in his garden out behind his house and so forth.  And again, we have a—the kind of relationship that I believe we can each be forthright with the other, and that means occasionally, again, confronting issues that are difficult for either of us.

MR. GREGORY:  But is he a real partner of the United States?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, I think he is.  And beyond that, he is the sovereign president of his country.  So...

MR. GREGORY:  But that may be the case, and disagreements are one thing, but the reality is that if his government is rife with corruption, corruption is fueling the insurgency and basically fueling the enemies that we’re fighting.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  And I think he’s been quite forthright about recognizing that.  He has stated repeatedly, most recently, of course, just a couple weeks ago in the Kabul conference, very publicly and openly, about the various activities that need to, to take place to combat the kinds of corruption and other activities, some predatory practices, if you will, of local governance and so forth, so that, that indeed you have to get rid of this to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the people of the Afghan government.  He’s aware of that.  If you look at the number of individuals who have been either fired or arrested and tried for corruption, it is a very growing list, and there are some others that are pending as well.

MR. GREGORY:  But real red flags have been raised by his interference with this anti-corruption task force.  There’s not a resolution to this yet, but is this something that you’re watching very closely?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Oh, it is, certainly.  And, and, and he knows that.  We’ve talked to him about that.  Again, he had some issues about the legal basis, sovereign, sovereignty and so forth and the Western involvement with it.  Some of those understandable, but very clearly we have to watch this.  And, and again, that’s—that is exactly what is going on.

MR. GREGORY:  This may sound unrealistic, but isn’t it fair to ask, is, is there a statute of limitations on this guy?  Is there a cutoff point for him where he either is with the program, with us or against us?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, I mean, he’s been elected for a term of office, and he will be the president during that term of office.

MR. GREGORY:  But, but, but sponsored by us.  I mean, without us, he can’t stay alive, can he?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, and the international community writ large.  And, again, certainly the international community has every right, if you will, to engage with him on these kinds of issues, and that’s what—exactly what’s going on.

MR. GREGORY:  But is there, is there a cutoff point for him in your mind?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Oh, no.  I mean, again, this is a process.  Again, this is a, a case in which each side has concerns and has, I mean, there are different pressures on all of the partners involved in this, not just the U.S. and Afghan partners, but the other international partners, our other diplomatic colleagues and so forth, and, and all of that then gets dealt with.

MR. GREGORY:  Here’s a small example of the problem.  If we look at this map and down at the bottom is Kandahar province, which is where the big campaign is expected to be in the fall, and The Washington Post wrote this about the Kandaharis, an historically tough lot in terms of resistance to outsiders. “Many Kandaharis regard the Taliban,” the insurgents, “ as wayward brothers and cousins - fellow Pashtuns with whom they can negotiate and one day reconcile.  They also worry about siding with their government because they fear Taliban retribution, both now and when U.S. troop reductions begin next summer.” Isn’t that an example of the problem you face?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, there are numerous challenges, and those are among them.  And let me just highlight what they, they say.  First of all, the rank and file of the insurgency is, indeed, local Afghans.  It is Pashtun brothers. It is largely a Pashtun insurgency.  There are some other ethnic groups involved in it, certainly, and some transnational elements as well, but essentially it is a Pashtun insurgency.  And the $5-a-day Taliban are certainly candidates for reintegration into Afghan society.  And that is actually starting to happen a bit more over time, and we’re still awaiting the fairly imminent announcement, we think, of the actual reintegration and reconciliation policy.  So, again, we think that is going to move forward, and that’s what you want to have happen.  Now, what it also highlights is the intimidation that the Taliban has been able to carry out, and that’s a factor of us having to provide better security.

MR. GREGORY:  But isn’t the bottom line that if the Afghan people trusted their own government, they would defeat the Taliban on their own?  And the, the fact is they don’t yet trust their government.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, a government’s first responsibility, of course, is to secure its people so that those people can indeed declare their allegiance, if you will.  And if the government has not been able to secure the population in an area, particularly in a country that has been at war for some 30 years and where the people have, in some cases, been professional chameleons, you know, they, they end up siding with who—whichever side it appears is going to prevail.  That’s how you survive.  And so, again, our first and most important task with our Afghan security force partners has to be to improve the security for the people so that they literally can cast a vote, not just in the elections in September for their parliamentary leadership, but literally cast a vote for or against the Afghan government, a government that does have to earn legitimacy, in their eyes, through its actions.

MR. GREGORY:  But you, even—I mean there’s a lot of things that have to be done, and you talk about getting the big ideas right.  And yet, it seems like one of the biggest ideas that you have yet to surmount is the fact that there are Afghans sitting on the fence because they don’t trust the government, they—there’s no love lost for the Taliban, but at least perhaps they can turn to them, or they fear retribution, and everybody in the region is now aware that the days of U.S. troops being here actively securing the country are numbered.  And everybody’s, you know, is making moves based on that information.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, first, I’d caution those in the region not to jump to conclusions.  I think that we will have an enduring commitment here in some fashion, the character of which may change over time as our Afghan partners can do more and we’re able to do less in certain areas, certainly.  And then you’re right that there are some on the fence.  There’s no question about that.  Again, they are professional survivors.  When the Afghan government shows that it can secure them and see to their basic needs, among which are conflict resolution, local conflict resolution—land disputes, petty crime, and so forth—and if the government can’t do that or won’t do it or doesn’t do it properly, that’s when the Taliban can appear to be an alternative.  And that’s, that’s reality, and we’re—we and our Afghan partners are aware of that.  It’s one reason that we are supporting the civilian effort to enhance rule of law and so forth in a much more significant way than we have in the past.

MR. GREGORY:  On this big point, how do you respond to critics who say, “Look, General, you have got to redefine your nation-building goals for Afghanistan.  It is simply too much to accomplish dealing with a population that’s too resistant to outsiders.  We can’t—we cannot succeed at that”?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  At the end of the day, it’s not about their embrace of us, it’s not about us winning hearts and minds, it’s about the Afghan government winning hearts and minds.  This isn’t to say that there is any kind of objective of turning Afghanistan into Switzerland in three to five years or less.  Afghan good enough is good enough, and that means having traditional social organizing structures as part of the ultimate solution, if you will, where tribal shura councils and so forth—which are quite democratic, by the way—they then connect at the district or province level with what goes up to Kabul and, and, and comes out as well.

MR. GREGORY:  Afghanistan good enough, then, does that entail redefining, defining down some of the goals for rebuilding the nation?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  I think some of that was done last year, actually, during the course of the process that, that President Obama and the new administration led.  I think there was a refinement of objectives, a recognition of the realities on the ground and that we need be—to be measured in what it is that we can actually achieve, and that’s why we came—that’s where this concept, again, of not trying to turn Afghanistan into a Western industrialized democracy...

MR. GREGORY:  If it’s—if, if...

GEN. PETRAEUS:  ...in five to 10 years.

MR. GREGORY:  If the outcome is like Iraq, is that achieving the mission?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, the outcome in Iraq is still to be written, but if you could reduce the level of violence by some 90 to 95 percent, as was the case in Iraq, to below a threshold which allows commerce and business and outside investment to take place, where there is an election that’s certainly at least elected representatives, and now you have to see if they can come together and form a government that is still representative of and responsive to the people, as was the previous one.  If that can all be achieved there, that would be a reasonable solution here as well.

MR. GREGORY:  I want to ask you about the enemy here.  And, and, if you would, we have a pointer here, would you point out on the map where the sanctuaries in Pakistan are that are the biggest threat to U.S. forces, because the Taliban can operate out of those sanctuaries, cross the border and fight, and then run back into Pakistan?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, first let me just point out, of course, that what we face is not some kind of monolithic Taliban enemy.  In fact, it’s more like a syndicate is the term that we often use for the enemy that, that faces our troopers and our Afghan counterparts and the Afghan civilians.  But what we face generally, of course, is, again, in the southern part of the country, this is the Taliban, the Afghan Taliban.  And then as you work your way up into the eastern part, you start to get the Haqqani network linked to the Taliban, again has a symbiotic relationship with them, but is not subservient one to the other.  And then you do, in fact, have some small elements of al-Qaeda, you have the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, you have some Pakistani Taliban and, and other elements that come into the country.  Now this, of course, is the federally administered tribal area, up here is Swat valley, these are the areas where Pakistan has fought so hard and taken such significant casualties over the last 18 months.  But there are areas that they have not yet dealt with, and north Waziristan is certainly one of those.  They have had operations in south Waziristan.  And then there are some of the other agencies.  There is a portion of western Khyber Agency that they, they know.

Let me point out one other, one other point, if I could.  What is interesting is that the Taliban leads from the rear, as we would say.  The Taliban leads from Pakistan.  And by the way, the rank and file is just catching on to this. We actually see discussions among them chatter among them, conversation wondering where their senior leaders are and wondering why Mullah Omar hasn’t set foot back in Afghanistan or even been heard from now in, in months and months and months.  But the senior leaders don’t come in and share hardship and risk with their troopers on the ground, they send messages.  They do it by cell phone or what have you, and that is actually going to be a problem for them, as, as is what we have pointed out with our Afghan partners, much more in recent weeks, and that is what the Taliban have been doing despite their supposed counterinsurgency guidance of being nice to the people and so forth. And they are much more responsible for civilian casualties than are our forces and our Afghan forces.  Most recently they were distinguished by flogging and then assassinating a pregnant woman.  They have used children and teenagers to carry out attacks.  They have dressed in burqas.  Again, what they have done is really quite egregious, particularly in the context of the religion and in the context of, of the normal codes of conduct.

MR. GREGORY:  But let me ask you, then, what is the biggest threat if there are very few al-Qaeda that are actually operating in Afghanistan today?  You have outlined the, the sanctuary difficulty that you face that is in Pakistan, and this is a country that the United States pays billions of dollars to, and yet some of that money is going to aid and abet insurgents and terrorists who are killing our troopers.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, I, I don’t know that I would buy that yet.  I mean, our money goes to the, on the security side, to the Pakistan army, and the economic assistance goes to various elements of society and to the Pakistani government directly.  And, again, first, remember what Pakistan has done over the course of the last 18 months.  Remember the casualties they have sustained in taking on the extremists in their country, albeit focusing on those who are most threatening the very existence of Pakistan as its citizens know it, and then recognizing that there’s no question about the sanctuaries or about the need to do more work in those particular sanctuaries.

MR. GREGORY:  Could Pakistan deliver Osama bin Laden today?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, I don’t think anyone knows where Osama bin Laden is, and the fact that it took him four weeks to get a congratulatory message out, or a message of condolence in, say, in the course of the last year or so, when we’ve seen these, indicates, literally, how far buried he is, probably, in the very, very most remote and mountainous regions.

MR. GREGORY:  Is his capture less important today than it was?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, I think he remains an iconic figure, and I think capturing or killing Osama bin Laden is still a very, very important task for all of those who are engaged in counterterrorism around the world.

MR. GREGORY:  If the Taliban comes back into government in Afghanistan in any form, do you automatically believe that al-Qaeda comes back?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, you know, this is—these are the kinds of questions that people talk about when they talk about reconciliation, and that is, of course, with the more senior leaders of the Taliban and, and other elements. And I think there is a prospect for reconciliation with some of the groups.  I didn’t mention the HIG, another element that’s out there that has made a number of overtures and, and reportedly is entertaining thoughts of agreeing to the red lines that President Karzai has put down—accepting the constitution, laying down weapons, renouncing al-Qaeda, being a productive element in society.  The way these kinds of endeavors typically end, as with the case in Iraq—you know, ultimately we had to face the question in Iraq of will we sit down across the table from people who have our blood on their hands?  And the answer was yes.  That was a decision that I had to make early on in the surge.  It doesn’t mean that Mullah Omar is about to stroll down Main Street in Kabul anytime soon and, and raise his hand and swear an oath on the constitution of Afghanistan.  But every possibility, I think, that there can be low and midlevel reintegration and, indeed, some fracturing of the senior leadership that could be really defined as reconciliation.

MR. GREGORY:  Did you see that cover of Time magazine in the last couple of weeks, an example of the brutality of the Taliban, with a woman whose nose was cut off of her face, a reminder of what Taliban rule was.  How often do you think about that as there is the prospect of the Taliban returning, reconciling in some way, becoming a part of this country’s future?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, we think about it all the time.  And again, we think about it in the human context, which that photograph so visibly represented and horrifically represented.  We also think about it when it comes to our core objective.  The fact is that it was the Taliban that allowed al-Qaeda to establish its bases and sanctuaries in Afghanistan when it controlled a good bit of the country.  And that gives big pause, needless to say, and that is why, again, this insurgency has to be combated.

MR. GREGORY:  The bottom line question that I’ve been thinking about asking you is, if we win in Afghanistan, what do we win; and if we lose, what do we lose?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, the, the latter is almost easier because, if you lose, it has, I think, some significant repercussions, not just for this country, although they would be enormous, and start with the cover of Time magazine for starters.  Then think about our security interests, and then think about the region and what it could do to the region if, in fact, extremists were able to take over all or part of this country again after what presumably would be a very bloody civil war in which different countries in the region would take sides.  And, again, the prospect is, I think, is pretty frightening.

If we succeed, on the other hand, obviously we, we are, again, succeeding in a region that has implications and links to security issues throughout the world.  If Afghanistan can become the central Asian “roundabout,” to use President Karzai’s term, to where it can be the new Silk Road, think of the implications for that, recalling that, of course, Afghanistan is blessed with the presence of what are trillions, with an S on the end, trillions of dollars worth of minerals if, and only if, you can get the extractive technology, the human capital operated, the lines of communication to enable you to get it out of the country and all the rest of that.  Very big “if.” And of course, there’s a foundation of security that would be necessary on, on which to build all of that.  But, again, the prospects are very significant if you can achieve objectives.

And, and, by the way, I’m always leery of using terms, actually, like “winning” because it seems to imply that, you know, you just find the right hill out there somewhere, you take it, you plant the flag, and you go home to a victory parade.  I don’t think that’s going to be the case here.  I think this is going to—and I’ve said this repeatedly when I was a Central Command commander, even before that, that this was going to require a substantial, significant commitment and, and that it is going to have to be enduring to some degree, again, albeit its character and its size being scaled down over the years.

MR. GREGORY:  You said five years ago, “the longest campaign of the long war.”

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, I did.  As I mentioned to you, I met with Secretary Rumsfeld after conducting an assessment for him after leaving Iraq after a second tour there where we’d stood up the train and equip mission.  And he asked that we use what we’d learned there to evaluate what was going on here. And we went all around the country, did a reasonably good assessment, went back and met with Secretary Rumsfeld and laid out a variety of areas in which actions could be taken that could, based on what we’d learned in Iraq, where they could be improvements to what was going on in Afghanistan.  I’ve talked about some areas that also just needed to be sustained as well, and then added that my sense of the situation was that, given the 30 years of war, given the, the lack of human capital because of all that fighting, given the fact that, even before that 30 years of war began, Afghanistan was one of the five poorest countries in the world, that my sense was that this would likely be the longest campaign in what we then called “the long war.”

MR. GREGORY:  A couple of additional questions.  I’d like to ask you about Iraq again.  Do you consider this a durable success?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, again, I think the final chapter for Iraq is certainly still to be written.  And of course, there’s an immediate, pressing issue there, which is the formation of the government.  I think they can come together.  I think that what will end up happening is it won’t be a question of just who will be the president, prime minister, and speaker of the council of representatives; rather, there will be some power sharing agreements that will be officially or unofficially made that will enable the selection of the key leaders.  I think that is what is holding the process up.  Very important, of course, to get that government in place and, and, and hopefully to ensure that it is like the previous government.  For all its challenges, it was representative of the Iraqi people, and it was broadly responsive to it.  They knew there were elections coming up, and they actually took actions because of that.

MR. GREGORY:  As history marches forward, do you think President Bush will get more credit for the Iraq war?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, I think he certainly made a very courageous decision in, in ordering the surge and deciding on that.  That obviously was not the most popular move at the time, having been in the center of that, and it was a very tough call.  And we went through a number of very difficult months, as you’ll recall, because the level of violence went up quite considerably as the surge forces arrived and as they went into offensive operations to take away the sanctuaries from the enemy that the al-Qaeda in Iraq had enjoyed for a couple of years in some cases.  It’s not unlike a bit of what is playing out here, albeit on not quite the same scale throughout the country because, again, the situation here is quite different.

MR. GREGORY:  When it comes to Iran and its effect in this country, are you now considering active talks with Iran as it applies to the future of Afghanistan?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, I, I am certainly not, and obviously that would be a huge policy decision.  But the fact is that President Karzai has had discussions with Iran.  There, there are areas of convergence, actually.  This is a—an—a country in which there are actually some common objectives if Iran can look past its desire that we not succeed too easily.  The fact is that Iran doesn’t want to see the Taliban come back any more than do most Afghan citizens.  It’s, it’s—again, it’s an ultra-conservative, extremist Sunni-Islamic organization, and they don’t want to see it rule in the country again the way it did in the past.  Having said that, they also don’t want to see us achieve our objectives easily, and they have, indeed, provided over time what might—one might call modest amounts of weapons, explosives, and funding and some training to the Taliban as well.

MR. GREGORY:  What’s worse, Iran with a nuclear weapon or the fallout of an attack on Iran to prevent a nuclear weapon?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  That’s, that’s one for the policymakers.  And of course, that’s the huge question that looms out there.  And, obviously, when I was a Central Command commander, you know, we had a variety of different input and made a variety of different, you know, plans and so forth.  You know, what the military gets paid to do is, indeed, to think about what-ifs and then, indeed, to prepare for them.

MR. GREGORY:  I want to get a sense of your frame of mind while you’re here. What are you reading?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  I just read a book about Kipling in India, of all things. And most recently I’ve been reading about the historiography of Grant, how historians changed their views of Grant over the years, initially, of course, regarding him as the true hero, of course.  And then, over time, in the 1900s, there was a period when a bit more disparaging views of him, and then it’s actually come up again in recent years.

MR. GREGORY:  Funny you should say that because I had this quote prepared for you by some—about—from someone that you admire.  It is this, “I am not a politician, never was.  I hope never to be.” Do you know who said that?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Was it Grant?

MR. GREGORY:  It was Grant.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, I am not a politician, and I will never be, and I say that with absolute conviction.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, that’s what he said.  But does that mean that you’re totally clear you’d never run for president?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Yeah, I really am.  And, you know, I’ve said that I’ll adopt what Sherman said and go back and look at what has come to be known as a Shermanesque answer on that particular question.

MR. GREGORY:  No way, no how.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  No way, no how.

MR. GREGORY:  Good luck, General, and God bless our troops.  Thank you.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Thanks.  Great to have you with us again, David.

MR. GREGORY:  You could see more of our exclusive conversation with General Petraeus in our Take Two Web extra.  It’s up on our website right now, mtp.msnbc.com.

And when we come back, some closing thoughts from me on this trip to Afghanistan, after these brief messages.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  Finally, a few takeaways from my trip here to Afghanistan.  The deeper you go into this story, through reporting and through studying the history of this country, the more you feel the weight of just how difficult and confusing this place is.  It gives you a very uncertain outlook for the future here.  America’s history in the region is long, but it’s also shortsighted.  And even as America has a more robust commitment to the war now, I sense a, a certain weariness and even doubt about what’s ultimately possible here, with deep debates about whether nation building can work and whether the conflict will end in anything other than stalemate.

General Petraeus is a military leader with great commitment and great intellectual rigor, but you have to wonder whether he has enough time politically to achieve what he thinks is possible here.

President Bush told people before leaving office, privately, that succeeding here in Afghanistan would be vastly more difficult than even Iraq, and here we are still fighting in what General Petraeus himself said five years ago would be the longest campaign in the long war.  The question now for the American public is whether it has the stomach and the will to do what it takes to succeed here, and whether it has the stomach for what could happen here if the U.S. and its allies fail.

From Afghanistan, that’s all for today.  I’ll be back next week from Washington.  If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.

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  1. NBC's David Gregory reports from Kabul, Afghanistan with his exclusive interview with General David Petraeus, the general's first since taking command of forces in that country. (NBC News/Rob Melick) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. In the interview, Gen. Petraeus says President Barack Obama has "expressed very clearly that what he wants from me is my best military advice." The general, who succeeded the ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said that if sufficient progress has not been made in Afghanistan by the summer of 2011, "I would communicate that to him. ... That's real life." (NBC News/Rob Melick) Back to slideshow navigation
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