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Petraeus makes a case for war strategy

Petraeus suggested that he would resist any large-scale or rapid drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan. “The president didn’t send me over here to seek a graceful exit,” he said.

Associated Press

Petraeus suggested that he would resist any large-scale or rapid drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan. “The president didn’t send me over here to seek a graceful exit,” he said.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces, began a campaign on Sunday to convince an increasingly skeptical public that the American-led coalition can still succeed here despite months of setbacks, saying he had not come to Afghanistan to preside over a "graceful exit."

In an hourlong interview with the New York Times, the general argued against any precipitous withdrawal of forces in July 2011, the date set by President Barack Obama to begin at least a gradual reduction of the 100,000 troops on the ground. Petraeus said that it was only in the last few weeks that the war plan has been fine-tuned and given the resources that it required.

"For the first time," he said, "we will have what we have been working to put in place for the last year and a half."

In another in a series of interviews, on Meet the Press, Petraeus even appeared to leave open the possibility that he would recommend against any withdrawal of American forces next summer.

"Certainly, yes," he said when the NBC show's host, David Gregory, asked him if, depending on how the war was proceeding, he might tell the president that a drawdown should be delayed. "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."

The statement offered a preview of what promised to be an intense political battle over the future of the American-led war in Afghanistan, which has deteriorated on the ground and turned unpopular at home. Already, some Democrats in Congress are pushing for steep withdrawals early on, while supporters of the war say that a precipitous drawdown could endanger the Afghan mission altogether.

Petraeus, in his interview with the New York Times, said American and NATO troops were making progress on a number of fronts, including routing Taliban insurgents from their sanctuaries, reforming the Afghan government and preparing Afghan soldiers to fight on their own.

Petraeus, who took over last month after Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal was fired for making disparaging remarks about civilian leaders, said he believed that he would be given the time and materiel necessary to prevail here. He expressed that confidence despite the fact that nearly every phase of the war is going badly — and even though some inside the Obama administration have turned against it.

"The president didn't send me over here to seek a graceful exit," Petraeus said at his office at NATO headquarters in downtown Kabul. "My marching orders are to do all that is humanly possible to help us achieve our objectives."

Petraeus' public remarks, his first since taking over, highlight the extraordinary challenges, both military and political, that loom in the coming months. American soldiers and Marines are dying at a faster rate than at any time since 2001. The Afghan in whom the United States has placed its hopes, President Hamid Karzai, has demonstrated little resolve in rooting out the corruption that pervades every corner of his government.

And perhaps most important, the general will be trying to demonstrate progress in the 11 months until Obama's deadline to begin withdrawing troops.

The date was chosen in part to win over critics of the war and to push the Afghan government to reform more quickly. But as critical battles to reclaim parts of the Taliban heartland have faltered, military commanders have begun preparing to ask the White House to keep any withdrawals next year to a minimum.

Petraeus also suggested that he would resist any large-scale or rapid drawdown of American forces. If the Taliban believes that will happen, he said, they are mistaken.

"Clearly the enemy is fighting back, sees this as a very pivotal moment, believes that all he has to do is outlast us through this fighting season," Petraeus said. "That is just not the case."

The public campaign begun Sunday echoes the similarly high-profile efforts the general undertook at the bloodiest phase of the war in Iraq. In early 2007, joining a group of defense intellectuals and retired generals, Petraeus asserted that the anarchic situation in Iraq could be stabilized with an infusion of tens of thousands additional American troops.

Then-President George W. Bush endorsed the effort and chose Petraeus to lead it. And, to the surprise of many, the campaign, known as "the surge," helped bring about a dramatic drop in violence that has largely held to this day. During the surge, Petraeus sometimes skirted the traditional lines separating the military and political worlds, testifying before Congress and speaking almost weekly to Bush.

Petraeus has taken a lower public profile since Obama's inauguration. His efforts on Sunday — which will continue with more interviews in the coming days — represent his first attempt to convince the American people that his efforts and those of the American soldiers and Marines deployed here can succeed.

The campaign that began Sunday, and which included an interview with the Washington Post, highlighted Petraeus' political strengths as much as his military ones. He was careful, patient and disciplined — sticking carefully to his main points — traits that have won him widespread respect in Washington.

Among other things, the general is fighting to preserve his own legacy, based on the dramatic turnaround he helped orchestrate during the war in Iraq. The hallmark of that strategy was its focus on protecting civilians, even at the expense of letting insurgents walk away.

In Afghanistan, that approach is coming under growing criticism, mainly from people who regard it has too expensive and open ended. Some in the Obama administration have been advocating a move away from counterinsurgency toward a strategy that is focused on hunting and killing terrorists.

To put his plan into effect, Petraeus has imported some hands from his Iraq days to help him. Gen. H.R. McMaster, one of the most innovative officers in the Iraq war, has taken charge of a task force assigned to attack public corruption. Frederick W. Kagan, one of the fathers of the surge — and more recently a critic of the Afghan government — has come to help as well.

The drafting of those experts suggests that Petraeus intends to take a harder line against corruption in the Karzai government, which ranks among the biggest factors driving Afghans to the Taliban.

Karzai has promised over the years to root out corruption but has largely failed to do so. He has refused requests from American officials to remove his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, as chairman of the provincial council in Kandahar province, despite widespread reports of corruption. Last week, the president tried to assert control over two American-backed Afghan anticorruption units that are investigating Afghan officials.

Petraeus declined to discuss the status of Ahmed Wali Karzai, and he praised Karzai's efforts to attack corruption. In any case, he suggested, American leverage over Karzai is limited. "President Karzai is the elected leader of a sovereign country," he said. "That is how the people see him by and large; he is therefore — and has to be, for sure — our partner."

Also Sunday

On the ground: NATO forces killed two insurgents who had attacked a police station in northern Afghanistan by hitting their truck with an airstrike as they fled the area, the coalition said Sunday. Three pickup trucks full of gunmen launched an attack on the main police station in Kunduz province's Aliabad district on Saturday afternoon, said Deputy Provincial Police Chief Abdul Rahman Aqtash. A NATO air team tracked the insurgents as they drove away, and fired on the truck after determining there were no civilians nearby. Several other militants were injured.

Bin Laden: Gen. David Petraeus said in interviews released Sunday that capturing or killing al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden remains a primary goal of U.S. forces. Petraeus says bin Laden probably is in an extremely remote mountainous area of Pakistan.

No to politics: Petraeus also said Sunday that says he's not a politician and never will be. He has been rumored to covet the Oval Office. But he said in remarks broadcast Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press that he's making it clear that he has no desire to run for president. "No way, no how," he said.

Oil reservoir: A preliminary survey has found that Afghanistan may have 1.8 billion barrels of oil in the north of the country, an official said Sunday. The survey by Afghan and international geologists found the possible oil field between Balkh and Jawzjan provinces, said Jawad Omar, spokesman for the Ministry of Mines. In June, Afghan officials said U.S. geologists believe the country has nearly $1 trillion in mineral resources, although it could take decades and peace before it can be fully exploited.

Times wires

Petraeus makes a case for war strategy 08/16/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 16, 2010 7:40am]

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