The general speaks
General David Petraeus, the commander of United States Central Command, sat down with RFE/RL Central newsroom director Jay Tolson in Prague on May 24 to talk about a wide range of issues. He answered questions about Guantanamo and "enhanced interrogation techniques", a looming deadline for US troop withdrawal in Iraq, cutting off and combating militant Islamist extremists. Petraeus also talked about successes and setbacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region, and highlighted the need for international forces to keep Afghan civilian casualties "to an absolute minimum".
RFE/RL: As you know, general, the debate over Guantanamo and enhanced interrogation techniques has become "Topic A" in Washington. In your view, does the closing of "Gitmo" and the abandonment of those techniques complicate the US mission in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the overall struggle against violent transnational extremist groups or does it help it?
Petraeus: I think, on balance, that those moves help it. In fact, I have long been on record as having testified and also in helping write doctrine for interrogation techniques that are completely in line with the Geneva Convention. And as a division commander in Iraq in the early days, we put out guidance very early on to make sure that our soldiers, in fact, knew that we needed to stay within those guidelines.
With respect to Guantanamo, I think that the closure in a responsible manner, obviously one that is certainly being worked out now by the Department of Justice - I talked to the attorney general the other day [and] they have a very intensive effort ongoing to determine, indeed, what to do with the detainees who are left, how to deal with them in a legal way, and if continued incarceration is necessary - again, how to take that forward.
But doing that in a responsible manner, I think, sends an important message to the world, as does the commitment of the United States to observe the Geneva Convention when it comes to the treatment of detainees.
RFE/RL: With the approach of the June 20 deadline for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq's cities, is there a danger that you are removing a key component of the successful security strategy before the Iraq government and military are ready to handle things on their own?
Petraeus: Well, actually, we've been handing over cities and, indeed, entire provinces to the Iraqi security forces for years at this point. The question that revolves around a couple of key cities in which we still have a presence, Baghdad, Mosul, and Baquba to an extent, and ensuring that the Iraqi forces there are certainly ready to ensure the security after the departure of our forces from their streets, which is a process that has already been ongoing.
We believe that the Iraqi forces, indeed, can take this forward. They are in considerably better shape, much more capable and certainly more numerous than they were at the beginning of the surge. There are over 600,000 Iraqi solders, Iraq police, who are helping to take on the security burdens of their country, and we believe that they can do that.
Having said that, there will be periodic attacks, as there have been in the past as al-Qaeda tries to re-ignite the sectarian violence that caused such horrific loss of life in the winter of 2006 and into 2007. It is very important to recognize, though, that even as we have seen some of these tragic losses, even just last week, for example, in a so-called sensational attack, a suicide bombing inside Baghdad, that the level of violence remains vastly reduced. It is down from 160 attacks per day, on average, in June of 2007 to between 10 and 15 attacks per day over the last five or six months. And that has remained there despite, again, these occasional "sensational attacks", which do, indeed, cause very tragic loss of life.
RFE/RL: We know that money from Saudi and various other Gulf states has been the lifeblood of Islamist extremism, including the Taliban. Why, more than eight years after 9/11, have the United States and its allies been unable to cut off this crucial source of funding? Is there anything new that you think should be done?
Petraeus: Well, first of all, I think it is important just to take the Afghan Taliban as an example. There are really three major sources of funding that they receive. There's the money that comes from the illegal narcotics industry, and that is the way to describe it. It is that large, and it is that problematic. There is money that comes from a variety of criminal activities, from kidnapping, from other extortion schemes and essentially mafia-like activity that the Taliban has conducted. And then there is, indeed, still money that comes in from the outside, some perhaps from neighboring countries and some perhaps from the Gulf states.
Saudi Arabia, if asked this question, by the way - because I have had discussions with Saudi leaders about this, and most recently, the Saudi ambassador in Washington - I think rightly would say, "You tell me the names of the people and the bank accounts, and we will shut it down." Because they have been, in fact, quite vigilant in shutting down, certainly, state-sponsored provision of money to extremist elements, and when it can be identified, when it can be found, any private activities that are similar to that. But again, these are large countries.
There are staggering amounts of wealth in some of these countries, the Hawala system - through which much of this is transmitted - is very difficult to track. It is not computerized, needless to say. It is relatively clandestine in nature. And it is somewhat impervious to the kinds of financial forensics that we can use with transfers that work through actual banking systems.
Threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan
RFE/RL: If the mission in Afghanistan is to ensure that it never again becomes a haven for al-Qaeda or other violent Islamist groups, does that mean holding the Afghan government to certain non-negotiable standards of liberal democracy and universal human rights?
Petraeus: Well, certainly there's no question that the Afghan government needs to do a better job in terms of achieving the support of its own people to be seen as legitimate and serving those people. And I think President [Hamid] Karzai would be the first, in fact, to note that and to note that some of the corruption that has been so widely publicized has caused such problems.
Some of the predatory practices by some elements or individuals of the greater Afghan government indeed need to be curtailed and stopped. It is hugely important that they carry out those actions. There are ambitious anti-corruption programs, for example, in the Ministry of Interior launched by Minister [Hanif] Atmar, that are quite impressive. But there obviously needs to be a vast amount more attention given to this if, again, this government is to be seen by the people as serving them and to be worthy of their support.
RFE/RL: To what extent do you think that Pakistan's government and, particularly, its military now understand that Islamist extremism within its borders poses a greater threat than India?
Petraeus: Well, it seems to be to a very increased extent, to a considerable extent. The fact is that the Pakistani military has been moving forces from the Indian [border] with orders to move more having been issued.
The fact is, you have a unique convergence right now of four major elements in Pakistani society: the government, including the major opposition figures, Nawaz Sharif and others. Virtually all the political parties, with a couple of exceptions, are united in saying that Pakistan must oppose and confront the Taliban and the other extremists in their country who do, indeed, threaten the very existence of the Pakistani state.
In addition to that, the people now, really for the first time, very much oppose what the Taliban has shown itself to do. There was some hope, I think, at one time, that perhaps the Taliban could provide something that the government was not providing: speedy justice, swift justice, as they say, in the Northwest Frontier Province. That now has been shown to be a myth and, in fact, the oppressive practices that the Taliban brought into Swat and then into Buner and Lower Dir, for example, showed what the rest of Pakistan would have if, in fact, the Taliban was allowed to expand its oppressive practices further. You also have, uniquely, [the fact that] the religious leaders have issued fatwas against the Taliban.
And with all of this, certainly the Pakistani military is very aggressively prosecuting the campaign in the North-West Frontier Province and also continuing its activities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. I think that this is unique, since 9/11 certainly, and it bodes much better for Pakistan and for the hope of Pakistan as a country that is, compared to the Taliban, a moderate country that is tolerant and not one in which religious, ultraconservative or extremist figures can tell the people how to pray, how to groom themselves, what music they can listen to, and all the rest of that.
Afghan civilian casualties
RFE/RL: While the counter-insurgency strategy you advocate concentrates on winning hearts and minds, the "human terrain" as the US military now calls it, coalition air strikes against insurgents in Afghanistan appear to be having exactly the opposite effect. Do you see this problem being resolved anytime soon?
Petraeus: Well, first of all, it is a problem, and it is one that we must address and we must continue to work at how we can ensure that we still have access to these very important enablers, as we call them.
We shouldn't have our soldiers go into a fight with one arm tied behind their back. On the other hand, we have to figure out how to bring these forces, these combat elements to bear without, obviously, killing innocent civilians. And it is very, very difficult in some cases because the Taliban has been shown to use civilians almost as human shields or at least to provoke firing into areas where there are civilians.
There is a tactical directive that was issued General [David] McKiernan, the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] commander. The application of that and also a number of other techniques that have been employed to partner Afghan and our special-operations forces in various techniques has seemed to work.
But still, there are cases, such as the one, certainly, in western Afghanistan several weeks ago in which innocent civilians were killed in significant numbers. And we won't debate the numbers. What we need to do is figure out how to move forward and how to avoid such cases and to keep them to an absolute minimum in the future.
So there is an investigation that I directed, [with a] brigadier general brought in from the United States with considerable time on the ground in Afghanistan and in Iraq, both as a special operator and as a conventional-forces deputy commander. And he is looking at this with a team. I will meet with them in Kabul ... [to] review the initial findings as they finalize their investigation, and then see what that says about the need to either modify the directive, to suggest that to the NATO authorities, or, at the very least, to ensure the very proper training and education of our forces on the application of that directive.
RFE/RL: The Taliban and other Afghan insurgent groups are insisting on a US pullout as a condition for peace talks, while your idea of reconciliation is a bottom-up, localized approach, of peeling away the foot soldiers from the hard-line core. How do you see reconciliation actually moving forward in Afghanistan?
Petraeus: Well, I think it is, most probably, to be more of a bottom-up approach. I think that negotiating with individuals who think that they are in the ascendant, who have some degree of momentum, at least in their own minds, certainly has increased the level of violence in Afghanistan significantly in the past two years, whose criteria is to remove those who are most helping the Afghan government, obviously doesn't hold much promise for improved security or progress for the Afghan people.
So, most likely, it is to be local elements to help re-empower, reestablish the traditional social structures, the mullah, the malik, the tribal elders, the religious leaders at local levels who traditionally have always ensured the resolution of disputes at local levels, who have looked after the people of their tribes and so forth, while helping to extend the national government so that the two of those can connect in a productive and constructive manner. I think that is more likely to be the road ahead.
But clearly what you want to do is to determine who are the reconcilables, who are the irreconcilables. And you should not shrink from the fact that the irreconcilables have to be killed, captured or run out of the country.
Central Asian equation
RFE/RL: The Central Asian states all agree that the region's biggest security problems right now emanate from Afghanistan. Given that, why, in your opinion, has it been so difficult for some of them to commit more firmly to helping the US and NATO efforts?
Petraeus: Well, I think if I could discuss what, perhaps, might be most beneficial for the Central Asian states and really all of the countries - including my own and Russia and the other great powers of the world - indeed would be to recognize the common threats to the Central Asian states. And those are extremism coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, from the south, if you will, and the illegal narcotics industry that has enslaved so many people in the Central Asian states, even in Iran by the way, and works its way up into Russia as well.
These common threats warrant cooperation and a broad partnership rather than continued zero sum approaches to the new "Great Game", if you will, the competition for power and resources in the Central Asian states.
The fact is, actually, that I've visited every one of these states, their leaders, in the past four months or so, and we have, in fact, achieved agreements with them and even Russia now is supportive of the movement of cargo, supplies and so forth through their borders. [There are] different arrangements with different countries - a very important agreement with Uzbekistan, in particular, because all roads do lead through Uzbekistan and into Afghanistan. But we do see this kind of partnership that has developed, to a degree, and is one on which we hope we can build in the future.