National Journal and the Newseum

A Conversation on Afghanistan with General David Petraeus

Upon return from a research trip to Afghanistan, and while General David Petraeus was in Washington for Congressional testimony regarding the war in that country, Michael O’Hanlon held a discussion with the ISAF commander.

MR. O'HANLON:  Well, General, thank you.  I want to begin with -- I know a lot of people are very concerned about the Afghanistan war. And you inspire great confidence, and your presentations this week before Congress have been extremely informative.  And yet, I know people are worried that this has now become our longest war.

And I want to pick up with my first question from your bio.  You joined the military during the Vietnam War.  You wrote your dissertation about some of the lessons of Vietnam.  And I don't think Afghanistan is Vietnam, but I'd like to invite you to explain to the crowd why it's not at a time when we're now nine years, going on 10 years in; at a time when Secretary Gates in the speech in Brussels just a week or so ago seemed to suggest that we're not going to withdraw any troops this summer and reminded our European allies that they should be more interested in accomplishing mission objectives than in getting out.

So I really just wanted to ask you to comment on why this is not becoming a quagmire.  And I -- again, I don't think it is, but I think a lot of Americans have that concern.  And I'd like to give you the opportunity to respond, please.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, first and foremost, I think that there is very little argument about the truly vital national-security interest that resides in Afghanistan, and of course, in the greater Afghanistan-Pakistan region.  The fact is that there is no question about why we went to Afghanistan.  It's because of 9/11.  The attacks, of course, were planned in the al-Qaida camps that were in Afghanistan at the time that the Taliban controlled the majority of the country. The initial training of the attackers took place in training camps there before they moved on to Hamburg and then to U.S. flight schools.

We went there because of those attacks.

And really our core objective, again, if you narrow it to Afghanistan, is to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary for al-Qaida or some other would-be transnational extremists.  And the region does have some other groups that are certainly -- certainly have aspirations in that regard.

Beyond that, I think it is important to recall, as I did explain on Capitol Hill -- and you know, we had, I think, a total of about 10 hours of hearings up there, two open hearings with the SASC and the HASC, and then HAC-D and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee behind closed doors, and also met with the top four as well -- and one of the themes that I really sought to stress was that it's only recently that we have gotten the inputs right in Afghanistan.

Secretary Gates says, you know, there are three phases to Afghanistan.  There was there early phase -- got that right, liberated the country impressive work -- and then, over time, took our eye off the ball, focused on other issues, on Iraq, obviously.  It was that darn guy Petraeus over there in Iraq that wanted all the resources, you know.  And then, of course, we came back to Afghanistan as we started to get the situation in Iraq into a reasonable place and got it on the glide path.

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