Petraeus 'would speak out' if Afghan pullout too risky

By John Simpson
World affairs editor, BBC News

  • Published

Gen David Petraeus, who has recently taken command of Nato forces in Afghanistan, has told the BBC that if he felt the deadline of July next year which President Barack Obama has set for the start of an American withdrawal was too risky, he would tell the president so.

In such circumstances, he said, "you are determined to provide the most forthright advice you can".

The general is doing very much what he did in Iraq: injecting a new note of confidence into the campaign, while simultaneously being careful to limit expectations.

It worked remarkably there. Gen Petraeus staged, if not a victory, then certainly a remarkable turnaround in the country's fortunes. He clearly plans to do the same in Afghanistan.

I put it to him that almost everyone in Kabul seems to believe the Taliban are winning, while almost 60% of Americans and more than 70% of Britons are against the war.

The perception had to be changed, he said: Nato had already reversed the momentum which the Taliban had built up in the last few years in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, and around Kabul. It would be reversed in other areas as well.

This would involve capturing and clearing the strongholds which the Taliban had occupied. But they would fight back hard, and the campaign would get harder before it got easier.

I put it to him that it was a huge disadvantage in fighting an insurgency to have Washington breathing down his neck and imposing a deadline of next July for beginning the withdrawal of American troops.

Tactfully, he stressed that the process would only begin then: it was not the date for an American exodus, when the US looked for the exit and a light to turn out. It was the date when some functions would start to be transferred to the Afghans.

But if he believes this deadline is unrealistic, or even dangerous, will he tell the president? "I'll offer my best professional military advice."

But his predecessor and former subordinate in the post had been sacked for, in effect, challenging President Obama's line. Was Gen Petraeus worried that, like him, he might be sacked as well?

"When you go into a job like this, you always think it's your last job. That's what I did in Iraq - you are determined to provide the most forthright advice you can."

But Gen Petraeus is equipped with better-developed political and diplomatic antennae than Gen Stanley McChrystal.

'Failure of intelligence'

Perhaps, too, he also realises that it would be an unthinkable disaster for President Obama to lose two Afghan commanders. Gen Petraeus must know that as long as he is careful he can get the July deadline moved back without difficulty - if he even needs to, given the vagueness of it.

He made it clear he supported the anxieties of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai about civilian casualties, and would continue Gen McChrystal's policy of restricting Nato's scope for fighting back against attack in civilian areas.

Civilian casualties could, Gen Petraeus said, turn a victory into a setback. He speaks to President Karzai every day, on average.

Did it matter that Nato had never found Osama bin Laden? Very much indeed, said Gen Petraeus; it was a real failure of intelligence.

But manhunting, of which he had had great experience in the former Yugoslavia, was always very hard.

Where had the Afghanistan campaign gone so wrong, given that the vast majority of Afghans had been delighted at the defeat of the Taliban back in 2001? Was it that America had taken its eye off the ball here in order to invade Iraq?

It was noticeable that the general did not disagree, though he said this was over-simplistic.

The former Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, asked him to visit Afghanistan in 2005 to assess the situation.

He came back and said the Afghan war would be longer than the Iraqi one. It was not the answer Mr Rumsfeld wanted. "It did not elicit wild applause on the third floor of the Pentagon," the general commented drily.

There was a growing feeling in Britain that the British army had not performed as well as it might in Afghanistan, I said.

Gen Petraeus, known for his Anglophilia, denied this hotly. "The British have done superb work," he said; not just their conventional forces but also their special forces, which have been "absolutely magnificent".

But he made it clear that the job required much larger numbers than the British had at their disposal.

I asked him finally if he could look the families of American, British, Canadian and other Nato soldiers who had died here, in the face, and say the sacrifice of their sons, husbands and brothers was worth it.

He showed a noticeable degree of emotion as he answered. He described how, in Iraq, he had once lost 17 of his men in a collision between two helicopters.

"My head was literally down as I came out of the command post. A young trooper put his arm round my shoulders and said: 'You know, sir, that's 17 more reasons to get this right'."

So you do care about casualties, I said?

"Absolutely," Gen Petraeus answered.

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