Petraeus on Afghanistan, Taliban


General David Petraeus (Image by Flickr user Hector Alejandro (cc: by-nc-sa))

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At a conference on Afghanistan last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed ways of reintegrating some Taliban back into the Afghan political process, and into society as a whole. It's a provocative way forward in Afghanistan and it has the support of U.S. officials. Among them, the head of U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus, who commands forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Last week, "The Takeaway's" John Hockenberry spoke with General Petraeus in Washington, DC. The following is an excerpt of the interview.

HOCKENBERRY: Are we seeing a shift in U.S. policy in Afghanistan, away from nation-building and more toward, simply, containment?

PATRAEUS: I’m not sure I completely subscribe to that, but I would. I think what is important in that particular concept is the recognition that this is not the kind of war that we’ve had occasionally in the past where you take the hill, plant the flag and go home to a victory parade. This is a struggle against extremism; and a struggle not just against extremism, but transnational extremist that want to ... attack us and our partners. And that’s not a struggle that’s going to be won in a year or two years. This is something that we’re going to be engaged in for some time, really for the foreseeable future. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that it’s always our soldiers that have to do the fighting.

HOCKENBERRY: There have been reports about plans to buy off the Taliban in Afghanistan -- something  General Stanley McChrystal on the ground has explicitly endorsed. So if a large component of US strategy puts members of the Taliban on the payroll, why did we have to fight them in the first place, if we can just buy them off now?

PATRAEUS: What Gen McChrystal is taking about is reintegration, and we need to distinguish between reintegration and reconciliation in the lexicon used in Afghanistan, which is different from that that was used in Iraq. Reintegration is the idea of breaking off low- and mid-level Taliban elements, village by village, valley by valley, because there’s less coherence to this then, again, you had in Iraq. And of course it’s a much more rugged, mountainous and rural, than the kind of urban and flatter setting that you had in Iraq. That process, we think, is certainly doable. It is definitely something you want to proceed. You can’t kill or capture your way out of these endeavors. That's a necessary component of your strategy, and indeed there will be an increase in the counterterrorist forces in Afghanistan.

HOCKENBERRY: But is that ruled out then that at the higher level, are you saying that there are no talks?

PATRAEUS: Let me talk about reconciliation. Reconciliation in the Afghan parlance is the idea of talks at very high levels. Indeed some say as high as Mullah Omar himself, the head of the Afghan Taliban. There have been talks at various times among representatives of President Karzai’s government and representatives of the Taliban, facilitated by third parties. Again, very exploratory, in neutral locations where literally individuals happened to be in the same area at the same time.

But the idea that the Taliban when it is feeling resurgent would enter serious negotiations, given what it has said are the conditions for it laying down its arms, and given what we know the Afghan government conditions are for reconciling, those are quite divergent right now.

HOCKENBERRY: How could you consider the reintegration program with the Taliban low level operatives a desirable tactic when the CIA lost so many individuals because of double agents, someone they presumably tried to put on the payroll thinking they were a member of the Taliban or a Taliban sympathizer marched in with a bomb and committed suicide taking many of the CIA with him?

PATRAEUS: Well the same way, candidly, that we sat down over time in Iraq with people that had our blood on their hands. The same way that the Iraqi government has reconciled with certain Shia militia extremist elements. The same way that the United Kingdom reconciled with various IRA figures. It’s instructive in fact that when we were doing this in Iraq, we did have questions, commanders come to me and say, ‘Sir, are we really going to talk to people that have our blood on their hands?’ And I’d say, ‘I think we are.’

"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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