From The Times January 25, 2010
General Petraeus, head of US Central Command
Deborah Haynes Afghanistan
It seems that the Pakistanis are talking at all levels to Afghan Taleban and President Karzai will be announcing this reconciliation plan for low to mid-level Taleban...
It is really reintegration to be technically accurate.
What are the chances of engagement with the senior Taleban leaders?
I’m not sure I would completely subscribe to the characterisation that the Pakistanis are talking to the Taleban at all levels. What you have are two different endeavours. One is reintegration and that is what we anticipate the Afghan Government to announce as a policy developed in co-ordination certainly with the international community and Isaf elements that are focused on that particular topic. Obviously that’s an important component of any comprehensive approach to a situation such as that in Afghanistan.
In Iraq as you know very well having interviewed me on that topic the Iraqi form of reintegration, of reconciliation with low and mid-level leaders and fighters proved to be an important factor in the reduction of violence and the reconciliation of tens of thousands of individuals who were either actively or tacitly involved with the Sunni insurgent elements that contributed to much of that violence that led to the surge.
In Afghanistan there are every week instances in which Taleban or other insurgent elements come to Afghan or Isaf tactical level leaders and want to talk. In some cases literally want to lay down their weapons and in a number of cases have actually done that in recent months. We think as the combination of additional pressure from the surge of US and other Isaf contributing nations forces takes place, as the additional operations ... are launched, that additional pressure the additional focus that will also allow to develop Afghan security forces, host nation governance and capacity, all of that will provide a number of different incentives for low and mid-level leaders in particular to consider becoming part of the new Afghanistan, part of the solution in the new Afghanistan rather than a continuing part of the problem.
The concept of reconciliation, of talks between senior Afghan officials and senior Taleban or other insurgent leaders, perhaps involving some Pakistani officials as well, is another possibility. Although many observers think that that is probably one for the mid or long term rather than the short term given that many of those leaders will feel that they are resurgent right now rather than under the kind of pressure that might lead them to seriously consider laying down their arms and indeed directing that large insurgent elements pursue reconciliation rather than continued violence.
Mid or long term meaning in months?
Mid or long term. Again it depends on the pace of the campaign plan, the operational tempo, the dynamics of the battlefield if you will but at an operational and strategic level not just at a tactical level.
Senior commanders right up to the very top if they’re willing?
As Secretary Gates observed recently. He noted the possibility of that is probably unlikely given the dynamics at present but I don’t think it is something that anyone rules out. Again that was not an option pursued in Iraq. We certainly never approached the most senior al-Qaeda in Iraq or the most senior Sunni extremist leaders. However there were certainly some fairly high-level insurgent leaders who did indeed reconcile with the Iraqi Government so it is not something that can be ruled out but it is also not something that I would anticipate as they say in the United States: coming soon to a theatre near you.
Another goal from the London conference is a tentative timetable, and I know you don’t like timetables, for the transfer of security of Afghan provinces. What do you think is a realistic timeline for this?
I haven’t heard of a timetable. Nor of discussions of a timetable other than of course what was in the President’s speech about beginning a transition of certain security tasks based on conditions. Conditions meaning enemy situation, Afghan Security Force capacity and capability and so forth. So what there has been focus on however has been to refine the discussion of indeed what those conditions should include, what considerations should be part of discussions about transition and indeed what transition actually means. Is it just the lead for security responsibility or is it transfer of all governance and service and security tasks from Isaf to Afghanistan and again at what level? Is it sub district, district, province, how to go forward with it. There has been a lot of good discussion on that and we’ll see really where the state of those discussions by the London conference because they are still very much, they’re continuing in quite an intensive manner.
Helmand is obviously of particular interest to Britain. With another 10,000 US Marines due to deploy to the province as part of the surge, will the US take control of northern Helmand to free up the British to focus on LKG, Garmsir and Gareshk in the centre?
Well that again has yet to be announced shall we say. Certainly there’s a terrific amount of coordination ongoing both in terms of tactical and operational co-ordination of the conduct of future operations and also co-ordination about literally what additional US forces, US assets in some cases other nations’ assets and how all of those are going to be meshed together as it is currently of course under regional command south and I don’t want to get ahead of Isaf commander nor the intermediate joint commander or for that matter the RC south commander in laying out how it’s envisioned that this will go forward.
So you don’t want to say who is going to be in command of Helmand?
I think that would probably be premature. But there are certainly discussions of that ongoing and then there are discussion understandably about how best to do command and control of what is currently regional command south as you have an influx of a substantial number of additional forces and as you get multiple more brigades just in Helmand province not to mention also of course other forces going into Kandahar and other areas of regional command south.
How many surge forces are already on the ground?
The first two combat battalions are now on the ground in terms of the surge forces those are both marine units and the first of the army ground battalions in now also in the process of deploying in addition to numerous what we call enabler forces. These are engineers who are doing the infrastructure development in addition of a dance of other forces.
The Iraq surge was accompanied by an initial rise in coalition deaths. Do you predict that given we have a surge going on in Afghanistan now this could be Nato’s bloodiest year over there?
Honestly I don’t know. Certainly I have said that it will be tougher before it gets easier as I did also in advance of the surge in Iraq. The circumstances are different. First of all you don’t have a vastly higher level of violence already. The level of violence in Iraq when the surge was launched was several orders of magnitude greater than that in Afghanistan. In December 2006 when the decision was made to conduct the surge into Iraq there were 53 dead bodies every day, every 24 hours on average, in Baghdad alone from sectarian violence there were some others from other categories of violence. The spiral of violence in Iraq, of sectarian violence in particular, had gone nearly out of control.
We are going to have to make sacrifices before things get better?
Again as I have said it will get harder before it gets easier and that will result from offensive operations intended in Helmand among others to take away Taleban sanctuaries and safe havens that they’ve been able to establish over the course of the last two or three years in particular.
Do you have a prediction of when the violence will peak?
The summer fighting season has traditionally been the time when the violence has been highest.
Could this be the last summer of violence? And afterwards you are hoping that we won’t see that again next year?
I think again that would be premature to make that kind of prediction. I have said that I have not assessed that Afghanistan could be turned as quickly as Iraq was turned. That it will be difficult to assemble all the same factors that we were able to bring together in Iraq to reduce the violence as rapidly as was the case, in hindsight at least. It didn’t feel rapid when we lived through it. It took a good six to nine months of very heavy fighting and then the militia battles of March and April of 2008, six months after that. But the reduction in violence did indeed begin and was fairly sharp starting in the late June, early July 2007 timeframe and it really continued on down, it would plateau a bit then continued down further.
There are cycles in Afghanistan and over time what we want to do of course is to drive the peak violence in the summer down and the level of violence in the winter down also but again I think it would be premature to predict that the combination of Isaf and Afghan forces can yet produce the factors that collectively could result in that kind of reduction.
Resolve will be tested?
I think the question is whether or not the combination of Isaf, international community and Afghan efforts can produce demonstrable evidence of progress that gives the publics of the contributing nations, all of them, the kind of sense that was produced over time in Iraq that this endeavour, the objectives of this endeavour can be obtained over time.
What will you be looking for?
Some of the same indicators as we saw in Iraq. Indeed the momentum that the Taleban for example has achieved in recent years can be reversed. That over time the security bubbles can be extended. That the population can be better protected over time. That Afghan forces are developing in a positive manner. That Afghan governmental capacity capability and performance progresses and so on.
You were a fan of British Special Forces in Iraq.
I was, I am and I always will be the biggest fan of BSF wherever they may be and also of British forces in general with whom I’ve been privileged to work in the Balkans, in Iraq and now of course in Afghanistan and a host of other places.
How important a role do British SF play in Afghanistan?
A very important role. They are, they always have been and they continue to be nothing short of terrific. In particular their innovativeness and capacity for independent action continue to be very impressive.
America is committing 30,000 additional forces for Afghanistan. What are you hoping countries like Germany will potentially be sending? What hopes do you have for that?
My understanding is that the latest number that other Isaf contributing nations have already pledged I think it is somewhere around 7,500 and there are hopes certainly that other counties that have not yet officially or publicly made pledges will announce those as well. It is not the role for a US CENTCOM commander. I’ll defer that to my close friend and colleague the Nato supreme allied commander.
Money was a key weapon in Iraq, with the Sons of Iraq programme for example?.
It is important for people to understand that the Sons of Iraq programme initially took off before we announced salaries for the Sons of Iraq. It was truly based out of a desire to maintain security in areas once al-Qaeda and other extremist elements had been cleared from them... Over time there was a desire for compensation, reasonably understandable, and we had the Cerp [Commander's Emergency Response Programme] dollars to do that. In fact for now probably somewhere around nine months all of those Sons of Iraq have been on the Iraqi payroll and it’s now about 50,000 of them who have shifted to the payrolls of various Iraqi ministries.
I understand the pilot scheme in Afghanistan has not been as effective.
There is not for Afghanistan something quite comparable to the Sons of Iraq. There are a number of different initiatives that are being pursued. There is a local defence initiative in which small special forces teams locate with villagers, develop trust and confidence over periods of months and with the approval of the Afghan Government allow certain members of those villages to carry weapons and to augment the security of areas that in some cases is not that well assured by still small Afghan security forces and they then they have the link to a quick reaction force and so forth.
Literally live in the villages with them?
Initially Special Forces will live with them and then overtime they will move to other villages and then again the local defence forces, some of whom may be paid over time but relatively small numbers of those. That is one concept and this is actually ongoing.
When did that start?
Several months ago.
There is the Afghan Population Protection Programme. That has been used in limited form in Wardak and Logar provinces southwest of Kabul really as a short-term measure to add rapidly to the roles that will ultimately be the Ministry of Interior forces. Some local forces who are selected by tribal leaders from those areas and again it is assessed to have had modestly positive results and those forces over time will be incorporated into the Ministry of Interior.
Are they being paid?
Yes, they are paid by the Ministry of Interior.
Then you have the various initial stages of reintegration efforts that are taking place in part just because the situations demand that tactical-level Afghan and Isaf leaders respond to low-level Taleban leaders who literally come in with their hands up and want to lay down their weapons. In those cases local officials are brought into this and there are local arrangements that are brokered even as the formal development of a reintegration programme at the highest levels of the Afghan Government together with the international community is being finalised.
The surge has begun. You were in this position in Iraq, everyone was watching, how do you feel in terms of is it a winnable mission? Can you see a successful end to this?
The surge has begun... General McCrystal has described the situation in a way that I think is accurate and that is serious but doable. There are no illusions about the magnitude of the difficulty. Everyone clearly recognises the magnitude of the difficulty. I have recognised this all the way back in September 2005 when I was asked by then Secretary Rumsfeld to come home after a second tour in Iraq, this is when I was a three-star General, via Afghanistan and do an assessment of the training equipment programme and the situation in Afghanistan, which I did and came back and in reporting that out to him at that time when the level of violence was vastly lower than it has been over the past year, or two, I said that I thought that Afghanistan likely would be the longest campaign in the long war just because of the various factors on the ground and the enormous challenges that reside there. That turned out to be fairly prophetic.
There are no illusions about this being in any stretch of the imagination easy and everyone recognises the difficulty. Having said that everyone also recognises the imperative of doing all that is possible to achieve a hugely important mission, one that is of enormous importance to all our countries and that is to ensure that Afghanistan does not become once again a sanctuary or a safe haven for transnational extremist elements like al-Qaeda. It was in Kandahar that 9/11 attacks were planned. It was in training camps in eastern Afghanistan where the initial preparation of the attackers was carried out before they went to Hamburg and flights schools in the US. It is important to recall the seriousness of the mission and why it is that we are in Afghanistan in the first place and why we are still there after years and years of hard work and sacrifice that have passed.
How worried are you that this furore over the decision to blacklist several hundred candidates could trigger fresh unrest over there and delay the US withdrawal plans?
I’m considerably much less worried than I was say last weekend when this was all really appearing that it actually could boil over and result in a reversal of the effect of two and an half years of reconciliation among different groups. It appears however in the last 48 to 72 hours that Iraqi leaders have really gripped this issue.
It turns out now that each party has at least double-digit numbers of individuals on this particular list of over 500 names and that it is reportedly 55 per cent or so Shia and 45 per cent or so Sunni. So if it ever was as was reported a predominately Sunni list and predominately focused on sidelining Sunni candidates that is not the case now and it appears there is going to be, as has been the case in Iraq on a number of previous occasions when there has been quite considerable political drama, that Iraqi leaders will resolve the issue without unhinging and undoing again two and a half years of very hard work at reconciling all of the factions inside the new Iraq.
So no panic.
No timetable changes.
No timetable changes. Still a weather eye though at this issue and a number of other issues and I think residual concern from this particular issue by Iraqi leaders about how leaders of a previous organisation that was supposed to have been defunct by the legislation that established the accountability and justice commission that replaced the former de-Baathification committee, those leaders seemingly hijacking the new organisation without having been confirmed as the leadership of it and being manipulated by reportedly the Iranian Quds force.
You said that US intelligence believes that Peter Moore spent some time in Iran but Britain’s FCO insists there is no evidence of this. Who is mistaken?
We’ll throw it back to the intelligence community and let them tell us what they think.
You haven’t heard any different? You still think he was held in Iran?
I have heard no different information.
Do you know how long?
I do not. No.
How worried are you that it could become the next Afghanistan in terms of providing a safe haven for al-Qaeda to launch global attacks.
A number of us have been focused on Yemen for well over two years.
From the time when we were examining how foreign fighters were being trained and then how foreign fighter facilitators were operating who enabled foreign fighters to come into Iraq through Syria and many different roads lead to what was then termed al-Qaeda in Yemen and this past year was franchised by the al-Qaeda senior leadership as al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsular.
In 2006 there was a very important prison break in which the current leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular and some 20 to 25 other important al-Qaeda members were able to escape from prison in Yemen. We knew even further back that al-Qaeda had a presence in Yemen. It tried to sink the Cole, did do considerable damage to it and have carried out various attacks over the years on various Western targets and Yemeni governmental targets again in various locations in Yemen.
And we saw again links to al-Qaeda in Yemen that included foreign fighter facilitators, the establishment of training camps and a variety of different communications all traced back to Yemen that helped facilitate the flow of foreign fighters from various countries in the greater region into Damascus and then on into Iraq where a number of them were blowing themselves up or providing expertise in explosives or other tactics, techniques and procedures being practiced by al-Qaeda in Iraq.
At that time we were focused on it in 2007 there were over 120 foreign fighters per month entering Iraq. That flow has now been reduced to under 10 a month by the actions that we and our Iraqi partners and some tremendous UK Special Operations forces took together inside Iraq and then by actions that regional partners took to make it much more difficult for military-aged males to fly from their countries to Damascus on a one-way plane ticket, for example.
And then also a number of different operations that were carried out through co-ordinated intelligence and other activities as a result of the focus that we were all taking collectively on the effort to reduce that flow of fighters into Iraq. So coming into this job in late October 2008 I announced right away that we were going to focus more attention and resources on Yemen. Made an initial trip to Yemen shortly after taking command. We developed in concert with the embassy in Yemen and with intelligence organisations and with the State Department a military campaign plan for Yemen that I approved in late April of 2009.
Made another trip to Yemen in July that has now been acknowledged. That was a very, very positive trip and we launched the efforts to expand our assistance to certain Yemeni forces, expand our intelligence sharing, and development efforts and all of that led to the ability to enable the actions that have been taken against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula over the course of the past couple of months. The most well known of which were various strikes on December 17, December 24 and a variety of other actions that have taken place in which cumulatively two training camps have been destroyed, three suicide bombers were killed, the fourth one who was with them was wounded and captured with his suicide vest still on by the Yemeni Sensitive Site Exploitation Team, one quite senior al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular leader was killed, others have been wounded or very nearly missed and a degree of disruption has been inflicted on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular. But certainly activities continue, threat streams continue and efforts to plan attacks in Yemen and elsewhere in the world continue.
You want to double the military assistance given to Yemen. In what form will this be? Training? Drones?
The large ticket items that were in programmes that are part of the defence budget that were proved by congress and signed by the President are for items of equipment, such as helicopters, some coast guard vessels and then a variety of other less expensive items of military equipment and then some training, education.
What about airstrikes and drone attacks. Will that have to happen given the threat?
Well the Yemeni forces in fact carried out an air strike most recently two or three days ago. It is possible that those Yemeni activities could continue.
Can you envisage any further US involvement in terms of troops there, any deployment?
Obviously it depends on what the Yemeni leadership wants. They have very clearly ruled out the possibility of US forces being involved in ground combat operations and have done so publicly and that is not in the realm of the possible. But again a variety of different training and assistance activities based on a schedule that we agreed mutually is certainly in the realm of the possible and indeed the kind of activities that we carry on with the majority of the countries in the central command area of responsibility.
You told CNN that the US has contingency plans to address...
No, actually what I told Christiane Amanpour is that it would literally be irresponsible if Central Command was not considering a variety of contingencies including those involving Iran and planning for those contingencies.
What are the contingency plans for Iran?
Well would you like me to spell all of them out for you.
[Laughs] Again it wouldn’t be productive I don’t think to go into any kind of discussion beyond really the answer that I gave to Christiane. Nice try though.