Is U.S. Winning in Afghanistan? Gates and Petraeus Won't Say

PHOTO: David Petraeus and Robert GatesPlayABC News
WATCH Afghanistan War: Is U.S. Winning?

America's two top military commanders declined today to state whether the U.S. is winning the war in Afghanistan.

"We're making progress," said Gen. David Petraeus said when asked by ABC "World News" anchor Diane Sawyer whether the U.S. was winning the now decade long war in Afghanistan. "We're really loathed to use this very loaded term of winning or losing."

Petreaus made his comments in an exclusive joint interview with Sawyer along with his boss Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The interview was conducted in Kabul, Afghanistan.

"We've made enormous progress in a number of different geographic areas within Afghanistan. And overall, the momentum has changed," the general said.

"I believe that we have had a great deal of success in achieving the mission that our forces have been given... in terms of disrupting Taliban activity, in terms of degrading their capabilities, in terms of denying them control of population areas," Gates said.

Watch the Interview Tonight on World News with Diane Sawyer

The qualified statements come as Gates and Petreaus prepare an assessment on the status of the war for the White House, which will determine the size of a potential troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The comments also come as the political climate back home suggests Americans are growing impatient with the war.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll has found that 54 percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting, and 73 percent say the United States should withdraw a substantial number of U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan this summer.

By most accounts "the surge" strategy President Obama decided to implement has achieved its goals. The U.S. has reclaimed southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban. However, there is still fierce fighting in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan. Insurgent groups in Pakistan have sent reinforcements and there have been signs of foreign fighters also attacking U.S. forces.

Are We Winning War in Afghanistan?

The U.S. has consistently tempered its reports of making progress in the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, calling the gain "fragile."

"They'll [the Taliban] try to come back though," Gates told ABC News. "And that's why we say that these times, while significant, are fragile."

Gates cautions that modern wars rarely end in decisive victories and that they are usually concluded through negotiated settlements.

"We have not had a declared victory in a war, with the possible exception of the first Gulf War, since World War II. It is the phenomenon of modern conflict," Gates said. "The key is, are our interests protected? Is the security of the United States protected? Are the American safer at the end because of the sacrifice of these soldiers have made? That's the real question."

Gates said Obama fully understands the impact of withdrawing troops, but the decision on troop numbers is ultimately up to the commander in chief.

"That's a judgment call that has to be made ... in a context of a wide variety of issues that the president has to face," Gates said.

While Obama has said there will be a substantial drawdown of the 100,000 U.S. forces, Gates has framed it as "modest" one for July, but said the number has not been decided on.

"The question is how do you tie it with what you're going to do by the end of 2012," said Gates. "What I have said is that it is important as we did in Iraq to have a strategy behind the numbers, not to just pluck a single number out and say, okay, that's the number."

Petraeus said their job is to provide Obama with options and gauge the risks of each potential plan.

"It is ultimately the president's decision. And of course... we need to have congressional support. But they also need to understand consequences," the general said.

The Cost of War

Members of congress are growing increasingly frustrated with the war's $10 billion a month price tag. For many it is a cost the country is in incapable of affording in the midst of a budget crisis.

Gates said that the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will be $40 billion lower in 2012 than in 2011.

He also said, "I think you also have to ask the question what's the cost of failure. We've invested a huge amount of money here. We've invested 1,254 lives up to this point."

"Congress is almost always impatient. I remember in the spring of 2007, people saying this war is lost in Iraq," said Gates adding, "I can say that since I'm leaving in a few weeks."

Building the Afghan Army

In order to engineer a drawdown the U.S. must first help build up Afghanistan's security, concentrating the most on the Afghan National Army. The force of 164,000 has a literacy rate of only 14 percent, despite the low literacy Petraeus said the army is making significant progress.

By the end of the year the U.S. hopes to have an Afghan security force made up of the army, the police and the air force, totaling 305,000.