Gen. Petraeus Exclusive Interview: Progress in Afghanistan Like Watching 'Paint Dry'

Exclusive: Petraeus concedes War in Afghanistan could take another 10 years.

September 14, 2010, 11:03 AM

WASHINGTON, Sept. 14, 2010— -- Upon the ninth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, ABC News' Martha Raddatz interviewed four-star Gen. David Petraeus, who was appointed to replace former Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan in June.

In an exclusive interview, Petraeus explained his decision to speak out against a Florida preacher's plan to burn Korans, and conceded that a successful counterinsurgency campaign could take up to 10 more years, but said he intended to stick to the 2011 drawdown date.

Petraeus, who was appointed commander of the Multi-National Force--Iraq in 2006, is seen as the one who turned the tide of violence in Iraq and who can do the same in Afghanistan.

Respected by Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike, his public stance that Koran-burning could incite anti-American violence against U.S. troops in Afghanistan was quickly echoed by the president and Sen. John McCain, and may have contributed to Pastor Terry Jones' decision to cancel "Burn a Koran Day."

Petraeus said although some damage was already done, the fact that Jones was stopped from hosting the event has helped repair America's image.

"When you saw the outpouring of emotion, of rejection of such an action by so many Americans -- from all areas, all walks of life, all segments of our population, I think that sent a very powerful message to those of the Islamic faith around the world," he said.

The concern over messaging shows the complexity of the fight in Afghanistan, and the importance of winning the hearts and minds of local Afghans in the strategy largely authored and being implemented now by Petraeus.Taking Control in Afghanistan

Petraeus is just now taking command of the Afghanistan War, but after almost nine years of the war, the American public appears to be getting war weary. However, he conceded, it could take just as long to implement a successful counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

When asked where Afghanistan was in terms of the "COIN clock", and if success could take nine to 10 more years, Petraeus replied, "Yeah, again, in some respects, I'd say obviously what took place up until this point has been of enormous importance. The sacrifices made have been -- very -- very important to this overall effort.

Read a transcript of the interview HERE.

"But it is just at this point that we feel that we do have the organizations that we learned in Iraq and from history are necessary for the conduct of this kind of campaign. We got the leaders in place, the big ideas and so forth with our Afghan partners. And now very much the resources. Although still growing even there, in terms of the required number of Afghan national security forces," he told ABC News.

Counterinsurgency is a complex strategy based on the main idea that the war cannot be won by military power alone, and that winning the hearts and minds of the local population is the key factor to success. Part of this includes securing the local Afghan population, while bolstering central and local governments to provide basic services to citizens and eventually gain their trust and allegiance against the Taliban. It is an evolving strategy, one that was shaped heavily by events as recent as the second Iraq War. In fact, Petraeus described counterinsurgency in Afghanistan as a "graduate level of warfare."

Dubbed the "Professor of War" by Vanity Fair in May 2010 for "leading a cultural and doctrinal revolution inside one of the most hidebound institutions in the world, the United States Army," Petraeus said he seeks opportunities to foster intellectual discourse about the war strategy, and that he welcomed "intellectual friction."

"We bring in outsiders. We have red teamers. We have the directed telescopes. We have all these different elements. And I've got to work occasionally to make sure that my commanders are still clear on what it is as we're banging around ideas."

Petraeus: Troop Drawdown in Afghanistan Would Be a 'Thinning Out' of Forces

Meanwhile, the Washington clock is ticking on whether Gen. Petraeus will have enough time to turn the war around. But Petraeus said he and policymakers were "intent on carrying out the policy that the President announced about July 2011."

In the interview, Petraeus also clarified the type of U.S. troops drawdown.

"July 2011 is the date when a process begins, the pace of which is determined by conditions on the ground. And that process consists of two elements. One is transition of tasks to Afghan forces and elements of institutions because [of] its functions, not just geographic areas. And the other is the beginning of a responsible drawdown of our surge forces," he said.

Petraeus also said it would consist of a "thinning out" of forces, rather than a "hand off" of areas.

"You do a little bit less and the Afghans do a little bit more instead of saying, 'Tag, you're it. You take the ball and run with it. We're out of here.' And we think that's the logical approach to this," he said.

Petraeus said Kabul would see a thinning out of U.S. troops.

"That's an area in which we'll do some transition of our forces, some thinning out, and then moving into other areas," he said. "The thinning out enables some forces to go home. It enables some others to be used in contiguous areas where there's more work still to be done."

As he has often said, things will get worse before they get better. This summer marked the deadliest few months for U.S. troops since the war has begun. A record high of 66 deaths occurred in June, 60 in July, and 56 in August - of the 56 in August, 23 fatalities occurred between Aug. 27 through Aug. 31 alone.

"As you increase your tempo and expand your area of operations. That, indeed, violence goes up. And violence going up means that casualties go up, as well," Petraeus said.

But he said progress was being made and the Taliban's momentum was reversed in "some areas", citing Marja -- the focus the first major operation implemented by Gen. Stanley McChrystal as surge troops were coming in.

"I think there's no question that in Helmand Province, the six central districts of Helmand Province-- are a good bit more secure than they were even six months ago," he said.

"Marja -- as hard fought and as embattled as it has been, three days ago opened up its high school for the first time in six years. Three other schools will open for students ... . It has an interim police station. The market is no longer a market in which the narcotics industry puts its wares on sale."

"Very hard fought gains," he continued. "Very difficult and sometimes seeming to be as slow as watching grass grow or paint dry."

He admitted there were still challenges in those areas.

"Our troopers are still fighting, we're still taking casualties in those areas, because the enemy fights back when you take away really significant sanctuaries and safe havens," he said.

"What we intend to do over the course of the months that lie ahead is to expand the security bubbles in various areas. In some areas, we have already reversed the momentum of the Taliban. In others, we still need to do that and we are intent on doing that."

Petraeus: 'Quite a Bit of Activity in the Realm of Anti-Corruption'

Petraeus acknowledged there was still much more work to be done on other elements of the war, not just with security.

Of the effort to reintegrate anti-government insurgents into Afghan society in exchange for pledging to renounce al-Qaeda, putting down arms against the government, and abiding by the Afghan constitution, Petraeus said so far, only "small numbers" have come in to do so.

"But we do see the beginnings of it. And, of course, the formal program, the Afghan-led reintegration of reconcilables, that program is really just beginning to roll out now."

Soon, he said, Karzai would announce the membership of the national peace council created during June's peace jirga to reconcile with senior members of the Taliban and other anti-government insurgents.

"That will be another important step in this process," he said.

Another important piece of the process is dealing with Afghan government corruption, which 95 percent of Afghans cited as a problem in an ABC News poll conducted last winter. Widespread belief that the Afghan government is corrupt not only undermines the credibility of the central government, but the attempt to win the hearts and minds of Afghans.

Petraeus said Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government has taken a number of actions against corruption, including after news that the Central Bank had removed Kabul Bank's chairman and CEO after it was found that tens of millions of dollars had been funneled into risky Dubai property investments, and loans were given to shareholders with close links to the Karzai Administration.

"In recent years, indeed even in recent months, various elements of President Karzai's government have taken a number of actions against corruption," Petraeus said.

"The chief justice has hired hundreds of judicial workers, put a number of judges in jail. The Minister of Finance has fired literally in recent weeks, actually, just dozens of customs officials," he said. "The commander of the western border police, is a brigadier general, is now in jail and was recently convicted a few weeks ago. A very important provincial police chief just put in jail. Another one fired, a governor fired and so forth. So, there's actually been quite a bit of activity in the realm of anti-corruption."

"Having said that, President Karzai is the first-- to state publicly that more needs to be done," Petraeus said.

Petraeus said the next major assessment of the strategy would come not during President Obama's review, but at a NATO summit in mid-November, where a discussion for the "prospects for transition" will take place.

Petraeus: 'I Am Reasonably Comfortable with a Somewhat Chaotic Situation'

What metaphor would Petraeus use for to describe the war effort? He pointed to a Frederick Remington print on the wall of his office in Kabul, called "The Stampede".

"If you look at that print, you'll see that there's a cowboy and he's trying to keep up with this herd that is flat out for glory across very rocky soil."

"There's a lightning bolt coming in from the sky. That might be an enemy attack, a tasker from higher headquarters, who knows what? It's raining sideways. The stormy -- sky and clouds and so forth. And -- you know, the brim of his hat is back, he's galloping so rapidly. And I said, 'This is our experience. We're all outriders. There's a few of us that are trail bosses. The cattle, if you will, are sort of the tasks. Getting the cattle to the destination means that you've accomplished various missions along the way. I note that some of the cattle who get out ahead of us, and that's okay, we'll catch up with them."

"Some will fall behind, we'll go back and get them. There will be casualties along the way. There are bad guys out there trying to kill us and to kill the cattle and so forth. And again, it's a metaphorical image-- that I have used to describe again that I am reasonably comfortable with a somewhat chaotic situation, at times. And I think that helps, certainly, in a job like this one."

ABC News' Richard Coolidge contributed to this story.