AFGHANISTAN, Sept. 14, 2010— -- Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent ABC News' Martha Raddatz interviewed International Security Assistance Force Commander U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan.
MARTHA RADDATZ: General, let's start with the developments overnight. And we spoke yesterday -- in the helicopter on your battlefield circulation about what was happening with the planned burning of the Koran. It looks like now, that the pastor in Florida says he will either put it on hold or not go ahead with it. Your reaction to that and whether the damage is already done.
GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, that obviously would be positive. There has been some damage done. You've seen it. You've seen, you've heard of the demonstrations here in Afghanistan -- there are already in a sense images if you will implanted in minds albeit not with photos of something as inflammatory as the burning of a Quaran. But let me perhaps start off by saying, you know, this is not a first amendment issue to me. This is an issue of a commander who is responsible for the safety of America's sons and daughters. Sons and daughters of -- over 47 other coalition countries. And it puts their lives in jeopardy, in some cases. This is about their safety. It's about their security. I defended the right of others to attack me in -- in the past. You may recall on I think it was the 11th of September.
PETRAEUS: MoveOn.org took out a full page ad attacking me personally -- on the morning of the hearings back in Washington with Ambassador Crocker on Iraq. And I was asked about that later, and obviously, I didn't applaud as I opened the newspaper and saw that. But I did state that we fought for the right of individuals to do just what they did.
So, I am a firm believer in First Amendment rights. But in this case, of course, it's one of those -- issues where one person's exercise of freedom of expression jeopardizes the safety of tens of thousands of others -- hundreds of thousands of others, probably, around the world. And could do -- very significant damage to the image of the United States around the world, as well.
RADDATZ: Could it also be that because Secretary Gates intervened, because you made comments, because there was such -- such outrage about this. That, in fact, it could have the opposite effect. That people may say, "This man tried to burn the Koran and he was stopped."
PETRAEUS: It's in the sense of -- of it being a positive effect, is that what you're…
RADDATZ: the best outcome possible from that. That it -- that it could in fact something you could capitalize on.
PETRAEUS: I think it could be. I think it could be. I think that -- 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. I've had conversations with -- with Afghans who have said, "Thank you for speaking out on this. Thanks for -- being in a sense a voice of reason. And please extend our appreciation to all the others -- who have done likewise." I've also received, I might add -- numerous emails from -- members of our ranks here in Afghanistan and also from a number of mothers and fathers back in the United States.
RADDATZ: Because this went around the world so quickly, because as soon as it -- he announced it, and it was on the internet, and we talked a bit about that yesterday, what does that tell you? And what are your concerns about the reaction to the Muslim world to Americans?
PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, it obviously says a lot about the information environment which we carry out operations. Indeed, as we discussed the other day, one of the -- the areas in which we have to work very hard is to try to be first with the truth, is the admonition that we offer to those who are working in public affairs, strategic communications and so forth. And it -- it becomes increasingly difficult, because, of course, the insurgents sometimes have news bureau desks -- already programmed into their cell phones. And -- so, we're trying to gather information and to ascertain the facts. And then to -- to share them again as widely as we can, as quickly as we can, to ensure that -- terrorist propaganda doesn't stay out there for too long unchallenged.
And ideally, again, we actually get the headline first. So that the pace of this -- and many people have remarked how the 24-hour news cycle and so forth that it continues to compress -- the -- the rapid pace with which news just goes around the world, as you noted -- in cyberspace -- is a reality. It is a challenge. And sometimes it's an opportunity. In this case, I think there was also a little bit of a slow news cycle. You know, it was over the Labor Day Weekend.
RADDATZ: Labor Day Weekend --
PETRAEUS: There wasn't much else going on. And all of a sudden this was latched onto by a number of different news organizations.
RADDATZ: Beyond the information war, what -- what does it say about our relationship with the Muslim world? That the Muslim world, parts of it certainly, would react so rapidly to that?
PETRAEUS: Well, there are predispositions out there. In some cases, to be fair, they are founded on other images -- that are in cyberspace --
RADDATZ: (OVERTALK), Abu Gharaib, Guatanamo --
PETRAEUS: --a number of other -- incidents along the way from which we've learned very, very hard lessons. But we have sought to learn those. We have sought to take corrective action. We have sought to be an adaptive learning organization. But again, there are predispositions. There are people who want -- who will use the platforms that they have -- even religious platforms -- to incite others and to inflame public opinion -- in various populations around the world. I think those are more the exceptions -- than the normal, but they are out there. And they can -- they can be used and they have been used.