WASHINGTON (CN) – Gen. David Petraeus said he would “absolutely” tell President Obama to delay the scheduled withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan next summer if the situation on the ground demanded it. “I didn’t come out here to carry out a graceful exit,” Petraeus told NBC’s David Gregory on “Meet the Press.”
The commanding general said Obama instructed him to give him his “best professional military advice,” and Petraeus said it was not his job to consider political concerns, including the war’s unpopularity among the American public.
Petraeus, 57, took over as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan after Gen. Stanley McChrystal was fired for making disparaging comments about U.S. officials to a magazine reporter.
Petraeus said he supports beginning the troop withdrawal next July, but said it is premature to assess the situation a year from now.
He said he understands Americans’ frustration about nearly nine-year war, the longest in U.S. history.
“There is understandable concern,” he said, adding “Let’s not forget why we are here: We’re here so that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary for transnational extremists the way it was when al Qaida planned the 9/11 attacks.”
Obama’s July 2011 deadline marks the beginning of a process of transferring Afghan security from the hands of U.S. troops to Afghan security forces and various governmental institutions.
Petraeus said that in order to start sending troops home next July, he would have to convince officials in Washington and the American public that there has been substantial progress.
When asked if the United States was winning or losing the war, Petraeus said, “We’re making progress. And making progress is winning here.”
The progress is measured by what counterinsurgency experts call an “oil spot,” or a peaceful, secure area such as Kandahar City. The general’s goal is to expand the oil spot. In Kabul, the nation’s capital, all but one district is controlled by Afghan security forces, making it largely an oil spot.
One of the biggest problems U.S. and NATO forces face is corruption in the Afghan government. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been criticized for being aggressive in rooting out corruption in his government, but Petraeus said Karzai voiced his awareness of the problem at last month’s Kabul conference.
“He is the president of a sovereign country, and we have to understand that,” Petraeus said. The general said he talks to Karzai on average once a day.
Petraeus said he started seeing “small pocket of progress” in the war last spring as U.S.-NATO forces took over Taliban sanctuaries in the central Helmand province and started expanding into the Kandahar province.
Overall success hinges on Taliban groups reconciling with the Afghan government by putting down their weapons, renouncing ties to al-Qaida, and swearing an oath to uphold the Afghan Constitution, Petraeus said.
“It was the Taliban that allowed al-Qaida to establish its bases and sanctuaries,” Petraeus said.
Taliban fighters are hurting themselves, the general said, partly by their approach to war.
The Taliban is leading fighting in Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan, sending messages via cellphone or other methods. Petraeus says U.S.-NATO forces have intercepted messages of Taliban fighters asking where their leaders are and why they are not fighting on the ground with them.
Petraeus also said the Taliban endangers itself by hurting innocent civilians. Petraeus said the Taliban was “much more responsible” for civilian casualties than U.S. or Afghan forces.
But Petraeus said the war was not about the United States winning favor in the eyes of the Afghan people.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about their embrace of us,” Petraeus said. “It’s not about us winning hearts and minds. It’s about the Afghan government winning hearts and minds.”
He said success would require an “enduring” commitment to maintaining security in the region.