KABUL, Afghanistan — In his first six weeks as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus has seen insurgent attacks on coalition forces spike to record levels, violence metastasize to previously stable areas, and the country’s president undercut anti-corruption units backed by Washington.

But after burrowing into operations here and traveling to the far reaches of this country, Petraeus has concluded that the U.S. strategy to win the nearly nine-year-old war is “fundamentally sound.”

In a wide-ranging interview, he said he sees incipient signs of progress in parts of the volatile south, in new initiatives to create community defense forces and in nascent steps to reintegrate low-level insurgents who want to stop fighting.


With public support for the war slipping and a White House review of the war looming in December, Petraeus said he is pushing the forces under his command to proceed with alacrity. He remains supportive of President Obama’s decision to begin withdrawing troops next July, but he said it is far too early to determine the size of the drawdown.

“We are doing everything we can to achieve progress as rapidly as we can without rushing to failure,” Petraeus said in his wood-paneled office at NATO headquarters in Kabul. “We’re keenly aware that this has been ongoing for approaching nine years. We fully appreciate the impatience in some quarters.”

But he warned against expecting quick results in a campaign of building Afghan government and security institutions from scratch, and convincing people to cast their lot with coalition forces after years of broken promises – all in the face of Taliban intimidation and attacks.

“It’s a gradual effort. It’s a deliberate effort,” he said. “There’s no hill to take and flag to plant and proclamation of victory. Rather, it’s just hard work.”

Petraeus said he’d provide his “best military advice” to Obama, who will make the ultimate decision on troop levels next year. But the general’s presence in Kabul, as opposed to the Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., could make him a far more forceful voice for attenuating the drawdown, if he chooses to make that case.

He said it was too early to determine when Afghan security forces can assume responsibility for various parts of the country.


Officials from some NATO nations, where public support for the war is lower than in the United States, want to announce at a November meeting of alliance foreign ministers a list of provinces to be handed over.

Some Obama administration officials also are pushing for a transition plan before the White House review. But some once-quiet provinces in the north and west, deemed likely targets a few months ago, are now wracked by spiking insurgent violence.

“We’re still in the process of determining what is realistic,” Petraeus said. That, he said, depends on progress of security operations over the next several months. “It’s a process, not an event. It’s one that’s to be conditions-based.”

Petraeus’ return to the battlefield from his perch as Central Command chief was the result of desperate circumstances – Obama’s decision to fire Gen. Stanley McChrystal for flippant comments he and his staff made to a magazine reporter – yet it has provided the United States and NATO with what almost certainly is the last, best chance to reverse a foundering war.

Petraeus literally wrote the military’s book on counterinsurgency strategy, and he engineered a dramatic turnaround in Iraq that many assumed impossible. But Afghanistan is in many ways a more daunting environment, and there is no guarantee that the same counterinsurgency tactics applied in Baghdad will work in Kandahar.

Asked whether he was certain that the counterinsurgency strategy, which emphasizes protecting the civilian population, can be effective in a country where many people regard the insurgents more as miscreant relatives than an existential threat, Petraeus refrained from an unequivocal endorsement.

“The enemy has shown himself to be resilient,” he said. “The enemy does fight back. He is trying, in his assessment, to outlast us.”

Although he is not tackling Afghanistan as he did Iraq, where he began overhauling the war plan upon arrival, he is seeking to duplicate some of the methods that served him well in Baghdad, foremost among them incessant engagement with the country’s political leader. He meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about once a day – far more often than the U.S. ambassador does – in an effort to transform him and his government from weak links to essential partners in the counterinsurgency mission.

Petraeus contends the counterinsurgency strategy is showing momentum in Helmand province, where about 20,000 U.S. Marines and 10,000 British troops have sought to create inkblots of security in six key districts.

Some areas, such as Marja, a former Taliban stronghold, have proved to be tougher to pacify – insurgents are continuing an aggressive harassment campaign – but other places, such as the districts of Nawa and Garmsir, are becoming more stable and may feature prominently in his year-end presentation to the White House.


He also said he is encouraged by developments in Arghandab district on Kandahar’s northern fringe, where two U.S.

Army battalions have been engaged in an arduous mission to clear insurgents from pomegranate orchards and vineyards seeded with anti-personnel mines.

“We got intelligence we gathered from the Taliban that said, ‘Don’t worry, fellows. The time has come now. Stop fighting, lay down your weapons and fade away, and just wait until they leave,’” he said. “Of course, in this case our forces are not leaving.”

Other U.S. units will begin clearing operations in districts to the west of the city later this fall. But already, Petraeus said, missions by U.S., NATO and Afghan special-forces teams to target Taliban leaders in the Kandahar area have tripled over the past four months.

Nationwide, those forces have killed or captured 365 insurgent leaders and about 2,400 rank-and-file members over the past three months, he said.

The operations have led “some leaders of some elements” of the insurgency to begin reconciliation discussions with the Afghan government, Petraeus said. Some military officials have suggested that insurgent leaders are simply testing the waters because they perceive the Afghan government to be desperate, but Petraeus characterized the interactions as “meaningful,” although he cautioned against raising “undue expectations.”

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