Transcript: Gen. Petraeus on 'FNS'

Written by Chris Wallace / Published December 07, 2009 / Fox News Sunday

The following is a rush transcript of the December 6, 2009, edition of "FOX News Sunday With Chris Wallace." This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST: As the U.S. military gets ready to launch a troop surge in Afghanistan, we're joined by the head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, the architect of the last surge in Iraq. He comes to us from CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

And, General, welcome back to "Fox News Sunday."

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Great to be back, Chris. Thanks.

WALLACE: General, what are the prospects for success with this new surge in Afghanistan? And how do you define success?

PETRAEUS: Well, we define success as — in Afghanistan, which has security forces that can see to the security of their population, and then governmental structures, many of them traditional, to be sure, but governmental structures that can see to the needs of their population as well.

And of course, that's what we will endeavor to help the Afghans achieve, especially now with the additional resources that have been committed. I think it's important to note, you know, the president, I think, set out to convey two messages. One was a message of resolve. That's the additional forces, additional civilians, additional funding.

Also a message of urgency, though, to get on with it. And that message to Afghan leaders, perhaps to some of us, perhaps to domestic, international audiences, recognizing how long this endeavor has been going on already.

And so with these additional forces, indeed, we want to get on with it and try to achieve those objectives that I just described.

WALLACE: General, how similar is this operation in Afghanistan to the troop surge that you launched in Iraq three years ago?

PETRAEUS: Well, certainly, there are some similarities and the — and the focus again on focusing on the security of the people is an important component of this.

But we have to be very careful to recognize the enormous differences between Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, in 2005, fall of 2005, Secretary Rumsfeld asked me to come home from a second tour in Iraq through Afghanistan to do an assessment of the situation there and the train and equip mission and report back to him.

And I came back and laid out, indeed, the number of differences. This is the time, of course, when the level of violence in Afghanistan was quite low.

But because of the enormous challenges of a country that had been at war already for 30 years, starting out as one of the poorest nations in the world, a country with illiteracy rates that are in the 70 percent range, and a host of other challenges, I said that I thought this might be the longest campaign in what was then called the long war.

And I think that that has been borne out to some degree, although clearly we are now devoting considerably more resources to it. We've tried to get the best people on the ground there on the military and civilian side as well and so forth.

WALLACE: One of the biggest differences, of course, is the fact that President Obama has announced a time line of July 2011 for beginning — beginning — to pull troops out of Afghanistan. Of course, George W. Bush, President Bush, refused to do that in the case of Iraq.

What exactly do you understand your orders to be when it comes to starting the withdrawal in July of 2011?

PETRAEUS: Well, I think the president made very clear and then Secretary Gates, if you will, explained that even further in his testimony this past week, emphasizing, as you did, the word "beginning."

That's a mark on the wall out there at which we begin to transition to Afghan security forces some of the security tasks. But it is conditions- based. And you'll remember those words from the Iraq period as well. It is a responsible draw down, again, echoing the president's Iraq policy and how we are drawing down there.

So I think that's — that is a logical way to approach this. I think that, again, as I mentioned, that message of urgency is represented by that date. And again, that message has a number of different audiences out there, and among them Afghan leaders, perhaps even those of us in uniform.

As you've seen reported today in the newspapers, this moment, during these deliberations, when the president asked if we couldn't do this faster — you know, can't we pull the bell curve, if you will, to the left — and it just so happened we had a couple hundred of our logistic planners out in the forward headquarters in Qatar working on that very problem.

And we came back and said that well, you know, that deliberate 18- month deployment plan we had, we could indeed compress that, and that we would absolutely try to get the additional forces on the ground as...

WALLACE: But, General...

PETRAEUS: ... rapidly as we can.

WALLACE: ... I want — I want to pursue this question about what the time line means and what it doesn't mean about July 2011. On that date, do you have any orders on how many troops to pull out and how fast?

PETRAEUS: No, not at all. No. In fact, as the secretary explained, this would be a district-by-district, as the conditions obtain, as the security situation is sufficient for the Afghan security forces that will be working hard to develop are capable of taking on those tasks.

So you know, it is important to remember also that in Iraq at a certain point, I did say in December of 2007 — I announced this in September in the testimony, that in December 2007, we would start to transition tasks to the Iraqi security forces in that case as well.

WALLACE: But, General, would it be fair to say that based on conditions on the ground as you find them in July of 2011 that there could be tens of thousands of U.S. troops still in Afghanistan for some years?

PETRAEUS: Well, conditions-based, certainly. And again, there's no - - there's no time line, no ramp, nothing like that.

Again, I think it's very important to note, as many have observed, this is not — this doesn't trigger a rush to the exits. It triggers a beginning of transition to Afghan security forces and, over time, a beginning of transition of tasks to Afghan governmental elements as well.

WALLACE: But some of your colleagues in — your former colleagues in the Bush White House say that setting any kind of time line is delivering exactly the wrong message to the Afghans, which is, in effect, don't throw your lot in with the Americans because they're going to leave and the Taliban is still going to be around.

And you talk about testimony in 2007. In September of 2007, you very much opposed the idea of a time line. Let's watch, sir.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETRAEUS: Our experience in Iraq has repeatedly shown that projecting too far into the future is not just difficult, it can be misleading and even hazardous.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: General, honestly, would you have preferred no time line to be set publicly?

PETRAEUS: Well, you know, we actually had a discussion of this and allowed as how there's some benefits to a time line. And again, that's why I emphasized up front these twin messages which I don't see as being mutually exclusive at all, although there is undeniably some tension between them.

And to those, to the Taliban, to others who impute too much to that date, I would caution that they again should re-read the president's speech, should read the secretary's testimony, because it makes quite clear there the level of resolve, that other message, and that this will be conditions-based, responsible, and a transition starting, but not a race to the exits.

WALLACE: General, I want to do a lightning round, if I can, with you, quick questions and quick answers. According to a long story in today's New York Times, a kind of tick-tock of the three months of deliberations, on November 11th, the president said to you, "What I'm looking for is a surge." Is that true?

PETRAEUS: He — what he wanted was to pull this bell curve, which showed the deployment of forces, to the left. And that's accurate. And we said that yes, we thought we could indeed compress the time line for deployment.

WALLACE: Did he ever acknowledge to you in any of these meetings that the surge in Iraq was a success?

PETRAEUS: He did, in fact, although I will also tell you that we have spent a lot of time taking the rearview mirrors off the bus and avoiding re-litigating, if you will, you know, past battles and all the rest of this, and focusing to the future. That's what this has been about.

And I think, interestingly, as I think back on this process, this several-month period of deliberations and of pretty intense intellectual discussion about topics and assumptions and concepts, there's a bit of some team-building that took place in all of this as well.

WALLACE: But I — I — it is interesting, because, of course, he refused to say during the campaign, and even as president, that the surge was a success. You're saying that in these meetings, he finally acknowledged that.

PETRAEUS: Well, we talked about the elements. In fact, he asked at various times to describe how did reconciliation work. As you know, that was a very important component of the surge. Talk about population security and the various elements of what it was that we did in Iraq.

Again, these were good discussions, and everyone tested each others' thoughts and principles and ideas on this, and these were also very lengthy sessions. You know, for the president to have — I think it was 10 or even 11, if you count the Oval Office session this last Sunday night, and several of these two and a half to three hours long, that's a lot of really weighty debate that took place right there.

WALLACE: General, I just want to remind you you're under lightning round rules, so we're going to try to get a couple of more quick...

PETRAEUS: You're under lightning round rules, Chris.

WALLACE: That's true. You can do anything you want. You're the commanding general of CENTCOM, sir. Well played.

In the last week, Iran has announced plans to build 10 more uranium sites and also plans to enrich uranium to a higher level, almost to weapons grade.

Given all that, does that change your assessment of the threat that Iran poses — the threat Iran poses, and also the likelihood — the speed with which Iran may develop a bomb?

PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, I think a lot of experts have questioned Iran's ability to do anything remotely approaching that.

But second, President Ahmadinejad and the Iranian leaders continue to be the best recruiters for U.S. Central Command as we embark on our security architecture efforts and partnership plans.

They have caused enormous worry and concern by those on the western side of the Gulf. There's a great deal of activity there that was not taking place a couple of years ago and, indeed, it does cause serious concerns about what it is that they have in mind, and — as do their continued activities to arm, train, fund and direct extremists in Iraq, southern Lebanon, Gaza and, to a degree, western Afghanistan.

WALLACE: And finally, General, you have agreed to speak next May here in Washington at the American Enterprise Institute, where you will be honored, and it has been noted that this will be the first time that you have spoken at a partisan conservative event. Are you dipping your toes in politics, sir?

PETRAEUS: No, not at all. Actually, I — and, by the way, I've spoken to AEI before. I've spoken to the Heritage Foundation. And I've spoken to elements on the other side of the spectrum.

I stopped voting back in 2002. I have tried to serve the commander in chief, whatever party he was from, and to be an apolitical officer. At times that's difficult when you obviously become associated with a particular policy.

But no, I have been — I feel very privileged to have served our country in uniform and have no desire whatsoever to seek elective office.

WALLACE: I just have to follow up real quickly. You have decided not to vote in elections?

PETRAEUS: When I was promoted to major general, it seemed like a quiet little thing at the time, but it has perhaps taken on some bigger ramifications.

And you know, more recently, I've taken to quoting that country song "What About No Don't You Understand" in answering these kinds of questions.

WALLACE: Well, you know, that country song wasn't written for political reporters in Washington.

(LAUGHTER)

General Petraeus, thank you. We want to thank you so much for joining us today and, sir, the best of luck with your new mission.

PETRAEUS: Thanks very much, Chris. Good to be with you.

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