Analysis: Petraeus media blitz seeks to calm fears, buy time for US mission in Afghanistan

Published August 16, 2010

| Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A weekend media blitz by the Army's public relations master sent a clear message: It's not time to hit the panic button in Afghanistan, but success in the nearly 9-year war won't come quickly.

The appeal for patience by Gen. David Petraeus, made in a series of media interviews Sunday, also suggests he may propose that only a few troops begin leaving next July, as President Barack Obama has promised.

That could force the White House to choose between the professional advice of a respected commander widely credited with turning around the Iraq war and pressure from some Democrats for significant withdrawals and an end to the unpopular Afghan conflict.

Already, congressional support for the Afghan war is wavering. Last month, House Democratic leaders had to rely on Republican support to pass a nearly $59 billion measure to fund Obama's additional 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and other programs. Twelve Republicans and 102 Democrats opposed it.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, a Democrat, said he was torn between his obligation to bring the bill to the floor and his "profound skepticism" that the money would lead to a successful end to the war.

To bolster congressional confidence, the media-savvy Petraeus chose to deliver his message through news organizations with significant audiences in Washington — NBC's "Meet the Press," The New York Times and The Washington Post.

"We are doing everything we can to achieve progress as rapidly as we can without rushing to failure," Petraeus told the Post. "We're keenly aware that this has been ongoing for approaching nine years. We fully appreciate the impatience in some quarters."

During the interviews, Petraeus said his six weeks at the helm of the NATO and U.S. mission had convinced him that the counterinsurgency strategy he devised with his predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was fundamentally sound and just needed time to succeed.

He also spelled out a goal for the war — not to transform Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy but to keep al-Qaida and other extremist groups at bay while the Afghan government has a chance to take control and win the trust of the Afghan people.

"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 in the Kandahar area," Petraeus told "Meet the Press" in an interview taped in Kabul.

Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said the American public's chief worry is that the U.S. may be engaged in a fight in Afghanistan that it cannot win.

Part of the job of Petraeus and other administration officials is to "make the case the war is winnable and we're in the process of winning it," Biddle said.

To convince skeptics that he's not coaching a losing team, Petraeus said he sees early signs of progress in routing the Taliban from some of their southern strongholds, reforming the Afghan government and training and equipping thousands of Afghan soldiers and police.

He also cited a new initiative to create Afghan community defense forces — similar to those he used with success in Iraq — and nascent steps to reintegrate low-level insurgents who want to stop fighting.

Petraeus acknowledged growing frustration with an increasingly violent war, in which the usual benchmarks of success — capturing territory or killing large numbers of the enemy — are difficult to measure. But he also insisted that the military has only recently been given the resources it needs — 30,000 American reinforcements who are still arriving as well as more trained Afghan soldiers.

Current U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan stands at nearly 100,000 — three times as many as at the beginning of 2009.

In ordering more U.S. troops to Afghanistan last December, Obama pledged to begin withdrawing forces starting in July 2011, a sign to a war-weary U.S. public as well as a weak Afghan government that the American commitment to the war was not unlimited. Obama has also said the pace of the withdrawal would depend on security conditions.

During the "Meet the Press" interview, host David Gregory asked if the general might recommend that the drawdown be delayed if conditions were not right.

"Certainly, yes," Petraeus replied, saying Obama had "expressed very clearly that what he wants from me is my best professional military advice."

A recommendation from one of America's best-known generals, with enormous prestige in Congress, would be difficult for the president to reject — even at the risk of trouble within his own Democratic party. Petraeus is the third commander to lead the U.S. and NATO mission since Obama took office.

Yet measuring progress in Afghanistan is difficult. The coalition has achieved some success against the Taliban in the Nawa district of Helmand province but is struggling to gain full control in Marjah, a town captured in February that was supposed to become a model for the strategy of winning public support through effective local government.

Violence is increasing in parts of the north, including the provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan, far removed from longtime Taliban strongholds. Afghan commanders say insurgent infiltration from Pakistan is on the rise in eastern Afghanistan while NATO's attention is riveted on the south.

For his part, Petraeus must find a way by the end of the year to convince Congress and the American public that the U.S. and its allies are gaining ground, or all the interviews and rosy predictions will come to naught.

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Robert H. Reid, a former AP bureau chief in Baghdad, is AP bureau chief in Kabul and news director for Afghanistan-Pakistan.

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