HOCKENBERRY: In London today, at a conference on Afghanistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to address ways of reintegrating some Taliban back into the Afghan political process, and into society as a whole. It's a provocative way forward in Afghanistan and it has the support of U.S. officials. Among them, the head of U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus, who commands forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. I spoke with him yesterday in Washington and asked him if we're seeing a shift in U.S. policy in Afghanistan, away from nation-building and more toward, simply, containment.
PATRAEUS: I’m not sure I completely subscribe to that, but I would. I think what is important in that particular concept is the recognition that this is not the kind of war that we’ve had occasionally in the past where you take the hill, plant the flag and go home to a victory parade. These are, this is a struggle against extremism and a struggle not just against extremism but transnational extremist that want to, again, attack us and our partners. And that’s not a struggle that’s going to be won in a year or two years. This is something that we’re going to be engaged in for some time, really for the foreseeable future. Having said that, that doesn’t mean that it’s always our soldiers that have to do the fighting. In Yemen, coming to that, for example, it is the Yemeni forces on the ground who have been conducting the operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, as it was labeled last year by Al Qaeda senior leadership, in a sense franchising the Al Qaeda elements that were there some of which we’d been watching for, frankly, two – two and a half years. When I was in Iraq, we were concerned about developments in Yemen. After the prison break of 2006 in which the current, now, leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen escaped along with about 20 to 25 of his confederates, all hardcore Al Qaeda – and those, that was the nucleus of what we are now seeing so threatening and of course that was the origin of the would-be Detroit attacker among a number of different threat screens that are out there.
HOCKENBERRY: Along that thread, are you confirming then the stories in The Washington Post this morning that there are a number of advisors and trainers on the ground in Yemen who aren’t actually conducting operations but are training and possibly directing operations against Al Qaeda in Yemen?
PATRAEUS: Yeah, I don’t really want to get into all the details and I certainly don’t want to confirm or deny all the aspects of that particular story. We have security assistance efforts throughout the world; we certainly have them in just about every country in the central command region, not every one, not in Iran or Syria. We also have intelligence sharing arrangements with countries around the world and this is obviously a mutual threat – Al Qaeda – and confirmed now even more so although we’ve been watching threat screens in this regard for quite some time.
HOCKENBERRY: Greatest sensitivities there in Yemen is the presence of US forces on the ground and I’m wondering if it makes your job more difficult as senior administration officials really crowing about the operation on background in the Washington Post?
PATRAEUS: I think that [Yemen] President Salih has been very clear about what is going on. I don’t think this, they’re not enormous revelations. I think what’s happened is that things have been pulled together by some reporters but the fact is I went to see him also on the 2nd of January, we would have kept it secret if it had been desired, I actually had a bit of subterfuge just for a period of hours to meet with him and various individuals in the embassy and ambassador. Within an hour of that meeting, video of that meeting was on Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera provided by his office. So he’s not overly sensitive about this and his foreign minister has very clearly drawn lines about the level of the assistance. And they have said that U.S. forces are not going to be conducting ground combat operations together with them. That’s been very clear. Actually I think that’s a good story. That’s good news. So this is both from a sensitivity of having us engage in this but also its because he thinks his forces are capable of doing it, and in fact I think the record shows as the results are what they have been doing and what the operations have gained there you see that there has been a good amount of pressure put on Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula. Although clearly again that is an element that has considerable capability and is one about which we have enormous concerns because of not just the Detroit, would-be Detroit bomber, but other threat screens that people are working very hard to confirm or deny.
HOCKENBERRY: That’s General David Petraeus. I travelled to Washington DC yesterday to speak to him directly about plans to buy off the Taliban in Afghanistan – something General Stanley McChrystal on the ground there has explicitly endorsed. Petraeus himself has been quoted as saying that money is a kind of ammunition to fight insurgency, so If a large component of U.S. strategy puts members of the Taliban on the payroll, why did we have to fight them in the first place, if we can just buy them off now?
PATRAEUS: What Gen McChrystal is taking about is reintegration and we need to distinguish between reintegration and reconciliation in the lexicon used in Afghanistan which is different from that that was used in Iraq. Reintegration is the idea of breaking off low- and mid-level Taliban elements, again, village by village, valley by valley, because there’s less coherence to this then, again, you had in Iraq. And of course it’s a much more rugged, mountainous, and rural than the kind of urban and flatter setting that you had in Iraq. That process, we think, is certainly doable. It is definitely something you want to proceed. You can’t kill or capture your way out of these endeavors. It’s a necessary component of your strategy and indeed there will be an increase in the counterterrorist forces in Afghanistan.
HOCKENBERRY: But then is that ruled out that at the higher level, are you saying that there are no talks...
PATRAEUS: Let me talk about reconciliation. Reconciliation in the Afghan parlance is the idea of talks at very high levels. Indeed some say as high as Mullah Omar himself, the head of the Afghan Taliban. There have been talks at various times among representatives of President Karzai’s government and representatives of the Taliban, facilitated by third parties. Again, very exploratory – neutral locations, where literally individuals happen to be in the same area at the same time. There certainly been feelers again at various levels, indirectly, but the idea that the Taliban when it is feeling resurgent would enter serious negotiations given what it has said are the conditions for it laying down its arms and given what we know the Afghan government conditions are for reconciling – those are quite divergent right now. You have to see where this could go. This is something you would never want to rule out. But I would not expect this as we say in the United States to come soon to a theater near us.
HOCKENBERRY: How could you consider the reintegration program with the Taliban low level operatives a desirable tactic when the CIA lost so many individuals because of double agents, someone they presumably tried to put on the payroll thinking they were a member of the Taliban or a Taliban sympathizer marched in with a bomb and committed suicide taking many of the CIA with him?
PATRAEUS: Well the same way candidly that we sat down over time in Iraq with people that had our blood on their hands, the same way that the Iraqi government has reconciled with certain Shia militia extremist elements, the same way that the United Kingdom reconciled with various IRA figures. It’s instructive in fact that when we were doing this in Iraq, we did have questions, commanders come to me and say, ‘Sir, are we really going to talk to people that have our blood on their hands?’ and I’d say, ‘I think we are.’