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An Exclusive Interview with Gen. David Petraeus on War against Terrorism

Aired January 11, 2010 - 15:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, it's been the deadliest day for NATO troops in Afghanistan in months. The commander of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, gives us an update on the war and on the threat from Yemen.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour. Welcome to the program.

Insurgents today killed three Americans, one French soldier, and two from unidentified countries. It was the deadliest day of attacks in Afghanistan since October. The violence raises concerns that U.S. and NATO casualties will increase as the U.S. and Europe send 37,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

But in an interview with People magazine, U.S. President Barack Obama said he has, quote, "no intention" of putting U.S. boots on the ground in Yemen. General David Petraeus told us what he thinks over the weekend, when I spoke to him at his headquarters in Tampa, Florida. It was his first interview since returning from his recent trip to Yemen, just after the foiled Christmas Day bomb plot.


AMANPOUR: General Petraeus, thank you for joining us.


AMANPOUR: Yemen is the focus now of the military and of -- of everybody who's looking at Al Qaida. Is Yemen a safe haven for Al Qaida today?

PETRAEUS: It is certainly the location of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, given that franchise, if you will, by Al Qaida senior leadership this past year. It's been in our view scope for a number of years.

We've been concerned about it even when I was in Iraq. We were concerned because it was a source of facilitation and foreign fighters and so forth. And without question, it has ramped up over the course of the last year or more in particular, with training camps and so forth there.

AMANPOUR: Is it the most important location for the war against Al Qaida?

PETRAEUS: I don't think it's the most important. That would likely still be the western Pakistan-Afghanistan border area. But certainly very important area, in an area where, again, it has been resurgent -- Somalia another one like that -- at a time when Al Qaida has suffered severe reverses in Saudi Arabia, been reduced considerably in Iraq, and, indeed, even in the western areas of Pakistan-Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: You talk about suffering severe losses, for instance, in Saudi Arabia, but one American official has described precisely that victory there as really being like trying to nail jelly to a wall, in other words, you squeeze Al Qaida in one place and it pops up in another place. Do you face a generation of migrating jihadis?

PETRAEUS: Well, this is going to be an enduring effort, without question. And I have certainly never used a word like "victory" in this particular effort.

What you have is a need to confront Al Qaida, to confront extremism wherever it is and to try to do it all simultaneously. You remember in Iraq they used to say we're -- we were whacking moles. And I said, you're right, we have to whack a lot of moles all simultaneously. And that's what we have to do with this global movement that is Al Qaida.

AMANPOUR: Tell me right now, how do you assess -- are you winning against Al Qaida?

PETRAEUS: I think there's been progress overall over the course of the last year against Al Qaida. I think that in general its capability has diminished, but that's only, again, a relative judgment, because there's clearly substantial capability that -- that still is resident.

Even in -- in Iraq, for example, level of violence is down by over 90 percent, violent civilian deaths 90 percent. Al Qaida does still have an ability there to carry out periodic horrific attacks, and so we must maintain the pressure on Al Qaida wherever it is found.

AMANPOUR: You just went to Yemen, and you've just returned from Yemen. You had talks with the president of Yemen. Is the United States going to have direct involvement there, in other words, troops on the ground or launching strikes from inside Yemen?

PETRAEUS: Well, in fact, you talked to the Yemeni foreign minister, as well, and he was quite clear that Yemen does not want to have American ground troops there. And that's a good -- good response for us to hear, certainly.

AMANPOUR: You don't want to put ground troops there?

PETRAEUS: No, of course, we would always want a host nation to deal with a problem itself. We want to help. We're providing assistance. We're going to provide more assistance in the course of this year than we did last year, after, I think, having zeroed it out, as you'll recall, back in fiscal year '08.

So this is an effort that we want to help them to deal with a problem that threatens their very writ of government and their very existence as they know it.

AMANPOUR: You talk about providing more aid. From what I can gather, aid was sort of increased by about $12 million between '09 and 2010.


You said when you were there that it was going to double next year or in this year. Is that going to happen?

PETRAEUS: I think it will. The programs that we submitted that were part of the budget that has since been approved -- the appropriations bill that's been signed by the president -- would, in fact, more than double the security assistance. Last year, it was somewhere around $70 million. Over the course of this fiscal year, it should be somewhere around $150 million or more, and the amount of economic aid increased, as well.

AMANPOUR: Isn't that, though, paltry? I mean, it's a big sum, but isn't it really paltry, given that Al Qaida is the United States' chief objective, destroying, defeating, whatever you want to call it, compared to the billions of dollars that are spent in Afghanistan that had been spent in Iraq and elsewhere, I mean, $150 million?

PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, we're not the only country with a huge interest in what goes on in Yemen. And, in fact, there are very significant sums provided by other partners in this effort, the Saudis...

AMANPOUR: Such as?

PETRAEUS: Saudis reportedly $2 billion in the course of a year, the Emirates, I think, just publicly pledged, I believe, some $600 million or $700 million. So there are very significant other partners in this particular endeavor to help Yemen, and that's appropriate. We all have a significant interest. There's going to be a -- a big conference in London. After the conference on Afghanistan, the Yemeni president was very pleased with that.

Indeed, some years ago, there was a pledge of billions of dollars in aid to Yemen, but not all of that has been provided, in part because of the security concerns, in part because absorption capability of the Yemeni government and so forth.

AMANPOUR: There is the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen who's saying today that, in fact, there's no strategy beyond throwing money and arms at this program -- at this problem, there's no development strategy. Most people say that this is not going to be won by the military alone. Do you agree with that, that this needs real aid, a real strategy of development, because it's the great poverty there that's a recruiting tool for Al Qaida?

PETRAEUS: Well, there's no question it has to be a whole-of- government approach and, again, ideally, governments, with an "s," again, denoting that it's many more than just the U.S. government that have a stake in success there. Certainly, security, though, is -- again, without that, you cannot provide the aid and the assistance.

AMANPOUR: But do you agree that the sort of the -- the desire for quick results, the -- the short-termism that the United States has often described as, needs to change? Do you think there needs to be a systemic change to issues such as Yemen, which is so obvious, so many people say, that the grinding poverty there is such a recruiting tool?

PETRAEUS: I think that's exactly right. I think, really, that we have arrived at that conclusion. I think we recognize that these are not short-term problems. These aren't campaigns where you muster a force, take the hill, plant the flag, and go home to a victory parade. These are endeavors that have to be comprehensive in nature, and they have to be enduring in their timeframe.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you -- the foreign minister told us that they had perhaps, quote, "spared" Al Qaida in the fight against their other secessionists and other rebellions in that -- in that country. We're going to play that sound bite.


ABU BAKR AL-QIRBI, YEMENI FOREIGN MINISTER: I think our fault was that maybe we should spare Al Qaida in the last year or -- because of the confrontation in the south and the (inaudible) but Al Qaida took advantage of that.


AMANPOUR: Do you believe that the Yemeni government is as committed to fighting Al Qaida as it is to the other problems it faces in its own country there?

PETRAEUS: Well, time will tell, but we have certainly seen significant commitment over the course of recent months in particular. Now, I think it's now well known that in July I went into Yemen, had a very, very good, very constructive meeting with President Saleh. It was at that time that we really started embarking on the much more serious intelligence-sharing, and this is very much a two-way street, because the Yemenis are, indeed, committed to this.

AMANPOUR: General Petraeus, we're going to go to a break. We'll talk more about Yemen and the catastrophic failure of intelligence that led to that suicide bombing in Afghanistan and other issues, when we return.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back. We're still here with General Petraeus down at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa.

General, thank you very much for being with us.

PETRAEUS: Great to be with you.

AMANPOUR: Let's go now to Afghanistan and some of the strategy that has been used, for instance, drone attacks. You're obviously using drone attacks in Yemen, correct?

PETRAEUS: Again, we haven't discussed the assistance that we have provided in Yemen, and I'm afraid I won't here today.

AMANPOUR: You are stepping up drone attacks in Pakistan.

PETRAEUS: Again, we...

AMANPOUR: We understand there were six or so.

PETRAEUS: And, again, as you know, we don't -- we don't talk about the source of the explosions in western Pakistan, but certainly many commentators have noted the considerable pressure that has been brought on the leadership in particular of Al Qaida and also of some other important extremist elements there.

AMANPOUR: Well, I ask you this because a new video has emerged showing the Jordanian Al Qaida double agent with Baitullah Mehsud's brother, essentially saying why he blew up himself in that CIA base in Afghanistan, and it seemed to have quite a lot to do with the drone attacks. Does that concern you?

PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, Baitullah Mehsud and his organization carried out horrific attacks inside Pakistan, and that is what I think should concern the Pakistanis, as certainly it concerns us.

AMANPOUR: But how much of a concern for you is the backlash against those drone attacks?

PETRAEUS: Well, let me talk about it in a general context, if I could, and that is, in the conduct of any campaign, particularly a counterinsurgency campaign, there has to be enormous effort in trying to minimize the loss of innocent civilian life, to minimize collateral damage, and that does, indeed, characterize our campaigns.

General McChrystal, among the number of initiatives that he has undertaken, has been to issue counterinsurgency guidance that gets right at that issue and then has been quite -- really, very, very determined in implementing that, as well.

There will be loss of innocent life in war, but we've got to make sure that we minimize it and that we try to avoid it, just about at all cost.

AMANPOUR: The top U.S. intelligence officer in NATO, based in Afghanistan, has called intelligence gathering and information gathering, quote, "clueless," "ignorant of the local situation." Do you agree with that?

PETRAEUS: In fact, when we did the strategic assessment that was part of my taking command in the...

AMANPOUR: It was requested by you.

PETRAEUS: ... the winter of 2008 into 2009, one of the conclusions we reached was that we hadn't devoted anywhere near sufficient intelligence capacity, analytical capability, just sheer resources to the Afghanistan and Pakistan effort. I shared that with Director Blair, for example, the DNI, and he, in fact, created an associate DNI for Af-Pak. We created a center of excellence. We have the Af-Pak, and -- and we even sent General Flynn to Afghanistan to help work on that issue. We still have a lot of work to be done.

AMANPOUR: What needs to change then, General? Because this is -- this is incredible to hear -- to hear that that's happening still, after all these years, all these troops in Afghanistan, all this money and -- and -- and human resources and sacrifice, that the intelligence is still not up to scratch, because they don't know the local communities.

PETRAEUS: Well, in fact, we have not devoted the kind of resources to it that is necessary. I know what it takes. We built an intelligence structure, we built an entire organization overall in Iraq to conduct counterinsurgency operations. And it requires a significant commitment. We are now making that kind of commitment to Afghanistan, but we had not before.


AMANPOUR: Is it late?

PETRAEUS: It is late. Sure, it is. I mean, we're years into this, and we are at the point where we have got to produce progress, even as there is this significant message of additional commitment that the president has provided in his policy decision and speech back in December.

He is also conveying, I think understandably, a message of urgency, that we've got to get on with it and so that we can, indeed, turn this and -- and try to produce the progress that is necessary to enable us to carry on.

AMANPOUR: All right. Let me read some conclusions from another study that you commissioned, among others, from the retired U.S. General Barry McCaffrey, who's just come back from Afghanistan, who basically is saying that the 18-month deadline to begin exit strategy is unrealistic, that we are, quote, "unlikely to achieve our political and military goals in 18 months. Inevitably, this will become a 3- to 10-year strategy to build a viable Afghan state," one in which their security forces are up to scratch to enable U.S. security forces to -- to be able to pull out.

PETRAEUS: Well, let's remember what we're trying to do in 18 months, and that is not to achieve all of our political and military objectives. It is to achieve progress, to enable us to begin a conditions-based transition of some tasks to Afghan forces...


PETRAEUS: ... and a responsible beginning of a drawdown of our forces.

AMANPOUR: So 3 to 10 years to set up a viable and responsible withdrawal and exit strategy?

PETRAEUS: Well, that's his assessment. Again, I'm not going to -- I've always refused to put timelines on this...

AMANPOUR: But you -- but you commissioned this. Do you agree with it?

PETRAEUS: ... when I was in Iraq and Afghanistan and so forth. And, again, I will not put a timeline on something like this. We've -- we've not done that in the past, and it's not something I think is productive for me to do in the future, other than to say what I have said repeatedly, and that is that this is going to take significant, enduring commitment, and that is what I think this policy represents.

AMANPOUR: OK, I'll ask you another thing that he came up with, in terms of his conclusion. You've been talking and we've been talking about development. The U.S. has been talking about the civilian surge that's vital for Afghanistan. General McCaffrey says that the civilian surge, quote, "will not materialize. Afghanistan in the next two to three years will simply be too dangerous for most civil agencies to operate." Do you agree with that assessment?

PETRAEUS: Actually, with respect, I don't. The civilian surge is materializing, in fact...

AMANPOUR: But can it operate? I know people are being sent there, but can it actually operate?

PETRAEUS: I think it can. Look, in Iraq, we were able to do this, and the level of attacks was many multiples what we are seeing in Afghanistan right now. That is to in any way diminish the enormous security challenges in Afghanistan. It is to say that we have been able to do this in vastly more violent situations, and that was certainly Iraq in 2006 and 2007.


AMANPOUR: General David Petraeus answering some of my questions, and we've been taking some of your questions through Facebook and Twitter with a former adviser to the American and British governments with some interesting answers on our Web site,

And next, General Petraeus gives us some perspective on the fevered speculation resurfacing about possible military action against Iran. That's when we return.



AMANPOUR: I also asked General Petraeus about Iran and the never- ending rumors about possible military action against its nuclear program.


AMANPOUR: Again, the noise is growing about a potential strike, a potential military strike by Israel on Iran's nuclear capabilities. Do you think it's possible to do it?

PETRAEUS: Well, I won't talk about the military capabilities of -- of one of our close allies, in this case, Israel. Certainly, there has been a good bit published about what Israel could and perhaps could not do. And I think, also, there has been quite a bit written about the implications of this and the second- and third- and fourth-order effects of it.

AMANPOUR: In terms of an actual physical capability, could Iran's nuclear facilities be bombed, in terms of effectively, because there are a lot of tunnels people are talking about?

PETRAEUS: They certainly can be bombed. The -- the level of effect would vary with who it is that carries it out, what ordnance they have, and what capability they can bring to bear.

AMANPOUR: What is the difference now, in terms of Iran's physical infrastructure, compared to, for instance, what Israel did back in 1980 or '81 against the Osirak reactor in Iraq or, indeed, against the Syrian reactor a couple of years ago?

PETRAEUS: Well, I think it's well known that Iran has gone to considerable lengths to harden, to put underground, to use tunnels and so forth, to -- to reduce the vulnerability of its various nuclear facilities.

AMANPOUR: What are the drawbacks to military action there?

PETRAEUS: Well, in a sense, the -- the consequences of this, really - - you know, they're just very, very difficult to calculate. We have done quite a bit of thinking about this, as you would expect. That's what we get paid to do. It would be almost literally irresponsible if CENTCOM were not to have been thinking about the various "what ifs" and to make plans for a whole variety of different contingencies. And we generally try not to be irresponsible.

As you think through this, of course, the disruptions to the global economy, the challenges to infrastructure in that particular very, very important region, again, important to the whole world, not just to those countries themselves, threats against various U.S. forces -- of course, we've got some 230,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines deployed in the Central Command area of responsibility and so forth.

But, again, we have done quite a bit of thinking about this. We have done quite a bit of contingency planning. And, again, that's what we get paid to do, and -- and that's what we've sought to do.

AMANPOUR: Is there sort of a deadline on whether you implement that planning?

PETRAEUS: We don't -- we don't see a deadline. There's a variety of different timelines out there that folks have -- have discussed. We think there's a period of time, certainly, before all this might come to a head, if you will. There's certainly more room for the P5-plus-one to engage, perhaps, in a bit -- bit more diplomacy and then certainly to explore heightened economic sanctions and -- and so forth.


AMANPOUR: And today, in response to those remarks, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast said, quote, "He has made thoughtless comments, and it's better that any statement made in this regard take a constructive approach."

And as we were winding up my interview with General Petraeus, I asked him again about that video that surfaced over the weekend showing the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed eight people at a CIA base in Afghanistan. He was sitting with somebody, Hakimullah Mehsud, and I actually misspoke when I spoke to General Petraeus. I called him Baitullah Mehsud's brother. We don't know that. All we know is that he appears to be the successor to Baitullah Mehsud's group.

Here's what General Petraeus said.



PETRAEUS: Obviously, you know, I mean, it's very disturbing. But, you know, these are bad guys. And they will use every sort of psychological operation, information operation technique and -- and opportunity that they can.

AMANPOUR: The Jordanians seem to claim to be better at -- at human intelligence. Does this knock your faith in them? Or do you think this is a one-off? Or how do you assess what happened?

PETRAEUS: Well, I think that any country in a region is generally better at human intelligence and -- and that discipline of intelligence than is a country from outside the region. That's not to say that you can't have some real breakthroughs; it's not to say you can't develop sources, you can't put people in there and so forth. But it does mean that it's much more difficult than for someone who speaks not just the native language, but the dialect of that locale, as well.

And so, again, I think that it's hugely important to have very good host nation partners, to have partners in the region, because they clearly do bring some skill sets that we cannot bring. We have often noted that we can do all the cultural awareness training known to man, and we still won't be as culturally aware as are the Iraqi security forces, say, in a particular area of Iraq.

AMANPOUR: Thank you very much, indeed.

PETRAEUS: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And on the issue of cultural awareness, a little bit different issue, this weekend, we showed a short film about a young Yemeni girl who insisted on standing up for her rights. We had a huge response to it. You can watch the film on our blog at

And that's it for now. We'll be back tomorrow with a look at the controversial rehabilitation program for Al Qaida and other militants. Can former terrorists from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and other countries be rehabilitated? For all of us here, goodbye from New York.