General David Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces, began a campaign on Sunday to convince an increasingly skeptical public that the U.S.-led coalition can still succeed here despite months of setbacks, saying he had not come to Afghanistan to preside over a "graceful exit."
In an hour-long interview with The New York Times, the general argued against any precipitous withdrawal of forces in July, 2011, the date set by President Barack Obama to begin at least a gradual reduction of the 100,000 troops on the ground. Gen. Petraeus said that it was only in the last few weeks that the war plan has been fine-tuned and given the resources that it required. "For the first time," he said, "we will have what we have been working to put in place for the last year and a half."
In another in a series of interviews, on Meet the Press, Gen. Petraeus even appeared to leave open the possibility that he would recommend against any withdrawal of American forces next summer. "Certainly, yes," he said when the show's host, David Gregory, asked him if, depending on how the war was proceeding, he might tell the President that a drawdown should be delayed. "The President and I sat down in the Oval Office, and he expressed very clearly that what he wants from me is my best professional military advice."
The statement offered a preview of what promised to be an intense political battle over the future of the American-led war in Afghanistan, which has deteriorated on the ground and turned unpopular at home. Already, some Democrats in Congress are pushing for steep withdrawals early on, while supporters of the war say that a precipitous draw-down could endanger the Afghan mission altogether.
Gen. Petraeus, in his interview with The Times, said American and NATO troops were making progress on a number of fronts, including routing Taliban insurgents from their sanctuaries, reforming the Afghan government and preparing Afghan soldiers to fight on their own.
Gen. Petraeus, who took over last month after General Stanley McChrystal was fired for making disparaging remarks about civilian leaders, said he believed that he would be given the time and materiel necessary to prevail here. He expressed that confidence despite the fact that nearly every phase of the war is going badly - and even though some inside the Obama administration have turned against it.
"The President didn't send me over here to seek a graceful exit," Gen. Petraeus said at his office at NATO headquarters in downtown Kabul. "My marching orders are to do all that is humanly possible to help us achieve our objectives."
Gen. Petraeus' public remarks, his first since taking over, highlight the extraordinary challenges, both military and political, that loom in the coming months. American soldiers and Marines are dying at a faster rate than at any time since 2001. The Afghan in whom the United States has placed its hopes, President Hamid Karzai, has demonstrated little resolve in rooting out the corruption that pervades every corner of his government.
And perhaps most important, the general will be trying to demonstrate progress in the 11 months until Mr. Obama's deadline to begin withdrawing troops.
The date was chosen in part to win over critics of the war and to push the Afghan government to reform more quickly. But as critical battles to reclaim parts of the Taliban heartland have faltered, military commanders have begun preparing to ask the White House to keep any withdrawals next year to a minimum.
In the interview with The Times, Gen. Petraeus also suggested that he would resist any large-scale or rapid drawdown of American forces. If the Taliban believes that will happen, he said, they are mistaken.
"Clearly the enemy is fighting back, sees this as a very pivotal moment, believes that all he has to do is outlast us through this fighting season," Gen. Petraeus said. "That is just not the case."
The public campaign begun Sunday echoes the similarly high-profile efforts the general undertook at the bloodiest phase of the war in Iraq. In early 2007, joining a group of defence intellectuals and retired generals, Gen. Petraeus asserted that the anarchic situation in Iraq could be stabilized with an infusion of tens of thousands additional American troops.
Then-president George W. Bush endorsed the effort and chose Gen. Petraeus to lead it. And, to the surprise of many, the campaign, known as "the surge," helped bring about a dramatic drop in violence that has largely held to this day. During the surge, Gen. Petraeus sometimes skirted the traditional lines separating the military and political worlds, testifying before Congress and speaking almost weekly to Mr. Bush.
Gen. Petraeus has taken a lower public profile since Mr. Obama's inauguration. His efforts on Sunday - which will continue with more interviews in the coming days - represent his first attempt to convince the American people that his efforts and those of the American soldiers and Marines deployed here can succeed.
The campaign that began Sunday, and which included an interview with The Washington Post, highlighted Petraeus' political strengths as much as his military ones. He was careful, patient and disciplined - sticking carefully to his main points - traits that have won him widespread respect in Washington.
Among other things, the general is fighting to preserve his own legacy, based on the dramatic turnaround he helped orchestrate during the war in Iraq. The hallmark of that strategy was its focus on protecting civilians, even at the expense of letting insurgents walk away.
In Afghanistan, that approach is coming under growing criticism, mainly from people who regard it has too expensive and open ended. Some in the Obama administration have been advocating a move away from counterinsurgency toward a strategy that is focused on hunting and killing terrorists.
The New York Times News Service