Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus Describes Trump's Options In Afghanistan
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus was the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program once again.
DAVID PETRAEUS: Great to be with you, Robert.
SIEGEL: We're going to hear tonight the latest of many presidential speeches about Afghanistan. And I wonder first if you had to explain to Americans what the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is after all these years, what would you tell us?
PETRAEUS: Well, that's a great question and exactly where we need to begin. We should remember at a moment like this why we went to Afghanistan, why we stayed and why we need to continue to stay.
We went there to ensure that Afghanistan would not again be a sanctuary for al-Qaida or now ISIS as it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned there and the initial training of the attackers was conducted there. And then subsequently, we've also discovered that Afghanistan is a very good platform with bases that we have used for the regional counterterrorism campaign that has of course done so much damage to al-Qaida's senior leadership located in western Pakistan.
SIEGEL: But considering that for more than a decade we have been training Afghan forces, how many U.S. troops are needed to achieve that mission as you describe it?
PETRAEUS: Well, I think what we need to get to at this point in time is what might be described as a sustainable, sustained commitment. We do need to make a commitment there, but we clearly need to do it at a much reduced level from, say, the hundred thousand Americans and 50,000 coalition additional forces that were there when I was privileged to command the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
Right now we have about 8,800 U.S. forces there, 6,600 or so additional coalition. If the reports are correct that say 4,000 are added to this, this will still be well under 13,000 U.S. Undoubtedly some more coalition will be added. But we're talking about well under 20,000 coalition troops, which does seem to me to be sustainable.
SIEGEL: We don't expect there to be a deadline announced for when there would be a further U.S. withdrawal.
PETRAEUS: I would hope not.
SIEGEL: How significant is that, and how long should we assume that there will be several thousand U.S. forces in Afghanistan?
PETRAEUS: Well, I think, again, the deadlines in the past had been unhelpful. If you're in a test of wills with an enemy, you're trying to get them to the negotiating table, it's not necessarily helpful if he knows that you're already planning your drawdown at a certain date in the future.
So I think, you know, we've characterized this overall struggle against al-Qaida and now ISIS as a generational endeavor. And I think we should think of it in that way. We really need to change the mindset a bit in fact from one of year on year trying to draw down farther and instead perhaps take this on as Korea, where we've had tens of thousands of forces for well over 60-plus years and where we intend to continue to keep them.
SIEGEL: Let me ask you a counterfactual question. If back in 2001, instead of going in light and fast, the U.S. and all of its international allies had gone in really big - I mean couple hundred thousand troops - and had sent enough people there to actually stabilize the place by force, do you think there might have been a different outcome?
PETRAEUS: I think there might have been. Sure, I do. I think we've shot behind the target repeatedly in Afghanistan. We went in very light. We overlearned the lessons of the Balkans which told us, don't ever plant a flag. And so we were very reluctant to even put a divisional set of colors on the ground.
And every time we would try to draw down, the situation would deteriorate. We would have to do more. So I think there is a lot to that. We never did what we would have loved to have done I think in Afghanistan, and you can certainly say that in part because of guys like me in Iraq who were asking for forces over there.
SIEGEL: General David Petraeus, thanks for talking with us today.
PETRAEUS: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: And we'll bring you special coverage of President Trump's address tonight on Afghanistan. He's set to speak at 9 o'clock Eastern, and we will follow the speech with reaction and analysis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.