General Petraeus: Fight for Afghan town Marja is 'just the initial operation'

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command
Image: U.S. Army, SSG Lorie L. Jewell.

General David Petraeus, the U.S. general who oversees the war in Afghanistan, says the fight for the southern town of Marja — called Operation Moshtarak — is just the first operation in a long campaign.

Petraeus says the battle of Marja is just the beginning. "This is just the initial operation of what will be a 12- to 18-month campaign, as General [Stanley] McChrystal and his team have mapped it out," he said.

During an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, Petraeus said the enemy is formidable. He did not predict how long the operation in Marja, a traditional Taliban stronghold, would continue. He said only that the fighting is tough. "When we go on the offensive, when we take away sanctuaries and safe havens from the Taliban and the other extremist elements that we and our Afghan and coalition partners are fighting in that country, they are going to fight back. And we are seeing that in Marjah. We will see that in other areas," he said.

The general spoke from Tampa, Florida, where he heads the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

He noted the difficulties encountered in Iraq when former President George W. Bush sent in additional troops in what was called a "surge." Petraeus was asked if, once again, Americans should prepare for significant losses. "They will be tough. They were tough in Iraq. Look, I have repeatedly said these types of efforts are hard and they are hard all the time. I do not use words like optimistic or pessimist. I use realist. And the reality is it is hard, but we are there for a very important reason and we cannot forget that," he said.

So far, 12 NATO troops have died in the offensive. Three others were reported killed in separate, unrelated incidents in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Operation Moshtarak is the largest military action against insurgents since the War in Afghanistan began in 2001 with the United States invasion of the country.

They will be tough. They were tough in Iraq. [...] I do not use words like optimistic or pessimist. I use realist. And the reality is it is hard, but we are there for a very important reason and we cannot forget that.

—General David Petraeus

Petraus was also asked about the military's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which President Barack Obama has pledged to end. While refusing to comment directly on the policy, Petraus responded by saying stating that he hadn't experienced any problems with gays and lesbians in the military in the past. "I served, in fact, in combat with individuals who were gay and who were lesbian in combat situations and, frankly, you know, over time you said, 'Hey, how’s this guy’s shooting?' Or, 'How is her analysis?' or what have you," he said.

The general also noted his opposition to torture saying, "Whenever we have, perhaps, taken expedient measures, they have turned around and bitten us in the backside." He added, "We end up paying a price for it ultimately. Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are non-biodegradable. They don’t go away. The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick."

Meanwhile, the Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy got a vote of confidence Sunday from retired General Colin Powell, who served as President Bush's Secretary of State during his first term in office.

Powell said it is a good, comprehensive plan. But at the same time, he acknowledged he has concerns about whether or not the Afghan government can follow-up once the NATO operation pushes the Taliban out. "I hope their capability will increase. The Afghan National Army is improved but clearly not up to U.S. standards yet. And the police force - they have a lot to prove, they do not yet have the confidence of the people," he said.

Powell was interviewed on the CBS television program Face the Nation.