Progress in Afghanistan only began this spring and needs time to take root, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said in comments broadcast Sunday that were aimed at shoring up American support for the war.
Gen. Petraeus, who has been credited with a successful war strategy in Iraq and who took charge of U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan in July, described an "up and down process" of seizing Taliban-controlled territory and creating "small pockets of progress" that he hoped will expand.
The goal, he said on NBC's "Meet the Press," is to keep al Qaeda and other extremist groups at bay while the Afghan government has a chance to take control and earn the trust of the local population.
"We're here so that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary for transnational extremists the way it was when al Qaeda planned the 9/11 attacks in the Kandahar area," Gen. Petraeus said in an interview taped in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Gen. Petraeus' comments come as U.S. support for the 9-year-old war is slipping and the death toll is climbing. July was the deadliest month for U.S. forces, when 66 troops were killed. Gen. Petraeus and other military officials have warned of more combat casualties as additional U.S. troops are sent to the fight. Last fall, President Obama authorized 100,000 troops in Afghanistan - triple the level from 2008.
At first, Mr. Obama's Democratic supporters reluctantly got behind the plan, but lawmakers are beginning to question whether Afghanistan can be won.
As the fighting intensifies, the Pentagon and White House are hoping that political support for the war can hold at least through year's end to give Gen. Petraeus, who is expected to give an updated assessment to Congress in December, enough time to show progress.
Gen. Petraeus said in the interview that the war only recently has been given the right "inputs," or resources: more U.S. and Afghan troops to take over Taliban territory and more civilians to restore services to the population.
"There is understandable concern and, [in] some cases, frustration," Gen. Petraeus said. "Therefore we have got to really put our shoulders to the wheel and show during the course of this year that progress can be achieved."
The general described Afghanistan as a tough and enduring fight that would require its "character and its size being scaled down over the years." If the U.S. loses, there would likely be a bloody civil war followed by a takeover by extremists. If the U.S. succeeds and Afghanistan is stabilized, the country could become the region's new "Silk Road" with the potential to extract trillions of dollars worth of minerals, he said.
But the goal is not to turn Afghanistan into an industrialized democracy, he said. Even if the nation relies heavily on tribal councils for governance, the central government in Kabul could still run the nation effectively without influence from terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.
He also said the Taliban leadership had detached itself from much of the fighting, occasionally sending messages via cell phones, but is not as engaged in the war as before.
"We actually see discussions among [Taliban foot soldiers], chatter among them ... wondering where their senior leaders are, and wondering why [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar hasn't set foot back in Afghanistan or even been heard from now in months and months and months," he said.
He also refused to be bound by a July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, reserving the right to seek a delay if conditions aren't right.
He said Mr. Obama's date for the start of a limited U.S. withdrawal was not carved in stone and should be viewed more as an attempt to increase the urgency of the counterinsurgency effort.
"I think the president has been quite clear in explaining that it's a process, not an event, and that it's conditions-based," Gen. Petraeus said in his first major television interview since assuming command of more than 140,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan last month.
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