- Associated Press - Sunday, August 15, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 hopes will expand.

The goal, he told 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 nine-year 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.

Mr. Obama’s Democratic supporters reluctantly have swung 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 time to show progress. He is expected to give an updated assessment to Congress in December.

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.”

Gen. Petraeus described Afghanistan as a tough and enduring fight that would require its “character and its size being scaled down over the years.” If the United States loses, there likely would be a bloody civil war followed by a takeover by extremists. If the United States succeeds and Afghanistan stabilizes, 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 still could run the nation effectively without influence from extremist groups such as al Qaeda.

Gen. Petraeus said arresting al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden remains a primary goal.

He also said the Taliban leadership had detached itself from much of the fighting, occasionally sending messages via cell phones, but it 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.

When asked about the rocky U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Gen. Petraeus denied there were serious problems and defended Mr. Karzai as a leader trying to curb corruption. Gen. Petraeus said he and Mr. Karzai usually talk once a day, sometimes more, and take walks in the garden behind Mr. Karzai’s house.

“We have the kind of relationship that, I believe, we can each be forthright with the other, and that means occasionally, again, confronting issues that are difficult for either of us,” he said.

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