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Notes from the August 15, 2010 broadcast of Meet The Press

August 15, 2010

In the early moments of David Gregory’s interview (in Afghanistan) with General David Petraeus, it seemed like the commander was subtly saying Vice President Joe Biden should stop speculating about troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. And then later in the interview, Petraeus seemed to say the Bush strategy in Afghanistan was wrong… but we have been working to correct it in the last 18 months (since the Obama Administration came into power).

Overall in this interview, I was struck that seeing Petraeus in the context of his command is much different than seeing him be grilled at a Congressional hearing or standing next to the president (Bush or Obama) in the Rose Garden. This was better… more reassuring, especially in the “walk around” portion of the interview. Although I was distracted by the giant DSLR camera Gregory had over his shoulder during the tour. He did post at least one snapshot on his blog.

Gregory told Petraeus about the most recent poll showing 68% of Americans have less confidence of success in Afghanistan. Petraeus explains that progress is spreading in the country. But Gregory points out that for nine years the American people have been hearing about “incremental progress” in Afghanistan. And this is where Petraeus contrasted the Bush and Obama strategies.

Gregory asks how stifling is the announced July 2011 withdrawal of Allied forces from Afghanistan. Petraeus says not at all because that date is “conditions based.” He adds that in President Obama’s West Point speech he spoke of a substantial increase in resources but also a substantial increase in urgency, and that is what the July 2011 date is about.

Is Afghan President Karzai a friend or foe or something in between? Petraeus says Karzai is the president of a sovereign nation. Our interests and his converge on many things but we also see some things differently… and it is a good relationship precisely because we can honestly and freely disagree. In the end, Gregory maybe looked a little too smug in talking about how we might “cut off” Karzai. Does he think we (or Petraeus) should be picking and choosing the president of Afghanistan?

When asked to respond to those who want to downsize the nation-building goals in Afghanistan, Petraeus said, “An Afghanistan good enough is good enough.” We aren’t trying to build Switzerland here. Gregory asks, would something like the current situation in Iraq qualify as “good enough” for Afghanistan? Petraeus says the situation in Iraq is still to be determined, but if you see reducing violence by 80-90% to allow commerce to build and attract outside investment… and holding elections which lead to representative, responsive government… then yes.

Later, returning to Iraq, Gregory asks, do we have a durable peace there ? Petraeus says the final chapter is yet to be written. The most pressing issue now is the formation of the new government.

Petraeus also repeats what has become a popular talking point for American leaders recently, namely that the Taliban have been responsible for a great many civilian casualties and atrocities, most recently including flogging and killing a pregnant woman. He also repeats that no one knows where Osama Bin Laden is… but he remains an iconic figure and capturing him is an important task.

Gregory asks, if we win in Afghanistan, what do we win… and if we lose there, what do we lose? Petraeus says the latter is easier to answer because the consequences of losing would be enormous and frightening. If we succeed, Petraeus says, just think of the positive implications for the region and the world.

Gregory asks if Petraeus is considering talking to Iran. The general looks a little surprised, and says he is not… and doing so would be a huge policy decision. President Karzai on the other hand has had discussions and there are common interests between Afghanistan and Iran. Iran does not want the Taliban to return to power… but Iran also does not want the United States to achieve its objectives either, says Petraeus.

Gregory closes the interview discussing how General Ulysses Grant (before he became president) said he would never become a politician. Petraeus repeats, quite strongly, that he will never become a politician and will never run for president.

Finally, Gregory’s closing comments were clearly heartfelt. He wonders, do the American people have the stomach to support what it will take to succeed in Afghanistan… and do they have the stomach to face what failure in Afghanistan would mean for the United States and the world?

Today’s Meet The Press transcript will be here.

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