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Gen. Petraeus Supports Talks With Taliban


Tomorrow, the general who once led U.S. troops in Iraq takes command of a large part of the globe. That sounds awfully imperial, doesn't it? So let's put it more precisely. General David Petraeus commands U.S. forces in a region that includes East Africa, the Middle East, and the countries he says he will visit first. Those countries are Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. and its allies are fighting a war with the Taliban that is almost seven years old. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has recently returned from Afghanistan. He's also been talking with General Petraeus. And he joins us. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So, how does General Petraeus want to approach this war, Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, clearly he's going to send more troops over to Afghanistan. There's going to be more air power, both unmanned drones and fighter aircraft. But Petraeus also realizes that you're going to have to negotiate with what he says are reconcilable elements among the Taliban. And here's what he had to say.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander, U.S. Central Command): You don't kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency. If there are opportunities to identify and then isolate the irreconcilables in certain of these areas and then reach out to the reconcilables, of course that's a preferred course of action.

INSKEEP: That's General David Petraeus, who spoke earlier with our Tom Bowman who's with us now. And Tom, as I listen to Petraeus, I'm reminded of our interview with the U.S. commander in Afghanistan a year or two back who found it unbearable to talk to the Taliban. Other elements and NATO had done it, and he found it to be a terrible idea. Is this a big change for the U.S.?

BOWMAN: You know, I think it really is. You would never have heard this year or two ago in Afghanistan. But again the attacks are increasing, about a 40 percent increase in attacks in the eastern part of the country, hard up against the border with Pakistan. A lot of Taliban, al-Qaeda coming across the border, attacking U.S. troops and Afghans. And then the other thing is the Kabul government is already starting to talk with the Taliban, elements of the Taliban. Hamid Karzai, his brother Kayum, is involved in these talks. So the Americans were looking at this realizing it's a tough insurgency and also realizing that they have to go this route, just like they did in Iraq.

INSKEEP: Because it's going to happen anyway with or without them, apparently.

BOWMAN: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Well now, you said, just like Iraq. I Petraeus drawing on his experience in Iraq when he talks about negotiating?

BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, they did it in with the Sunni insurgents, particularly in Anbar province where they worked with the tribal sheiks, some of whom were aligned with al-Qaeda for a number of years. They worked with the sheiks, gave them some walking around money. They started the Sons of Iraq program.

INSKEEP: This is a country whether the economy is devastated and people are suddenly getting, what, hundreds of dollars per month?

BOWMAN: Well, they paid them $300 per month, a hundred thousand strong Sons of Iraq program. Now, that's still going on. They hope the Iraqi government will start paying for them, but that hasn't really started yet. So there is a parallel here that we saw in Iraq where you start working with the people who were basically shooting at you.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to how Petraeus put it.

General PETRAEUS: In truth this is something we went through in Iraq where we were helping the Iraqis, if you will, build their national institutions. And so these are coming down from the top. But at the same time, to achieve improved local security, you have to help the locals, and you have to work up from the bottom.

INSKEEP: Tom Bowman, I want to pick up on that last phrase "from the bottom up." Hasn't the U.S. for years been reaching out to these Afghan warlords and getting them on their side with money or whatever else they could use?

BOWMAN: Well, they did work somewhat with the Afghan warlords, but they didn't work enough with the tribal chieftains over in Afghanistan. So that's something you're going to see more of in the coming months and over the next year.

INSKEEP: So this is the difference between working with - you know, if you put in American terms, they were reaching out to the governor, but now they're going to reach out to the mayor or the city councilman. They're going to go lower and lower and try to get the very local guys on the U.S. side.

BOWMAN: That's exactly right.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.