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Petraeus sees "areas of progress" in Afghan war
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. commander in Afghanistan said he sees "areas of progress" in the war but it was still unclear if President Barack Obama's goal of starting to pull out troops in July 2011 could be met.
Army General David Petraeus said in an interview aired on Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the battle against the Taliban insurgency was an "up and down process" and it was too early to determine its success.
"What we have are areas of progress. We've got to link those together, extend them," Petraeus said in an interview aimed at boosting flagging public confidence in the war effort.
He said he would give his "best professional military advice" to Obama about the July 2011 target for starting withdrawals and leave the politics of the war to the president, who will be up for re-election in 2012.
"I think the president has been quite clear in explaining that it's a process, not an event, and that it's conditions based," Petraeus, who replaced General Stanley McChrystal as Afghan commander less than two months ago, said of the target date for starting withdrawals.
"It would be premature to have any kind of assessment at this juncture about what we may or may not be able to transition," Petraeus said.
Obama, who announced in December he was adding 30,000 more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, plans a strategy review in December after the elections. While Congress supported his plan to bolster troop levels, polls show the public remains dubious about the effort.
A poll released last week by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found that seven in 10 Americans did not believe the war would end successfully.
TOUGH ROAD AHEAD
Military commanders have warned the battle will only get tougher this year as troops push ahead with plans to take control of Taliban strongholds in the south and confront other insurgents.
Petraeus leads a force of nearly 150,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. He said progress began in the spring but there was a long way to go to ramp up operations that were deficient for the counter-insurgency campaign needed in Afghanistan.
"A lot of us came out of Iraq in late 2008 and started looking intently at Afghanistan. We realized that we did not have the organizations that are required for the conduct of comprehensive, civil military counter insurgency campaign," he said.
The effort in Afghanistan has been complicated by the level of corruption in Afghanistan, and U.S. officials have been unhappy with a perceived lack of cooperation from Afghan President Hamid Karzai in battling the problem.
Petraeus said he has frequent and frank discussions with the Afghan leader, talking to him an average of once a day.
"When folks ask, you know, 'How's the relationship?' I say it's a good relationship because in fact we can have those types of discussions," he said.
Petraeus also said the search for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was still a high priority but "I don't think anyone knows" where he was hiding.
"I think he remains an iconic figure and I think capturing or killing Osama bin Laden is still a very, very important task for all of those who are engaged in counter-terrorism around the world," he said.
"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," he said, referring to the 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington.
He also ruled out any future political aspirations, saying he would never run for office.
"I am not a politician and I will never be. I say that with absolute conviction," he said.
(Reporting by John Whitesides, editing by Anthony Boadle)
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