Takeaways from Week One of the Petraeus Press Blitz

Four things we learned from the General this weekend

The latest Petraeus media blitz began Sunday with NBC’s special edition of Meet The Press from Afghanistan. It continued today with reports in The Washington Post and The New YorkTimes on hourlong interviews the general granted both papers.

The big takeaways from the interviews—and no doubt the source of several questions to be asked by George Stephanopoulos and Katie Couric in the next few weeks—were thus:

1. That July 2011 is no traditional deadline in the sense that we journos might understand it. Rather, it is the “date when a process [of withdrawal] begins that is conditions-based.” Petraeus told David Gregory—in an hour of MTP that saw the general jogging, crunching, leading meetings, zipping across the country in a helicopter, and jesting that he didn’t “see anybody in there nervous” after a meeting was disrupted by rocket fire—that the date is a spur to urgency: “That’s what July 2011 really connotes… to all the participants, those in Kabul, some of us in uniform, again our civilian counterparts, that we’ve got to get on with this. This has been going on for some nine years or so. That there is understandable concern and in some cases frustration and that therefore we’ve really got to put our shoulders to the wheel and show during the course of this year that progress can be achieved.”

2. That despite insurgent attacks at record levels and the grim picture painted by the WikiLeaks dump, the U.S. is making progress, a word used some twenty-two times by Petraeus and Gregory in the MTP hour. “We’re making progress, and progress is winning, if you will,” he told Gregory. “But it takes the accumulation of a lot of progress ultimately, needless to say, to win overall, and that’s going to be a long-term proposition, without question.” The Post reported Petraeus’s idea of progress as such:

Petraeus contends that the counterinsurgency strategy is showing momentum in Helmand province, where about 20,000 U.S. Marines and 10,000 British troops have sought to create inkblots of security in six key districts. Some areas, such as Marja, a former Taliban stronghold, have proved to be tougher to pacify — insurgents are continuing an aggressive harassment campaign — but other places, such as the districts of Nawa and Garmsir, are becoming more stable and may feature prominently in his year-end presentation to the White House.

Flying over Wardak Province, near Kabul, Petraeus explained his strategy for progress to Gregory using the metaphor of an oil spot similar to the Post’s inkblots:

“Well the oil spot, if you will, is a term in counterinsurgency literature that connotes a peaceful area, a secure area. So what you’re trying to do is to always extend that, to push that out. Of course, down in Helmand province, what we sought to do was build an pi spot that would encompass the six central districts of Helmand Province, including Marjah and then others, and then to just keep pushing that out ultimately to connect it over with the oil spot that is being developed around Kandahar City. Kabul, a huge—an entire province, not just the city—all but one district in Kabul by the way has Afghan security forces in the lead.”

3. That Petraeus will not be drawn on President Karzai or his brother Ahmed. Admitting that he speaks with the Afghan president an average of once a day, Petraeus, according to the Times, “declined to discuss the status of Ahmed Wali Karzai, and … praised President Karzai’s efforts to attack corruption. In any case, he suggested, American leverage over Mr. Karzai is limited. ‘President Karzai is the elected leader of a sovereign country,’ he said. ‘That is how the people see him by and large; he is therefore — and has to be, for sure — our partner.’” A sharp and on-point Gregory got much the same answer out of him on MTP, but did manage to have the general admit that “in some cases we see things a little bit differently.” The Karzai exchange was one of the most interesting and combative of the hour. From the transcript:

MR. GREGORY: This may sound unrealistic, but isn’t it fair to ask, is, is there a statute of limitations on this guy? Is there a cutoff point for him where he either is with the program, with us or against us?

GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, I mean, he’s been elected for a term of office, and he will be the president during that term of office.

MR. GREGORY: But, but, but sponsored by us. I mean, without us, he can’t stay alive, can he?

GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, and the international community writ large. And, again, certainly the international community has every right, if you will, to engage with him on these kinds of issues, and that’s what—exactly what’s going on.

MR. GREGORY: But is there, is there a cutoff point for him in your mind?

GEN. PETRAEUS: Oh, no. I mean, again, this is a process. Again, this is a, a case in which each side has concerns and has, I mean, there are different pressures on all of the partners involved in this, not just the U.S. and Afghan partners, but the other international partners, our other diplomatic colleagues and so forth, and, and all of that then gets dealt with.

4. That Petraeus is one helluva pitchman. Both in print and on the tube, Petraeus showed once again that he might be the anti-McChrystal—gaffe-free, able to skirt questions and explain for readers and viewers the elasticity of the deadline set by the president. Between the papers and Gregory, Petraeus managed to mix folksy realism—“This isn’t to say that there is any kind of objective of turning Afghanistan into Switzerland in three to five years or less—Afghan good enough is good enough”—with determination—“The president didn’t send me over here to seek a graceful exit…My marching orders are to do all that is humanly possible to help us achieve our objectives”—while never giving too much away.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.