General David Petraeus said on Thursday that the United States fully understands the long history of defeats foreign powers have suffered in the hills of Afghanistan. And as President Obama contemplates sending an additional 40,000 troops into that eight-year long war, the head of U.S. Central Command vowed that America would avoid the pitfalls that doomed the most recent occupation, by Russia.
Heeding history, Petraeus said, "certainly means don't try to do what the Russians did, which was a very oppressive and very brutal occupation. There has been concern, legitimate concern, about our footprint. And we should be concerned about that.
"What we have to do is make sure the reasons [for] concern [are] mitigated by our actions," he added. "The Afghans will be welcoming or not to foreigners if those foreigners are seen to be improving their lives or not. If those foreigners distribute toys that are explosive, as the Russians did, needless to say, over time they will certainly wear out their welcome."
Speaking before The Atlantic's First Draft of History Conference in Washington D.C. Petraeus's remarks appeared to be geared more towards the broader political audience (which is growing increasingly skeptical about U.S. commitments to the Afghanistan war) than to the crowd of elite opinion makers in his immediate vicinity.
Petraeus, who stressed that he had not yet endorsed a plan from the Afghan command to send an additional 40,000 troops, pushed back against comparisons between this war and Vietnam. He even rejected comparisons between Afghanistan and Iraq - where he personally oversaw the surge of U.S. forces in 2006 and 2007.
"I'm much more sensitive to resist the notion that what worked in Iraq will work in Afghanistan," he told the crowd.
Petraeus backed up the Obama administration on several occasions for its handling of the war, complimenting the president for the amount of time and energy he has devoted to the issue as well as Vice President Joseph Biden for visiting the troops abroad.
He also announced that there will be two additional three-hour consultation sessions between the president and his military advisers in the next week.
Interviewer Brian Williams of NBC News asked Petraeus right off the bat what the purpose was of being in Afghanistan, and what the definition of success would be in that war.
The general said that the United States needed "to make sure [the country] does not become a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and other transnational terrorists." And he said victory would resemble a situation similar to that in Iraq, "in which we can hand off to Afghans responsibility for security and for governance, keeping in mind very much that Afghanistan is not Iraq. It has completely different context to it, if you will, a very different history, very different levels of resources, and so forth."
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