WASHINGTON — Progress in Afghanistan only began this spring and needs time to take root, Army Gen. David Petraeus said in comments broadcast Sunday that were aimed at shoring up American support for the war.
Petraeus, who's been credited with a successful war strategy in Iraq and who took charge of U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan in July, described an "up and down process" of seizing Taliban-controlled territory and creating "small pockets of progress" that he hoped will expand.
The goal, he told NBC's "Meet the Press," is to keep al-Qaida and other extremist groups at bay while the Afghan government has a chance to take control and earn the trust of the local population.
"We're here so that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary for transnational extremists the way it was when al-Qaida planned the 9/11 attacks in the Kandahar area," Petraeus said in an interview taped in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Petraeus' comments come as U.S. support for the 9-year war is slipping and the death toll is climbing. July was the deadliest month for U.S. forces, when 66 troops were killed.
Petraeus and other military officials have warned of more combat casualties as additional U.S. troops are sent to the fight. Last fall, President Obama authorized 100,000 troops in Afghanistan — triple the level from 2008.
Obama's Democratic supporters have reluctantly swung behind the plan, but lawmakers are beginning to question whether Afghanistan can be won.
As the fighting intensifies, the Pentagon and White House are hoping that political support for the war can hold at least through year's end to give Petraeus time to show progress. Petraeus is expected to give an updated assessment to Congress in December.
Petraeus described Afghanistan as a tough and enduring fight that would require its "character and its size being scaled down over the years." If the U.S. loses, there would likely be a bloody civil war followed by a takeover by extremists. If the U.S. succeeds and Afghanistan stabilizes, the country could become the region's new "Silk Road" with the potential to extract trillions of dollars worth of minerals, he said.