Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, said Sunday that the battle being fought in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah was the "initial salvo" in a military campaign that could last 12 to 18 months.
In an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," the general, who oversees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, sought to put the Marjah battle "into context" by explaining its part in the overall effort by American, Afghan and other forces to defeat the Taliban. He said international forces had spent recent months mapping strategy, gathering resources and preparing the leadership of a "comprehensive civil-military campaign."
Saying that 5,400 of the 30,000 additional troops President Barack Obama has promised to deploy were already on the ground, Petraeus added that Special Forces were playing a major role. "We have more of our Special Operations forces going in on the ground, and you've seen the results," he said, "with more Afghan shadow governors, the Taliban shadow governors being captured, more of the high-value targets being taken down."
He said American troops had encountered tough fighting from a force he called both "formidable" and "a bit disjointed at this point."
The general also reiterated his strong opposition to using torture to gain information from important captives like Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's top military commander, who was seized recently in Pakistan.
"Whenever we have, perhaps, taken expedient measures, they have turned around and bitten us in the backside," he said.
Whenever Americans have used methods that violate the Geneva Convention or the standards of the International Committee of the Red Cross, he said, "we end up paying a price for it ultimately. Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are non-biodegradable. They don't go away. The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick."
Interrogation methods approved by the Army Field Manual, he said, work well to gain significant information.
Petraeus responded cautiously to questions about the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, refusing to say he unequivocally supported its repeal. He said he had fought alongside openly gay individuals and had not seen any problems.
"I served in fact in combat with individuals who were gay and who were lesbian in combat situations and, frankly, you know, over time you said, 'Hey, how's this guy's shooting?' Or, 'How is her analysis,' or what have you."
In his assessment of the campaign against al-Qaida in the 20 Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries under the purview of the Central Command, he said, "Over the course of the last year or so, al-Qaida has been diminished in that area." He added that with the exception of Yemen, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and Pakistan "have continued to make gains."
"But, having said that, al-Qaida is a flexible, adaptable — it may be barbaric, it may believe in extremist ideology, as it does, but this is a thinking, adaptive enemy, and we must maintain pressure on it everywhere," he said.
On the subject of Iran's nuclear ambitions, Petraeus offered an endorsement of the White House's tactics. Having pursued engagement for a year, he said, the Obama administration has "given Iran every opportunity to resolve the issues diplomatically. That puts us on a solid foundation now to go on what is termed the 'pressure track'" of Security Council sanctions.
In keeping with established policy, however, he refused to rule out the possibility of a military strike if Iran continued to defy the United Nations.
"It is the job of combatant commanders to consider the what-ifs, to be prepared for contingency plans," he said. "I'm not saying this in a provocative way. I'm merely saying that we have responsibilities — the American people and our commander in chief and so forth expect us to think those through and to be prepared for the what-ifs."