Shell-shocked by the financial crisis, the American public hasn't focused on Obama's war, which calls for 17,000 more combat troops this year, as well as 4,000 new military trainers. Polls show the public is wary about the AfPak conflict, but opposition is more muted than to the war in Iraq. That could change should casualties increase, as is likely over the next year.
So, I sat down with Petraeus in the venerable but far-from-fancy Fairfax hotel in Washington where he was staying, to ask why Americans should support this war, and what it would take to win it. (I am leaving on a trip to both countries this week.)
As head of Central Command - which stretches from Lebanon to Pakistan's border with India, and is based in Tampa, Fla. - Petraeus doesn't have the same degree of control (and direct line to the president) that he had when he commanded all U.S. forces in Iraq. But Petraeus' role is still central.
Clearly weary from many hours of testimony, his voice firmed as he summed up why President Obama has made AfPak his prime foreign-policy focus: "It has to do with al-Qaeda, which has relocated in the tribal areas of Pakistan." Al-Qaeda and the networks of Islamist extremists with which it is linked "pose an ever more serious threat to Pakistan's very existence." And Pakistan, of course, has nuclear weapons.
If the real danger lies in Pakistan, why are we sending more troops to Afghanistan? "You have to ensure that Afghanistan doesn't become once again a place where al-Qaeda establishes safe havens," the general said.
"The point is that you need to make progress in both," the general says.
The role of the new U.S. troops in Afghanistan is to protect the population in areas where the Taliban is active, and help them push the Taliban back, while also training Afghan security forces to eventually take over that job.
But 17,000 troops don't constitute a "surge." Are they sufficient to carry out the kind of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine that worked in Iraq? Petraeus replied, "You don't have a raging insurgency in every part of Afghanistan. Seventy percent of the violence is in 10 percent of the districts." So, he says, you don't need the ratio of troops to population called for by "COIN rules of thumb."
What about the request by Gen. David McKiernan, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for 10,000 more troops? "We don't need more in 2010," Petraeus said, adding that there should be assessments made over time as to numbers required.
But if the exit strategy is to train the Afghan army, is it sufficient to aim for 124,000 Afghan soldiers (up from about 80,000) by the end of 2011? Petraeus replied that training was proceeding as fast as possible, and was limited by the need to build infrastructure for an Afghan army from scratch. An even greater factor is the time required to train an Afghan officer corps.
Petraeus noted that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said the size of the Afghan army may go much higher.
What struck me most about my conversation with Petraeus was the complexity of the AfPak project he described.
Petraeus, along with his military and civilian bosses and counterparts, must work with Pakistan, where a weak civilian government and conflicted military are flailing at efforts to push militants back.
They must coordinate military and civilian reconstruction aid and try to strengthen Afghan and Pakistani governance - so locals will resist the jihadis' call.
Finally, and key, they must persuade Pakistanis and Afghans that the United States is in this for the long haul. Already, speculation is rampant in both countries that Obama is seeking a speedy exit before 2010 midterm elections. If the Pakistani army believes this, it won't cut ties with its old Afghan Taliban friends, who, it will assume, will soon be in power.
If such speculation is wrong, Petraeus may be called upon again to help convince the American public of the need to stay the course.
He will no doubt keep repeating the mantra he brought up at the end of our talk: "It is important to come back to why we are in Afghanistan. This is the place where sanctuaries for transnational extremists would again be established if the Taliban returned.
"There is a vital national security interest in helping Afghans to get it right in an Afghan context. This is everyone's interest because the threat has touched so many in the world."
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at trubinphillynews.com.