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U.S. Commander Says Afghan Progress Will Be 'Slower' Than Iraq

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. General David Petraeus on Capitol Hill on December 9: "Difficult, different, and in some ways tougher than Iraq."

U.S. General David Petraeus on Capitol Hill on December 9: "Difficult, different, and in some ways tougher than Iraq."

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. general who led the successful surge of troops in Iraq two years ago told Congress today that a similar strategy in Afghanistan probably won't work as quickly.

But General David Petraeus, who now heads U.S. Central Command, which oversees both Iraq and Afghanistan, said that doesn't mean establishing security in Afghanistan is impossible.

"While certainly difficult, different, and in some ways tougher than Iraq, Afghanistan is no more hopeless than Iraq was when I took command there in February 2007," he said.

"Indeed, the level of violence and number of violent civilian deaths in Iraq were vastly higher than we have seen in Afghanistan. But achieving progress in Afghanistan will be hard, and the progress there likely will be slower in developing than was the progress achieved in Iraq."

Petraeus was appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is just one of several senior military and diplomatic officials testifying this week about President Barack Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan before Congressional committees.

'Important Progress'

On December 8, General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that they fully support Obama's strategy.

On December 1, Obama announced that he is sending in 30,000 U.S. troops to help defeat the Taliban insurgency. At the same time, he announced that he plans to begin to draw down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan in July 2011.

Today, Petraeus said the new strategy will give ISAF what it needs to improve security in Afghanistan.

"I do believe that the policy the president announced last week and the additional resources being committed will over the next 18 months enable us to make important progress in several critical tasks: to reverse the Taliban momentum, to improve the security of the Afghan people, to increase the capabilities of Afghan security forces, to help improve Afghan governance, and to set conditions for the start of the reduction in U.S. combat forces in a way that does not jeopardize the progress that has been achieved," Petraeus said.

Petraeus also acknowledged the second front in the war: the region of Pakistan along its border with Afghanistan that Taliban fighters use as a safe haven and where Al-Qaeda's leadership, including Osama bin Laden, are believed to be hiding.

'Eliminating Sanctuaries'

The Pakistani Army has been mounting an offensive against the militants in the rugged, mountainous border region.

"The determination of Pakistan's civilian and military leaders to fight elements of the extremist nexus is an important step forward and does facilitate our efforts to degrade the extremist groups in the border region and to defeat Al-Qaeda," he said.

Eikenberry agreed. The retired three-star general appeared with Petraeus before the Senate committee and said the mission's success hinges on whether the Taliban and Al-Qaeda can be rooted out of their crossborder safe havens.

"The effort we're undertaking in Afghanistan is likely to fall short of our strategic goals unless there is more progress in eliminating sanctuaries used by the Afghan Taliban and their associates inside of Pakistan," Eikenberry said.

Still, both Eikenberry and Petraeus agreed that the core of the problem remains Afghanistan and winning the cooperation of its people, who not only resent the presence of foreign forces over the past eight years but also distrust the government of their president, Hamid Karzai.

"Beyond the insurgent challenge," Petraeus said, "corruption within the Afghan government -- particularly the serious abuse of power by some individual leaders and their associates -- has eroded the government's legitimacy. Flaws in the recent presidential election have further undermined confidence in the government."

Eikenberry told lawmakers that the United States should use more than a military approach to achieve its goal of stabilizing Afghanistan.

"One of the major impediments our strategy faces is the Afghan government's lack of credibility with its own people," the ambassador said. "To strengthen its legitimacy, our approach at the national level is on improving key ministries by increasing the number of civilian and technical advisers and providing more development assistance directly through these ministries' budgets."

It was Eikenberry who originally opposed sending a large force of U.S. reinforcements to Afghanistan. In secret e-mail cables leaked to the American news media, he urged Obama not to send additional troops until Karzai had improved governance and eliminated corruption.

But in his December 8 testimony, and again today, the ambassador said he believes Obama's strategy for Afghanistan is, in his words, "comprehensive and correct."