By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 9, 2009 - Achieving success against extremists in Afghanistan is a challenging, yet attainable mission, the commander of U.S. Central Command said at a Capitol Hill hearing here today. Success in Afghanistan "is of enormous importance, and it is attainable," Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"But achieving our objectives will not be easy," the four-star general told senators, noting "the challenges are great."
Petraeus said he supports President Barack Obama's revised Afghanistan strategy, part of which involves the deployment of 30,000 extra U.S. troops there over the next several months.
"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" in Afghanistan, said Petraeus, the architect of the Iraq surge.
Those tasks, he said, include reversing the Taliban's momentum, increasing the capabilities and numbers of Afghan security forces, helping to improve Afghan governance and setting conditions for the start of the reduction in U.S. combat forces in July 2011 in a way that does not jeopardize the progress that has been achieved.
Though achieving these tasks will be difficult, Petraeus said, Afghanistan presents a no more hopeless situation than that which existed in Iraq prior to the start of the surge of forces there in 2007. Indeed, he noted, the level of violence and numbers of civilian deaths in Iraq during the height of the insurgency there were much higher than what has been experienced 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 said.
Achieving success in Afghanistan is vital to U.S. national security, Petraeus said, pointing to the close relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida terrorists.
"Reversing the Taliban's momentum is essential to the effort to degrade and defeat al-Qaida," Petraeus said. "The Taliban we are fighting in Afghanistan today is the same organization that sheltered and supported Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida as they planned the 9/11 attacks. The relationship between these groups remains strong."
The Afghan Taliban's leadership, he said, is organized, ideologically motivated and serves as an inspiration for other extremists. In recent years, he added, the Taliban have expanded their numbers and influence in Afghanistan, though they have little support among the majority of the Afghan people.
Nonetheless, Petraeus said, U.S. and coalition forces will have to fight their way into enemy strongholds as the surge of forces into Afghanistan continues through spring and into summer. He said he also anticipates possible turmoil in the Afghan government, as news reports cite the identification and replacement of corrupt or disloyal Afghan officials.
"Like Iraq, the situation is likely to get harder before it gets easier," said Petraeus, who predicts an increase in security incidents in Afghanistan this summer. "It will be important, therefore, to withhold judgment on the success or failure of the strategy in Afghanistan until next December, as the president has counseled."
That will be the right time, Petraeus said, "to evaluate progress, consider the way forward, and begin discussing the nature and pace of the transition of security tasks to Afghan forces and initial reductions of U.S. forces in Afghanistan that will begin in July 2011."
Any changes in U.S. troop strength at that time, Petraeus said, would be based upon conditions on the ground.
The United States is at a critical juncture regarding the mission in Afghanistan, said U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry, who accompanied Petraeus at the hearing.
Eikenberry also declared his support of Obama's revised Afghanistan strategy, which he said "offers the best path to stabilize Afghanistan and to ensure al-Qaida cannot regain a foothold to plan new attacks against us."
The additional U.S. military forces to be deployed to Afghanistan, Eikenberry said, will be employed to break the insurgency's momentum, hasten and improve training of Afghan security forces, and establish security in key parts of the country.
Concurrently, Eikenberry said, a civilian surge of U.S. and international experts in government, agriculture, infrastructure and other areas of expertise will deploy to Afghanistan.
"We aim to increase employment and provide essential services in areas of greatest insecurity, while improving critical ministries and the economy at the national level," Eikenberry said. "These steps taken together, we believe, will help remove the insurgents from the battlefield and build support for the Afghan government."