By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 15, 2010 - Growing pockets of security progress in Afghanistan must be extended and linked to fully root out the Taliban and other extremist organizations, and that will take time, the top U.S. and NATO commander there said in a prerecorded interview aired today.
"We're making progress, and progress is winning, if you will," Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told NBC's David Gregory in the "Meet the Press" interview. "But it takes the accumulation of a lot of progress ultimately ... to win overall, and that's going to be a long-term proposition, without question."
In his first significant interview since taking command of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus acknowledged what he called "up and down" progress, with coalition and Afghan forces taking key sanctuaries from the Taliban, but not without a fight. Petraeus said progress really only began this spring, as more U.S. and international forces began pouring into the country, stretching out into areas that before were Taliban strongholds.
Late spring saw operations in central Helmand province start to improve security conditions there, but now expanding into neighboring Kandahar province is proving to be a "tough fight," the general said.
"What we have are areas of progress. We've got to link those together, extend them, and then build on it, because of course the security progress ... is the foundation for everything else -- for the governance progress, the economic progress, rule of law progress and so forth," Petraeus said.
The general said he understands the growing lack of U.S. patience for the war in Afghanistan, but he noted that only in the past 18 months has the proper focus been in place for the strategy on the ground there.
"A lot of us came out of Iraq in late 2008 and started looking intently at Afghanistan," he said. "We realized that we did not have the organizations that are required for the conduct of a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign."
Also, he said the fight in Afghanistan was under-resourced.
Under President Barack Obama's orders, by the end of this month the number of U.S. troops on the ground there will have nearly tripled, Petraeus said. Also, NATO forces have expanded, and the number of civilians supporting the war will have tripled. Funding also was increased to train 100,000 more Afghan national security forces.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan now has almost 120,000 troops from 47 different countries assigned to it. The United States provides 78,430 of those ISAF troops, part of the roughly 100,000 American troops now based in the country.
The largest regional command in Afghanistan is in the south, with 35,000 troops. The command is focused on Kandahar, the country's second-largest city and the spiritual home of the Taliban. The next-largest regional command is in the east, with 32,000 personnel.
After the United States, the country with the largest number of troops with ISAF is the United Kingdom with 9,500, followed by Germany with 4,590. France is next with 3,750, followed by Italy with 3,400, Canada with 2,830, Poland with 2,630, Romania with 1,760, Turkey with 1,740, Spain with 1,555, and Australia with 1,455.
"The inputs are already enabling some outputs," Petraeus said. "And, of course, what we have got to show is that these additional inputs can allow greater progress, and that that's progress that can be sustained, over time, by Afghan forces and Afghan officials."
Petraeus said the commitment in Afghanistan will be enduring, and would not say how many U.S. troops will begin to leave under Obama's July 2011 transition timeline.
"It would premature to have any kind of assessment at this juncture as to about what we may or may not be able to transition," he said. But, he added, any troop movement will be based on the conditions on the ground.
"As the conditions permit, we transition tasks to our Afghan counterparts and the security forces in various governmental institutions, and that enables a responsible drawdown of our forces," he said.
Petraeus said Obama's July 2011 timeline to begin turning security over to the Afghans and drawing down U.S. forces provides a sense of urgency for Afghan leaders, people in uniform and civilians contributing to the effort "that we've got to get on with this, [that] this has been going on for some nine years or so, that there is understandable concern [and] in some cases, frustration."
"And therefore," he said, "we have got to really put our shoulders to the wheel and show, during the course of this year, that progress can be achieved."
Regardless of how the transition plays out next summer, Petraeus predicted an enduring U.S. commitment in Afghanistan that will evolve as the capabilities of the Afghan government and its forces improve. At the end of the day, he said, it boils down to the Afghan government becoming accepted and supported by its people, and in turn providing the support and services the people expect.
"It's not about their embrace of us. It's not about us winning hearts and minds," Petraeus said. "It's about the Afghan government winning hearts and minds."
Petraeus said he is leery of using the term "winning" with reference to the fight in Afghanistan, because it implies a clear-cut and obvious victory that will not necessarily ensue.
"It seems to imply that ... you just find the right hill out there somewhere, you take it, you plant the flag, and you go home to a victory parade. I don't think that's going to be the case here," he said. "I think ... that this [is] going to require a substantial, significant commitment, and that it is going to have to be enduring, to some degree -- again, albeit its character and its size being scaled down over the years."
In the end, the general said, the United States must remember why it began fighting in Afghanistan in first place.
"We are 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, conducted the initial training for the attackers in training camps in Afghanistan before they moved on to Germany and then to U.S. flight schools," he said.