“Afghanistan is different [from Iraq] — you have to understand it — but you can still apply a lot of this. And what we are doing now is, in fact, taking those lessons from Iraq and trying to apply them to Afghanistan,” Petraeus said at the Center for a New American Security.
Violence in Afghanistan last week hit the highest levels since the United States invaded the Taliban stronghold in 2001, Petraeus said, adding that the spike comes amid a security situation that has deteriorated over the past two years.
“There are some tough months ahead,” the general warned. “Some of this [violence] will go up, because we are going to go after their sanctuaries and safe havens as we must. There are some difficult times ahead.”
Security is particularly threatened in the south and east of Afghanistan, areas affected by what Petraeus called the Pashtun insurgency. He added that two-thirds of the violence in Afghanistan is taking place in fewer than 10 percent of the provinces, especially near Kandahar, Kabul and surrounding the “ring road” – a major transportation artery.
“And that has to be reversed,” he said of the trends. “A comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy is what is required to keep Afghanistan from becoming once again a sanctuary for transnational extremism, as it was prior to 9/11.”
Petraeus said the principles underlying the counterinsurgency in Iraq – having troops protect and live among the civilian population, for instance — can apply to Afghanistan. Cautioning that security in Iraq is “still fragile and reversible,” the general said security improvements in the wake of the 2007 troop surge and strategy shift are undeniable.
“There’s no question about the substantial progress in Iraq,” he said, noting the drop-off of daily attacks from 160 in June 2007 to 10 to 15 today, and the round of secure provincial Iraqi elections in January.
In his keynote remarks, Petraeus presented a series of charts, some of which he’d displayed in previous hearings before Congress. One slide outlined the following components of Iraq that the general said could apply to the operation in Afghanistan:
— Secure the population, live among them and be seen as protectors;
— Assume a comprehensive approach and establish a “unity of effort” among the interagency participants;
— Pursue the enemy relentlessly and “hold” the cleared areas;
— Separate the “irreconcilables” — extremists incapable of reforming — from the “reconcilables,” and promote reconciliation; and
— Exercise initiative, including being the first to disseminate the truth, and learn and adapt.
While planning the Iraq counterinsurgency, Petraeus said, officials identified al-Qaida’s needs as including weapons, foreign fighters, safe havens, ideology, money, popular support and guidance from senior leaders.
“The only way to take these away is to use all of these tools, not just counterterrorist forces,” he said, referring the so-called “whole of government” approach that complements military efforts with diplomacy, economic aid and other instruments of state power.
Petraeus emphasized the need to combine interagency efforts with military and intelligence capabilities, political outreach and other “nonkinetic” tools.
The general’s remarks fall in line with the priorities of the so-called “Af-Pak” strategy President Barack Obama’s administration laid out in March, which emphasizes reversing Taliban gains, developing a self-reliant Afghan national security force, protecting the population and providing a secure environment for governance.
Meanwhile, Obama also approved deploying 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and selected Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was confirmed for the four-star position by the Senate last night, as the new commander of NATO and U.S. forces there. Some 54,000 U.S. troops and 32,000 NATO forces are currently in Afghanistan.
Petraeus closed his presentation by putting a human face on the number of U.S. servicemembers deployed in operations overseas.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about these folks right here,” he said, displaying a photograph of a mass re-enlistment ceremony of 1,250 servicemembers he conducted in Baghdad on July 4. “It is about people; it’s about investing in those people, educating them, training them, retaining them and taking care of them and their families.”