WASHINGTON, March 31, 2009 – A meeting of chiefs of defense here re-emphasizes the shared commitments of Central Asia and the United States to security and stability in the region, the commander of U.S. Central Command said here today. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told the defense chiefs from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan that the meeting will help all involved better address their common interests.

Combating extremism and the spread of extremism from Afghanistan and Pakistan is at the top of the list of priorities, the general said. “[This means] that all of us have to help our partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said.

Further, he said, the chiefs all have a shared interest in countering the illegal narcotics industry. Opium and heroin production is the main money-maker in many parts of Afghanistan, and drug lords have caused a tremendous problem throughout Central Asia.

All concerned also need secure borders, and they also must protect their countries’ infrastructure and respond to humanitarian crises, Petraeus said.

“Our effort to deepen our understanding of the challenges that each of us face will improve our ability to think and to address these challenges together,” the general said.

Petraeus addressed the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy that President Barack Obama announced last week. The regional approach to the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan has enormous bearing on countering extremism, he said.

“All of us are concerned about the potential outflow of extremism from Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Petraeus said. The nations of the region understand the problem in ways the United States doesn’t, Petraeus said, so the dialogue among the countries is important to exchange strategies. “We all have to work together to achieve better control of the border areas,” he said.

Counter-proliferation issues in the region cannot be ignored, Petraeus said. While Iran’s nuclear ambitions obviously are the greatest challenge, he said, Pakistan is a nuclear power that has proliferated weapons technology in the past.

“We should be open and honest about that,” the general said. “My view is that they are very well controlled, and there are exceptional safeguards. But we have to be concerned, because were extremists to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, it would obviously be potentially catastrophic.”

At the heart of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy is sustained, substantial commitment, Petraeus said, but he noted a trust issue among the nations of Central Asia and the United States. Relations among the countries have undergone ups and downs, he said. “We have completely forgotten these countries at times,” the general acknowledged.

The United States cut off military aid to Pakistan for years, Petraeus said. But the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy requires a substantial economic commitment to the nations, he noted, and he praised the current bill before Congress that commits $1.5 billion over five years to infrastructure in Pakistan.

“It also is a sustained commitment – one that is going to endure — that has years attached to it, not months or a year,” he said.

And all this must be coordinated not only between the coalition and local forces, but also across international lines, Petraeus said. The requirements on either side of the Durand Line separating Afghanistan and Pakistan are different and must be addressed, he added.

In Pakistan, established governmental agencies simply need aid, Petraeus said, and U.S. and international officials can work through governmental and nongovernmental organizations to channel aid to the region. Afghanistan, he said, has few governmental agencies.

“We are building, not just re-building, and the institutions are still very much works in progress,” he said.

A comprehensive approach is necessary, Petraeus said. “It’s not enough to just secure the village, or get rid of the miscreants,” he told the defense chiefs. Troops and civilian workers also must take care of refugees, fund rebuilding, or create jobs for those who lose opium crops, he said.

The strategy recognizes that progress in the region will come along many lines of operations, not just security. These include governance, economics, informational, the rule of law and so on, Petraeus said.

“Particularly in Afghanistan, … we have to provide an effort that will build capacity and capability so that the government can serve the people and be seen as legitimate in their eyes,” he explained.

The general praised Pakistani officials for recognizing the challenges in the country’s federally administered tribal areas and developing a counterinsurgency plan that involves its entire government. This is important, he said, because since its founding, Pakistan has focused on countering India in a conventional war. In western Pakistan today, he said, the fight is a counterinsurgency.

“These are not precise,” Petraeus said. “These are large security-to-the-people operations, and forces must be trained, equipped and educated for these kinds of operations.”

Al-Qaida operates in limited numbers in southern and eastern Afghanistan, but larger numbers of the terror group are in safe havens they have established in western Pakistan, Petraeus said. The group is a danger well beyond the region, he added, noting that it was from Afghanistan that al-Qaida planed the 9/11 attacks and attacks in Madrid, London, Bali and elsewhere.

“That has to have prominence, and there has to be a focus on them because of the threat that network poses to the region and the world,” he said.

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