WASHINGTON, Nov. 13, 2009 – The time President Barack Obama is taking to nail down the strategy in Afghanistan is time well spent, the commander of U.S. Central Command said today.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus spoke at the Navy Memorial here as part of the American Veterans Center Annual Conference. He based his words not only on his current experiences, he said, but also on his experiences as the commander in Iraq.

In Iraq, getting the right strategy was just as important as the surge in personnel, the general said. “The real key in Iraq was the surge of ideas, not just the surge of troops,” Petraeus said. “Yes, the 30,000 additional troops that ended up being deployed during the surge enabled us to … implement time-honored counterinsurgency concepts more effectively and more rapidly than we could have.”

Multinational forces began living in the communities. They began protecting the people and securing their neighborhoods. “You cannot commute to the fight,” Petraeus said, and the command built 77 stations for coalition forces in Baghdad alone.

As attention shifts to Afghanistan, Petraeus said, people must remember that Afghanistan is not Iraq.

“All counterinsurgencies are local,” he explained. “You have to recognize the need for a truly nuanced and granular appreciation for local circumstances.”

Americans going to the country must understand the local customs and culture and the local power structures. “We are trying to help Afghanistan re-establish traditional ruling structures: the traditional [religious leaders], the traditional tribal leaders, who in many areas have been pushed aside, or killed, or run off by the Taliban or the more extreme leaders,” he said.

American servicemembers, the general said, have learned a lot about counterinsurgency strategy and irregular warfare from service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All this goes into the president’s decision on the strategy in Afghanistan and the number of forces needed to institute it, Petraeus said, and he added that the decision-making process is good and healthy for the leaders and the country.

When the Iraq and Afghan strategies were first formulated in this administration in March, he said, the process was rushed. The current process has allowed Obama to engage in forming the process in a way he did not before, the general said.

“There have been very good debates, very good discussion,” he said. “This is the kind of intellectual discourse you want. It does sharpen your thinking. It does expose differences of opinion. It helps you come to grips with the assumptions.”

The president has committed an enormous amount of time to the process, and it is an appropriate use of his time, Petraeus said. “This decision will be forthcoming pretty soon, perhaps when he comes back from the Asia trip, and then we will all press forward,” he said. “And I think we will do so with enormous benefit from having had these discussions.”

American, NATO and Afghan officials recognize the dangers of corruption in Afghanistan. Petraeus said Afghan President Hamid Karzai has to set the tone, and he looks forward to Karzai’s inaugural speech on Nov. 19.

“There are several subjects in that address that we look forward to hearing: his plans to deal with corruption, to confront the issues that have to do with legitimacy of governance and how to achieve that in the eyes of the people to be seen as serving the people,” Petraeus said. Karzai also will make a statement with the men and women he asks to be in the government, the general added.

Petraeus also spoke about Iraq, noting that while the country is doing well, progress is fragile. Iraq still has ethnic issues, sectarian problems, criminal activity and a remnant of al-Qaida, but the government can handle these, he said. He added that he’s heartened by the agreement on an election in January, but said the real test is when the new government sets up following the election.

Petraeus said he still thinks the projected U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq following the election is doable. Multinational Force Iraq will decrease by 50,000 to 60,000 troops by August, the general said. He called the reduction a “substantial off-ramp that will be particularly steep in the latter part of the spring and summer next year.”

Iraqi forces largely have shouldered the security mission in the country, Petraeus said, but U.S. forces still provide support. “We think that is something that can be sustained, and we will completely change our mission in Iraq to strictly units in an advise-and-assist mode,” he said.

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