Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, U.S. Central Command commander, told an audience at the Washington Convention Center that the road to success in Afghanistan involves commitment and comprehensive coordination from Pakistan, India and possibly Russia and Iran to combat the spread of terror and extremism in central Asia.
“It’s not possible to solve the challenges internal to Afghanistan without addressing the challenges, especially in terms of security, with Afghanistan’s neighbors,” Petraeus said in an address to the U.S. Institute of Peace. “A regional approach is required.”
Petraeus spoke as part of a conference highlighting some of the foreign policy challenges facing President-elect Barack Obama’s administration, citing complexities of the war in Afghanistan and his perspective on the way forward to bring peace to the region.
“There has been nothing easy about Afghanistan,” he said. “Indeed, nearly every aspect has been hard, and that will continue to be the case in 2009 and the years beyond.”
The past seven years in Afghanistan have seen some accomplishments, the general said. Establishing a national government, construction of infrastructure, improving education and growing the Afghan National Army all are notable improvements for a country that has been ruled by warlords and ravaged by conflict for more than 30 years.
The past year saw a downward spiral of security, with the reconstitution of the Taliban and al-Qaida and the emergence of other extremist groups, Petraeus said. Extremist safe havens and lack of security across Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan aided in 2008 being the war’s deadliest year. More than 150 U.S. troops were killed.
“It is imperative that Afghanistan does not become a sanctuary for transnational, violent extremists,” Petraeus said. “It’s for that reason that the United States took action in Afghanistan over seven years ago, and that basic objective remains valid today.”
The winning strategy in Afghanistan, Petraeus said, will look much different than Iraq but will work under the same basic counterinsurgency principles. While violence in Afghanistan last year reached record highs, December was Iraq’s quietest month since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
“We and our Afghan and coalition partners have a tough fight in Afghanistan, and the natural tendency will be to look to the ways progress was achieved in Iraq for possible answers,” he said. But it’s important, he noted, to understand that “Afghanistan is not Iraq.”
The principles of counterinsurgency operations, such as the importance of security and serving the population and the necessity of living among the people, remain active in Afghanistan, he said. These principles, nonetheless, have to be adapted to the unique cultural and political geographic and terrain of Afghanistan.
“In this regard, it’s important to realize a key point in counterinsurgency operations: that every case is unique and requires a carefully designed approach that is appropriate to the specific situation,” he said.
The two wars and countries differ in almost every aspect. Iraq has experience under a strong central government. Afghanistan hasn’t in recent years. Afghanistan lacks in natural resources, infrastructure and provisional services, such as electricity, clean drinking water and education, in most areas, he said.
“While Iraq this past year generated nearly $60 billion in money-export revenue alone, Afghanistan’s total revenue was well under $1 billion,” he said. “In Afghanistan, it is important to remember that we’re helping them construct infrastructure, not reconstruct.”
Petraeus said the many challenges will require not just a comprehensive commitment, but a dedication that will achieve a community of efforts between Afghan and coalition and regional elements, together with international and nongovernment organizations, he said.
“We have to demonstrate commitment to sustain comprehensive, coordinated approaches and build and execute a regional strategy that includes Pakistan, India, the central Asian states and even the army in Russia along with, someday, perhaps at some point, Iran,” the general said.