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Petraeus Cites Progress in Afghanistan, But Tough Year Ahead

Gen. David Petraeus, left, top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, meets US Marines during his visit to Marjah, Afghanistan, 25 Dec 2010
Gen. David Petraeus, left, top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, meets US Marines during his visit to Marjah, Afghanistan, 25 Dec 2010
Al Pessin

The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan says the troop surge last year helped inflict “enormous losses” on insurgent networks, sowed discord among their leaders and put the groups on the defensive. But in a letter to the nearly 150,000 international troops in his command, General David Petraeus said they still have a lot of hard work to do.  

The general’s three-page letter tells the troops they and their Afghan counterparts did “tremendous work” and made “impressive progress” during the past year.  He credits the military surge, including 30,000 fresh American troops, and also the growth and improving quality of the Afghan Army and police.  He also mentions the surge of international civilians working on such issues as development, education, health care and the Afghan legal system.

Petraeus says increased military operations seized the combat initiative and took away some of the most important safe havens for the Taliban and its allies. He also cites what he calls “numerous reports of unprecedented discord” among insurgent leaders based in Pakistan.

Officials at the Pentagon say the general was referring to tension between Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and their bosses in Pakistan, caused partly by the killing or capture of thousands of fighters and commanders and the rise of new local leaders. The officials also tell VOA Taliban frustration is growing because the increased number of coalition forces are now able to disrupt their operations.

The United Nations has welcomed Afghan President Hamid Karzai's announcement that he plans to convene his country's new parliament on Wednesday.

Ira mellman interviewed Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington and an expert on Afghanistan. Last week, O'Hanlon had written that in postponing the convening of the Parliament, President Karzai might have been correct.

Analyst Jeffery Dressler at the Institute for the Study of War adds that some insurgent leaders in Pakistan have become reluctant to travel into southern Afghanistan, where the allied effort has been focused. But he says it is too soon to know whether the progress will become permanent.

“It won’t be until we get through next summer that we’ll be able to state definitively whether the gains that we have achieved there are lasting and enduring," said Dressler.

That is when General Petraeus will have to begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces that President Obama ordered more than a year ago, when he approved the troop surge.  Petraeus re-committed himself to that in Monday’s letter, but no one is providing details yet.

Jeffery Dressler has a problem with that plan. “Drawing down the troops, in and of itself, should not be the goal," he said. "The goal should be reversing the Taliban’s momentum, making progress and ensuring that the Afghans can increasingly take over responsibility for the gains that have been achieved.”

In addition to security issues, the international community is working for sustainable gains in other areas, like economic development and the delivery of government services.  General Petraeus also mentions those in his letter, saying they are important for convincing the Afghan people to support their government, rather than the insurgents.  

On Tuesday, the senior British civilian official in southern Afghanistan, Michael O’Neill, said his teams are working to improve government services in ways that the Afghans themselves can sustain.

“We need to work with the grain of Afghan society and culture, helping them strengthen their systems, but not seeking to impose something which is alien and would not be accepted by people here," said O’Neill. "And trying to get that balance is obviously a complex judgment, but one we’re keeping in mind all the time.”

Speaking from Afghanistan, O’Neill told reporters at the Pentagon progress on civilian issues usually lags behind security gains.  But he says there have been advances in recent months and he expects that to continue, gradually, between now and the end of 2014 - the date set for the Afghan government and military to take full responsibility for governing and securing their country.  But even after that, O’Neill says the international community will need to continue helping Afghanistan for many years.  

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