The commander who oversees U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has cited progress in both places, but also warned of uncertain times ahead. General David Petraeus appeared in Washington Tuesday before the U.S. Senate's Armed Services Committee.
General Petraeus says the recent operation in and around the town of Marjah in Afghanistan's Helmand Province is just the beginning of a long, difficult effort to reverse the expansion of Taliban influence and establish security and stability.
"The civil-military campaign on which we have embarked in Afghanistan will unfold over the next 18 months, and as many of us have observed, the going is likely to get harder before it gets easier," he said.
General Petraeus says the Taliban will fight hard to maintain control of key areas. And he warned senators not to expect a dramatic reduction of violence in Afghanistan this year. "2010 will be a difficult year, a year that will see progress and a reversal of Taliban momentum in important areas, but also a year in which there will be tough fighting and periodic setbacks," he said.
Still, General Petraeus endorsed President Barack Obama's decision to begin to transfer security responsibility to Afghan forces by July of next year. He said the expansion and training of the Afghan forces is a key to reaching that goal, and added that the United States is looking for ways to fill the gap in trainers left by the failure of NATO allies to provide as many as had been hoped for.
The general also called Pakistan's recent operations against Taliban and al-Qaida elements "impressive," and said coordination with U.S. forces on the Afghan side of the border has made it more difficult for the militants to move from one country to the other.
Regarding General Petraeus' other main responsibility, the continuing U.S. military effort in Iraq, he said there has been substantial progress, and he cited the mostly peaceful election earlier this month as evidence. But the general warned that insurgents still have the ability to create significant problems. "As always, however, the progress in Iraq is still fragile, and it could still be reversed," he said.
Still, General Petraeus said his forces are on track to reduce their presence from the current level of 96,000 to 50,000 by the end of August, as President Obama has ordered. But the general confirmed he may decide to keep an additional command center in the country to help the Iraqis deal with tensions with the Kurds. Still, he said that would be within the 50,000 overall number and within the new 'advise and assist' mission.
General Petraeus also expressed continuing concern about militant activities in Yemen, although he said recent operations by the country's military have improved the situation.
And he called Iran "the major state-level threat to regional stability," accusing its leaders of supporting violent groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan. The general said he believes Iran is working to develop a nuclear weapon, but he does not expect the process to be completed this year.