Petraeus: 'Tough Months' Lie Ahead in Afghan War

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 12, 2009

Violence in Afghanistan last week reached its highest levels since the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban-ruled government in 2001, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, said yesterday.

Petraeus outlined an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy that will involve sending tens of thousands more U.S. troops into Afghanistan's "hot spots" -- Taliban insurgent sanctuaries in the south and east -- but predicted "tough months ahead" in the Afghanistan war.

"There is no question that the situation has deteriorated" in Afghanistan, said Petraeus, who oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia. "This has to be reversed."

Two-thirds of all the attacks in Afghanistan are concentrated in about 10 percent of the country's districts, areas where more than 20,000 new U.S. soldiers and Marines are flowing in to pursue insurgents and provide greater security for Afghans, Petraeus said at a conference here of the Center for a New American Security, a defense think tank.

The current troop buildup will increase the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from about 31,000 at the end of 2008 to 68,000 by the fall. The new forces include Marine and Army combat brigades as well as an Army aviation brigade that will double the number of helicopters available for missions in southern Afghanistan, he said.

The strategy draws upon, but does not attempt to duplicate, lessons from the troop "surge" in Iraq, where attacks have dropped from 160 a day at the peak of the fighting in 2007 to about 10 to 15 a day during the past six months, he said.

In one significant difference, Petraeus said that in combating the largely rural insurgency of Afghanistan, it will not be possible for U.S. forces to move into neighborhoods the same way they did in Iraqi cities.

"You don't live among the people in Afghanistan," he said. "First of all, there's no empty houses. Second, the villages particularly in the rural areas tend to be small." Instead, he said, U.S. troops will establish outposts on high ground from which they can oversee nearby villages as well as roads leading in and out.

This approach, which Petraeus called both "culturally and operationally correct," will reduce the likelihood that the presence of U.S. forces will draw the fighting into rural communities, which would lead to more civilian casualties.

Afghan security forces must be significantly expanded in order to hold territory cleared of insurgents, he said, echoing other senior military officers who in recent weeks have stated that the Afghan National Army and police forces need to increase their ranks well beyond the planned strengths of 134,000 for the army and 86,000 for the police.

The military training command in Afghanistan is analyzing what the new targets for the army and police forces should be, Petraeus said, adding that "the bottom line is, it is many more than this."

Petraeus spoke as the newly confirmed U.S. commander for Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, prepared to take charge in Kabul in coming days and put in place a revised command structure. Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, nominated to become McChrystal's deputy, is expected to lead a new subordinate command that will oversee day-to-day military operations, freeing McChrystal to focus on higher-level strategy.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has asked McChrystal to provide a plan for setting up the new command structure in the next two months.

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