By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 3:06 AM
KABUL - Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said allied forces are in the "final stages" of a large operation to clear insurgent fighters from key regions just west of Kandahar, the country's second-largest city and principal focus of the coalition's military campaign against the Taliban.
Petraeus, speaking in an interview at NATO headquarters in Kabul, said the operation in the Zhari and Panjwai districts, which began a month ago and involves thousands of U.S., Afghan and Canadian troops, is proceeding "more rapidly than was anticipated." Military officials and Afghan leaders have reported increasing stability in large swaths of the area that had been firmly in the grip of insurgents a few weeks ago, although they acknowledge that they remain contested by pockets of Taliban holdouts.
The progress in Kandahar City's western fringe is shaping up to be an important part of the case Petraeus plans to make, during crucial assessments of the mission this fall by NATO and the White House, that international and Afghan forces have regained the momentum after years of losing ground to the Taliban.
The governor of Kandahar province, Tooryalai Wesa, drove through Zhari and Panjwai on Thursday to meet with 350 village elders, a trip that would have been too dangerous to make last month.
Petraeus and his subordinate commanders have been reluctant to trumpet their efforts in Kandahar out of concern that early claims of success could prove embarrassing if insurgents find a way to regroup and attack coalition forces, as some U.S. Marine officers learned during the large assault earlier this year in the Marja district of neighboring Helmand province. Military officials have said many insurgent fighters might have slipped out of Zhari and Panjwai as the allied operation intensified. But they say the troops intend to take advantage of the diminished Taliban presence to build up the capacity of the Afghan government and security forces, with the hope they will be able to fend off any insurgent counteroffensive.
In his first interviews upon assuming command here in July, Petraeus drew attention to an increase in the number of Special Operations forces missions to kill and capture insurgent leaders and field commanders, an effort that senior military officials think has spurred a handful of senior Taliban leaders to hold preliminary talks with Afghan government officials aimed at a possible negotiated end to the nine-year-long conflict. His statements about the increase in raids led some analysts to question whether the mission here was shifting away from a focus on protecting the population from the Taliban.
But in a wide-ranging, hour-long interview Friday, Petraeus emphasized that kill-and-capture operations are part of his counterinsurgency strategy. He said the ramp-up in Special Operations forces activity has been matched with increasing effort in all parts of the overall mission, from training Afghan security forces to rebuilding the country's infrastructure.
"W e have increased, and we are increasing, every component of a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign," he said.
Petraeus said a new program to create village-level security forces - he called it "community watch with AK-47s" - is gathering momentum. The Interior Ministry, he said, plans to implement the program in 68 districts, each of which would receive funds and equipment from the U.S. military for about 300 armed auxiliary police officers. The Afghan government had placed a 10,000-member cap on the force, out of concern that it could morph into militias, but the Interior Ministry has scrapped that limit in an effort to expand the program more quickly.
Petraeus did not provide new details about the embryonic reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and some Taliban leaders. He also shied from talking about an ongoing dispute between the government and foreign diplomats over the use of private security guards to protect development workers.
President Hamid Karzai has issued a decree banning private guards from protecting aid workers starting Dec. 17, a decision that has led several development firms to begin shutting down their programs. U.S. officials estimate that up to $2.5 billion in foreign assistance projects could be shuttered, and as many as 40,000 Afghan jobs lost, if the ban is not rescinded.
The development projects - from roads to schools to local government reform - are central to the military's counterinsurgency strategy, a way to win Afghan support after soldiers clear out insurgents. In a bid to preserve these programs, American and foreign diplomats are lobbying Karzai intensely to exempt development firms from the ban on private security.
Among the programs that might be affected is the World Bank's Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which pays the salaries of about 50 percent of Afghan government employees in non-security ministries, according to a document from the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. The World Bank cannot disburse its funds without monitors, who require private security guards.
"There are significant concerns, enormous concerns, not just in USAID and the [U.S.] Embassy, but throughout the international community," a senior U.S. official in Kabul said.