In letter, Petraeus offers optimistic assessment of Afghan war

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

KABUL - Gen. David H. Petraeus on Tuesday offered an optimistic assessment of the war in Afghanistan, writing to his subordinates that coalition and Afghan troops in the past year "inflicted enormous losses" on mid-level insurgents and "took away some of their most important safe havens."

The three-page letter from the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan to the troops made many of the same points that U.S. military officials have offered for weeks: an improving situation in southern Afghanistan, where the bulk of U.S. troops are based; a relentless mission tempo to kill insurgent field commanders; and an overall weakening of the Taliban.

"Now, in fact, the insurgents are increasingly responding to our operations rather than vice versa, and there are numerous reports of unprecedented discord among the members of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban senior leadership body," Petraeus wrote.

But Petraeus's optimism - he has recently compared the situation in Afghanistan to how he felt near the end of 2007 in Iraq, when violence there began to fall sharply - is not widely shared among Afghans, or even other NATO diplomats or U.S. military officials.

Statistics gathered by NATO, as well as other organizations, show that violence rose to its highest levels last year, and U.S. military officials predict that 2011 will be even worse. To the coalition, the Afghan government remains dangerously ineffective, and the Pakistan sanctuary for the Taliban's leadership is still secure. And many Afghans express frustration with the presence of foreign troops.

"I can tell you this very clearly: 50 percent of the people who are working with the Afghan government, their hearts are with the Taliban," said Munshi Abdul Majid, the governor of Baghlan, a province in northern Afghanistan where security deteriorated last year. "And this 50 percent feel the international community is not trustworthy and is trying to fool them."

Last year's talk of secret peace negotiations with Taliban leaders has apparently amounted to little beyond an embarrassing episode involving a fake Taliban emissary. Petraeus did not mention "reconciliation" - the catchphrase for political dialogue with senior insurgent leaders - in his letter to the troops.

"Nothing has happened yet, not secret, not public," Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban regime's former ambassador to Pakistan, said of any dialogue with insurgent leadership. "The fighting itself is the big problem. Peace is like water. And fighting is a burning thing. No one can find water amid all of this fire."

Now that U.S. commanders have their eyes set on the "end of 2014" as the time by which Afghan forces will be "in the lead," as Petraeus wrote, President Obama's initial deadline of July 2011 to start withdrawals has lost significance. With that breathing room, Petraeus's strategy involves heavy military pressure, to weaken and fracture the Taliban, to entice certain factions to give up the fight. Some of his commanders are equally upbeat about the progress so far.

"If we continue on the glide path we're on, continue to reinforce the police with well-trained officers and patrolmen, continue to support the governor with his attempts to get good local government deeply embedded, I think it's irreversible," Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the Marine commander in Helmand province, said of the progress in Marja.

At the highest levels of the insurgency, Petraeus's office sees promising signs of fracture. Petraeus said at a recent morning briefing that "we clearly now have our teeth in the jugular of the enemy," according to one person present. One Taliban leader, former Guantanamo Bay detainee Abdul Rauf Khadim, in December was demoted from his job on the Taliban's military commission, where he had oversight for several provinces, to the role of shadow governor for Uruzgan province.

The personnel move, made by the Taliban's overall military commander, Abdul Qayoum Zaqir, has angered some in the insurgent leadership, a senior U.S. military official said, citing intelligence gathered from detainees in Afghanistan.

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