ARLINGTON, Va. (Oct. 7, 2009_ – As the president reassembles his national security team today as part of his ongoing review of the strategy for Afghanistan, the commander of U.S. Central Command said the decision is likely to hinge on one of three approaches to reversing the insurgency’s gains.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus yesterday cited three basic ways to “change the equation in an area where insurgents have made progress,” as he conceded they have in Afghanistan.
“One, you can turn bad guys into good guys, or at least neutral guys,” an effort referred to as “reintegration of reconcilables,” he told attendees at the annual Association of the U.S. Army conference here. “You can increase the number of host-nation security forces. Or you can increase the number of coalition forces.”
Petraeus resisted defining exactly how many U.S. forces he believes are needed to support the mission — an issue under intense discussion within the administration. About 68,000 U.S. forces will be on the ground there by the end of next month, and Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander on the ground, reportedly has asked for about 40,000 more.
The president will convene his national defense team again today, and later this week, to discuss this and other options for Afghanistan. Petraeus said he and his fellow uniformed participants have had “ample opportunity to provide our best professional military advice.”
McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, who previously served as the ground commander in Afghanistan, are participating in the sessions by video teleconference. Anne Patterson, ambassador to Pakistan, also is participating.
“So this has been a very substantial endeavor,” Petraeus said. “It is moving quite rapidly. There is a recognition of the need to move through this.”
Although views of appropriate U.S. troop numbers vary widely, Petraeus said there’s little debate about two general principles: “Afghanistan obviously requires a sustained, substantial commitment” and more Afghan national security forces are needed.
The general resisted putting a precise timeline on when the United States will be able to declare its mission in Afghanistan completed, noting that it depends largely on how quickly Afghan national security forces can become fully developed.
That’s expected to occur by 2013 or 2014, he said, when Afghan security forces will assume the lead for security responsibility. But to be prepared for that transition, the Afghan National Army likely will need to grow to about 400,000 members, he said, more than initially projected.
Building the Afghan security forces isn’t a process that can be rushed, Petraeus told the group. “No question about the need to develop the Afghan national security forces as rapidly as possible, and likely to higher numbers,” he said. “But we have to keep in mind that there are limits to how fast you can accelerate that development,” particularly of commissioned and noncommissioned officer leaders.
Whether that happens as planned depends largely on the security situation, he said, recalling problems he encountered as commander of Multinational Force Iraq. When violence spiked there in mid-2006, “the Iraqi security force effort nosedived,” he said.
Petraeus said he’s committed to preventing a replay of that situation in Afghanistan. “It is hugely important that the security situation not undermine the Afghan security force effort,” he said.
Yet security has deteriorated in several key areas, he acknowledged. Taliban, al-Qaida and other extremist elements that had been defeated and left the country, reconstituted over time and returned to Afghanistan, putting down roots and increasing insurgent activity.
Petraeus said he shares McChrystal’s assessment that the situation is “serious,” but that turning it around is “doable.” Additional troops that have arrived in Regional Command South in recent months already have made some tactical gains, he said.
“Reversing that cycle of violence, arresting the downward spiral in some of these key areas [is] very important,” Petraeus said.
Turning yesterday’s discussion to Iraq, Petraeus cited “very substantial progress,” with violence down to about 15 to 20 attacks a day, compared to a high of 180 in mid-2007.
He attributed the progress to the surge in U.S. troops that helped quell violence and laid the foundation for other progress to take place.