WASHINGTON (June 29, 2010) – Afghanistan is a test of wills, and the enemy has to know the United States and its allies have the will to prevail, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.
The testimony was part of the confirmation process for Petraeus, President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The general also has been nominated to succeed McChrystal as commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, a position that requires a separate confirmation process through NATO channels. Petraeus currently is commander of U.S. Central Command.
The United States has vital national interests in Afghanistan, Petraeus told the panel, noting that Obama has said the United States will not tolerate a safe haven for terrorists who want to destroy Afghan security from within and launch attacks against innocent men, women and children around the world.
“In short, we cannot allow al-Qaida or other transnational extremist elements to once again establish sanctuaries from which they can launch attacks on our homeland or on our allies,” the general said. “Achieving that objective, however, requires that we not only counter the resurgent Taliban elements who allowed such sanctuaries in the past. We must also help our Afghan partners develop their security forces and governance capacity so that they can, over time, take on the tasks of securing their country and seeing to the needs of their people.”
If confirmed, Petraeus will command almost 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and more than 50,000 servicemembers from 45 other nations.
The general said he will work closely with civilian agencies to implement a whole-of-government approach to the situation on the ground, as the campaign strategy in Afghanistan calls for a fully integrated civil-military effort. Further, he added, the plan calls for international cooperation and crucial contributions from the Afghan government and Afghan national security forces.
As Centcom commander, Petraeus participated in forming the president’s strategy in Afghanistan.
“I support and agree with his new policy,” the general said. “During its development, I offered my forthright military advice, and I have assured the president that I will do the same as we conduct assessments over the course of the months ahead. He, in turn, assured me that he expects and wants me to provide that character of advice.”
The general said he supports the need to inspire greater urgency on the Afghan government’s part, noting the policy’s intent to begin transitioning security responsibilities to Afghan national security forces in July 2011.
“It is important to note the president’s reminder in recent days that July 2011 will mark the beginning of a process, not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits and turns out the lights,” Petraeus said. “As he explained this past Sunday in fact, we’ll need to provide assistance to Afghanistan for a long time to come.”
The general said notable progress has taken place in Afghanistan already. The number of civilian deaths due to coalition military operations has dropped, and areas in Helmand province have been freed from the Taliban. He acknowledged that more remains to be done to secure the progress.
A basic tenet of the counterinsurgency strategy is to secure the population. “Focusing on securing the people does not, however, mean that we don’t go after the enemy,” Petraeus said. “In fact, protecting the population inevitably requires killing, capturing or turning the insurgents. Our forces have been doing that, and we will continue to do that. In fact, our troopers and our Afghan partners have been very much taking the fight to the enemy in recent months.”
The Taliban and their terrorist allies have paid a grave price since April, with more than 130 middle- and senior-level operatives being captured or killed, and thousands of rank-and-file members taken off the battlefield.
The general noted that those gains have come at a cost for U.S. and allied forces. “I want to assure the mothers and fathers of those fighting in Afghanistan that I see it as a moral imperative to bring all assets to bear to protect our men and women in uniform and the Afghan security forces with whom ISAF troopers are fighting shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation.”
This is so important, he added, that he has discussed it with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Wardak, and Afghan Interior Minister Bismullah Khan. “And they are in full agreement with me on this,” Petraeus told the senators.
The general said he is “keenly aware of concerns” servicemembers have raised about the application of rules of engagement and a tactical directive designed to minimize the possibility of inflicting civilian casualties. “They should know that I will look very hard at this issue,” he said.
Developing the Afghan security forces so they can take responsibility for their country and produce sustained success is “hugely important and hugely challenging,” Petraeus said.
“Indeed, helping to train and equip host-nation forces in the midst of an insurgency is akin to building an advanced aircraft while it is in flight, while it is being designed, and while it is being shot at,” he said. “There is nothing easy about it.” Progress in that regard has picked up since the training effort in the country has been overhauled, he added, but more must be done for the trend to continue.
“Further progress will take even greater partnering, additional training improvements, fuller manning of the training and mentoring missions, and expanded professional education opportunities,” he said, “and initiatives are being pursued in each of these areas.”
Petraeus said tough fighting will continue in Afghanistan, noting that June has seen many NATO casualties.
“Indeed, it may get more intense in the next few months,” he said. “As we take away the enemy’s safe havens and reduce the enemy’s freedom of action, the insurgents will fight back.”
The general praised the commitment of American troops in the country.
“I’d like to once again note the extraordinary work being done by our troopers on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere around the world,” he said. “Our young men and women truly deserve the recognition they have earned as America’s new greatest generation. There is no question that they comprise the finest, most combat-hardened military in our nation’s history.