Military situation in Afghanistan will get worse, Petraeus says

Sees need for US to adapt strategy

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / April 22, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - General David Petraeus, architect of the US military surge credited with dramatically reducing violence in Iraq, told a forum at the John F. Kennedy School of Government yesterday that the military situation in Afghanistan will probably deteriorate in the near term.

"We do believe we can achieve progress, but it's going to get worse before it gets better," said Petraeus, the leader of US Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"When you go into the enemy's sanctuaries, they will fight you for it. There will be tough months ahead, without question," he said.

US strategy will have to be adapted for Afghanistan, where a buildup of more than 20,000 additional troops will have to be accompanied by a subtle cultural understanding of on-the-ground differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, Petraeus said.

"You have to apply it in a way that's culturally appropriate," he said. "You don't move into the villages; you have to move to the edge of it."

By contrast, one of the components of the Iraqi surge's success was a US move away from garrisoning troops at big military bases outside population centers and seeking more direct contact with the enemy and with the people of Iraq.

"You can't commute to the fight," Petraeus said at the forum moderated by David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School.

Petraeus, who served as the top US general in Iraq for 19 months before assuming leadership of Central Command in October, said Americans will need to reach out to Taliban moderates.

"The question is how to do that," the general said. "You have to do that certainly at local levels. You have to find out who are the really hard-core folks and get them out of there."

The armed forces and intelligence officials must determine "who are the reconcilables and the irreconcilables," he said.

One danger, Petraeus cautioned, is that empowering provincial governments throughout Afghanistan could risk forming a fractious alternative to a strong, central national authority.

In any event, he added, the eventual form of the Afghan power structure "is up to them at the end of the day."

The American presence in Afghanistan is fundamentally different from its history in Iraq, Petraeus said.

"I think we know why we went to Afghanistan. There is actually no debate about where the 9/11 attackers came from," the general said. "The strategy has to be to keep conditions from returning to those that allowed Al Qaeda and transnational extremists from finding sanctuaries."

In addition to Afghanistan, Petraeus voiced concerns about instability in neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state under increasing attack from internal Islamic extremists.

Pakistan's leaders need to realize that their biggest threat is from those militants and not from India, their traditional archenemy.

"It's an intellectually dislocating idea for the institutions of Pakistan," said Petraeus, referring to the country's military and political establishment. The terrorist attack on Mumbai, in which more than 160 people were killed last November by a Pakistan-based extremist group, "was a big setback," he said.