Petraeus reveals boost in Afghan counterterror effort

Says war will be ‘harder before it gets easier’

By Robert Burns and Pauline Jelinek
Associated Press / December 10, 2009

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WASHINGTON - The rapid US buildup in the Afghan war will include more terrorist-hunting forces to chase down militants deemed too extreme to change sides, a top US general revealed yesterday.

“There’s no question you’ve got to kill or capture those bad guys that are not reconcilable,’’ General David Petraeus, the chief of US Central Command, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And we are intending to do that.’’

In his first congressional testimony on President Obama’s announced plan to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, Petraeus also cautioned that progress probably will be slower than during the buildup of US forces in Iraq two years ago, and the war will be “harder before it gets easier.’’

Petraeus said that in addition to an effort to “reintegrate’’ Taliban and other insurgents into mainstream Afghan society, there will be a harder push to eliminate the most hard-core extremists.

“In fact, we actually will be increasing our counterterrorist component of the overall strategy,’’ Petraeus said. He provided no details beyond saying that additional “national mission force elements’’ would be sent to Afghanistan next spring.

Petraeus appeared to be referring to classified units such as the Army’s Delta Force that specialize in counterterrorism and have been used extensively in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

General Stanley McChrystal, who now oversees the Afghan war and is scheduled to testify today before a House committee, previously headed those units inside Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose yesterday, McChrystal cited a formula for success in the counterterrorism effort he led in Iraq, saying the point is to eliminate the middle levels of terrorist networks like Al Qaeda rather than focusing on killing only the most senior leaders.

“You cause the network to collapse on itself,’’ McChrystal said. “And that’s what I saw happen in Iraq, and that’s one of the things we’re working on in Afghanistan.’’

He did not mention sending more counterterrorism forces to Afghanistan.

Much of yesterday’s Senate hearing focused on the link between instability in Afghanistan and the presence of Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other extremist groups in neighboring Pakistan.

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the committee, said he’s confident allied forces will improve security in Afghanistan, but that the biggest question is whether that will help root out Taliban and Al Qaeda havens across the border in Pakistan.

“The president has said that the United States did not choose this war, and he is correct,’’ he said. “But with these troop deployments to Afghanistan, we are choosing the battlefield where we will concentrate most of our available military resources.’’

“The risk is that we will expend tens of billions of dollars fighting in a strategically less important Afghanistan, while Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders become increasingly secure in Pakistan,’’ Lugar said.

Committee chairman John Kerry agreed. “Pakistan is in many ways the core of our challenge,’’ said the Massachusetts Democrat.

He praised Pakistan’s military for taking on Pakistani insurgents in offensives of recent months. “Now we are looking for Pakistan to also take on the Afghan Taliban,’’ Al Qaeda, and other insurgents in their territory, Kerry added.

Pakistan’s stepped-up efforts have been the most effective it has undertaken against internal extremists, Petraeus said.

That, he said, is “an important step forward’’ and does help US efforts to degrade extremist groups in the border region and to defeat the main US target: Al Qaeda.

There are limits to how much the Pakistani government can do, however, Petraeus said.

“You know, they say that you can only stick so many short sticks into so many hornets’ nests at one time,’’ he said.

In Afghanistan, Petraeus forecast an increase in bloodshed next summer.

He cited a combination of increased US and NATO military operations against the Taliban and increased turmoil resulting from expected Afghan government actions to combat corruption by replacing “malign actors’’ within the government.

Petraeus, who executed the Iraq surge in 2007, told the committee that he supports Obama’s revamped strategy but he did not explicitly predict that it will succeed.

He called success “attainable’’ and forecast “important progress’’ over the coming 18 months.