Petraeus cites progress in Afghanistan

Inroads against Taliban reported west of Kandahar

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post / October 23, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan — General David Petraeus, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said allied forces are in the final stages of a large operation to clear insurgent fighters from key regions just west of Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city and principal focus of the coalition’s military campaign against the Taliban.

Petraeus, speaking in an interview at NATO headquarters in Kabul, said the operation in the Zhari and Panjwai districts, which began a month ago and involves thousands of US, Afghan, and Canadian troops, is proceeding “more rapidly than was anticipated.’’ Military officials and Afghan leaders have reported increasing stability in large swaths of the area that had been firmly in the grip of insurgents a few weeks ago, although they acknowledge that pockets of Taliban holdouts remain.

Progress in Kandahar City’s western fringe is shaping up to be an important part of the case Petraeus plans to make, during crucial assessments of the mission this fall by NATO and the White House, that international and Afghan forces have regained momentum after years of losing ground to the Taliban.

Kandahar Province’s governor, Tooryalai Wesa, drove through Zhari and Panjwai Thursday to meet 350 village elders, a trip that would have been too dangerous last month.

Petraeus and his subordinate commanders have been reluctant to trumpet their efforts in Kandahar out of concern that early claims of success could prove embarrassing if insurgents regroup and attack coalition forces, as some US Marine officers learned during the large assault earlier this year in the Marja district of Helmand Province.

Military officials have said many insurgent fighters might have slipped out of Zhari and Panjwai as the allied operation intensified. But the troops intend to take advantage of the diminished Taliban presence to build up the capacity of the Afghan government and security forces, with the hope they will be able to fend off any insurgent counteroffensive.

In his first interviews upon assuming command here in July, Petraeus drew attention to an increase in the number of Special Operations forces missions to kill and capture insurgent leaders and field commanders, an effort that senior military officials think has spurred a handful of senior Taliban leaders to hold preliminary talks with Afghan government officials aimed at a possible negotiated end to the nine-year-long conflict.

His statements about the increase in raids led analysts to question whether the mission was shifting away from a focus on protecting the population from the Taliban.

But in a wide-ranging, hourlong interview yesterday, Petraeus emphasized that kill-and-capture operations are part of his counterinsurgency strategy. He said the ramp-up in Special Operations forces activity has been matched with increasing effort in all parts of the overall mission, from training Afghan security forces to rebuilding the country’s infrastructure.

“We have increased, and we are increasing, every component of a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign,’’ he said.

Petraeus said a new program to create village-level security forces — he called it “community watch with AK-47s’’ — is gathering momentum. The Interior Ministry, he said, plans to implement the program in 68 districts, each of which would receive funds and equipment from the US military for about 300 armed auxiliary police officers. The Afghan government had placed a 10,000-member cap on the force, but the Interior Ministry has scrapped that limit to expand the program more quickly.

Petraeus did not provide new details about embryonic reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders. He also shied from discussing an ongoing dispute between the government and foreign diplomats over private security guards protecting development workers. top stories on Twitter

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