Petraeus outlines "significant" but "fragile" progress in Afghan war

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 15, 2011, before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the situation in Afghanistan. (AP Photo)
AP Photo
Updated: 1:02 p.m. ET

In a testimony before Congress on Tuesday, David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, outlined what he described as significant progress in the Afghan war - but emphasized that those achievements were "fragile" and "reversible," and would require continued support from Congress and the American people.

Petraeus, who took command of the war in Afghanistan following the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal last June, cited "important but hard-fought progress"in the region - particularly in regard to the military's success in clearing the Taliban from critical safe havens in Afghanistan, and the impending transition to Afghan-led efforts in a number of provinces.

He also cited success in development and implementation of Afghan security forces, and local economic development in the region.

"As a bottom line up front, it is [International Security Assistance Force] ISAF's assessment that the momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas," he said on Tuesday, noting that the "hard-fought achievements in 2010 and early 2011 have enabled the joint Afghan-NATO transition board to recommend initiation this spring of transition to Afghan lead in several provinces."

"The past eight months have seen important but hard-fought progress in Afghanistan," Petraeus said. "Key insurgent safe havens have been taken away from the Taliban.Numerous insurgent leaders have been killed or captured. And hundreds of reconcilable mid-level leaders and fighters have been reintegrated into Afghan society."

"Our strategy is working," added Michele Flournoy, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for policy.

Petraeus stressed, however, the frailty of the achievements to date - and called for continued support both to military and civilian programs. 

Thanking Congress for its "support of vital additional capabilities for our troopers," Petraeus expressed concern that "levels of funding for our State Department and USAID partners will not sufficiently enable them to build on the hard-fought security achievements of our men and women in uniform."

"As we embark on the process of transition, we should keep in mind the imperative of ensuring that the transition actions we take will be irreversible," he said. "We'll get one shot at transition, and we need to get it right."

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 15, 2011, before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the situation in Afghanistan. (AP Photo)
AP Photo

Petraeus said he anticipated "difficult work ahead" -- particularly in the face of the Taliban's expected spring offensive.

"Although the insurgents are already striving to regain lost momentum and lost safe havens as we enter the spring fighting season, we believe that we will be able to build on the momentum achieved in 2010, though that clearly will entail additional tough fighting," he said.

Petraeus acknowledged a "strategic risk" in the Afghan government's capacity to take the helm from the American people in leading the counterinsurgency efforts.

"I have tried to avoid what might be labeled optimism or pessimism, and have tried to provide realism," he told Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), when asked to respond to National Intelligence Director James Clapper's recent comments expressing doubts about the Afghan government's ability "to pick up their responsibility for governance." 

"There is no question that governmental capacity is an area of, in a sense, strategic risk as we identify it," Petraeus said. Subsequently, he said, "we absolutely have to help our Afghan partners increase their ability to spend the money they're provided, to speed the very bureaucratic processes that they have instituted, to enable them to take money that's provided in through the top and gets down to the province and district to replace, again, service provision by international organizations and provincial reconstruction teams."

Nevertheless, Petraeus said he supported beginning to withdraw some troops from the effort in July 2011 - the goal outlined by President Obama in December 2009 - arguing it would send a message of urgency to Afghan government, and that "it undercuts the narrative of the Taliban that we will be there forever." 

"I think it is logical to talk both about getting the job done... and beginning the transition and responsible reductions," he said.

Petraeus reiterated his belief in the importance of the mission at large, however, when questioned about recent polls citing decreasing American support for the war in Afghanistan.

"I can understand the frustration," he said. "We have been at this for ten years. We have spent an enormous amount of money. We have sustained very tough losses."

But, he added, "I think it is important to remember why we are there at such a time."

"That is where 9/11 began," he said, referring to al Qaeda sanctuaries in Afghanistan that he said recent efforts had made major inroads in destroying. "That's where the plan was made; that is where al Qaeda had its most important sanctuary in the world - and it had it under the Taliban."

"We do see al Qaeda looking for sanctuaries all the time," Petraeus continued. "There is a search for other locations... Afghanistan I think would be an attractive location were the Taliban to control large swaths of it once again."

"It is only recently that we have gotten the inputs right in Afghanistan," Petraeus added. "I think this is, as President Obama has said, a vital national interest."

He also discussed a recent agreement that would allow the Afghan government to continue to use private contractors for a specified period.

"My deputy commander e-mailed me this morning right before this and said there had been an agreement on the ability to continue the use of private security contractors for a specified period, as a bridge to achieving what, I think, President Karzai understandably wants to do - which is to bring these kinds of forces underneath the oversight of the Afghan public protection force, an element of the Ministry of Interior, so that they are not in a sense armed elements that may be working for a former warlord or another," he said.