Gen. David Petraeus, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFUR-A) presented a briefing at the United Kingdom’s Royal United Services Institute, Whitehall, London on March 23. The following represents some highlights from the discussion that took place related to his presentation: “The International Mission in Afghanistan.”
Gen. Petraeus began by stating that on every trip he makes back to the U.S. to brief the political leadership on Afghanistan, he always returns via London to report “to your leadership and indeed also this time to the Queen. There is a reason for it, and that is the very special partnership that we have with your soldiers, diplomats and aid and development workers. It is something that we take very seriously and it is something for which we have enormous appreciation.” Petraeus further praised the high op tempo rate of the UK’s conventional and special forces, but his message contained more than praise through his emphasis that kinetic warfare is not the solution by itself in Afghanistan.
“You cannot kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency, you must integrate as many of the reconcilable members of the insurgency as you can and it is clear that the British contribution in Afghanistan is of signal importance to this overall effort.”
Petraeus quickly made the point that the military action being taken against Libya in connection with United Nations Resolution 1973 authorizing military action to protect Libyan civilians from the forces of Col. Muammar Gaddafi would not, in his opinion, distract forces away from the ongoing campaign in Afghanistan. He commented that “there will be no assets taken away from the effort in Afghanistan and I don’t foresee this happening at this point in time.”
The ongoing transitioning process to tie together the country is something Petraeus addressed at length: “Lashka Gah is one of the seven provinces in which transition will commence in the months ahead—the so-called first tranche of areas to be transitioned—followed every six months by other tranches... The governor there is very proud, governor Gullabudin Mangal.” He said that this represented ‘milestone of progress’ in the region.
Petraeus stressed that mistakes were made early in the campaign in how ISAF approached building up the civilian structure and government mechanics to push through integration. “It has taken some time to develop the Afghan Council and other bodies to oversee this, but it is impressive how rapidly they have developed. It was only last June that they had a large Jirga [a tribal elder’s Council]. Now there are provincial peace councils in most of the provinces and there are 700 former members of the Taliban who have officially gone through the re-integration process back into society. There are another 2,000 or so in various stages of the process and we think that another 2,000 or so have literally gone to their homes and laid down their weapons. But that is reintegration and not the reconciliation of the leadership of the Taliban or other movements creating problems in Afghanistan. But there is clearly a desire by President Karzai and the High Peace Council to reach out to them. We will have to see how this plays out ... but there is a keen desire by the Afghan leadership for constructive discussions that could lead to reconciliation in substantial parts of the organizations that are causing such problems in Afghanistan.
Petraeus recalled the reason for the conflict, stating that “it is of vital national interest to [the U.S.] and virtually all of the 48 contributing nations that a sanctuary for an al Qaeda type 9/11 attack should not be able to be established on Afghan soil or anywhere else.” He added to achieve this, Afghanistan had to be able to achieve and protect self-governance. “Now, we aren’t trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland in 10 years or less. This is an effort to help Afghanistan develop adequate capability in order to prevent the return of trans-national extremists like al Qaeda ... and that [its government] can see to the needs of its people so that insurgents and others can’t play on inadequacies and cannot regain control in parts of its territory.”
He said that the policy change to enable this to happen has only been relatively recent. During the interim time from when Petraeus conducted an assessment in 2005, “it was clear to me that the Taliban had re-established some infrastructure and momentum and that continued over the next five years. Only during last year were we able to halt that momentum and reverse it in some important places,” he said.
When he took over U.S. Central Command in 2008 (which includes Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan), he “realized that we just didn’t have anywhere near the organizations that we needed to carry out a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign [in Afghanistan]. We didn’t have a sufficient train and equip mission; we didn’t have adequate rule of law [for local dispute resolution]; we didn’t have unity of effort with our special ops team; we didn’t have fusion cells, which are absolutely critical. There have been many recent breakthroughs in intelligence in recent years—and particularly in digitizing it—but the real breakthrough is in the fusion of the products of each of these disciplines. We have built massive databases and we can manipulate the data over time.”
He said that the real need was to ensure that the insurgent/criminal networks that threaten the institutions that will allow a transition to take place by 2014 need to be developed and protected: “We’ve got to get the right people in place and the ‘big’ ideas right.” He said that progress against the insurgents over the past year was significant: “They have sustained significant losses; they will not come at us with such large attacks that they did in the past. Because of these losses they will deploy attacks against soft target and assassination campaigns.”
The gains that ISAF has recently made needed to be solidified and expanded and move from a policy of ‘clear and hold’ to one of building and the expansion of ‘security bubbles,’ particularly through the use of more trained Afghan forces as they become available.
“As you look at Helmand and Kandahar, the insurgents have lost very important districts. The Taliban wants to reverse all that. As [U.S. Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates has said: ‘They will be playing an away game rather than a home game as they have in the past.’”