From The Times January 25, 2010
Deborah Haynes, Defence Editor The new American-led surge in Afghanistan will take longer to fight the insurgency than a similar injection of force in Iraq three years ago when violence fell sharply within months, the top US general in the region told The Times.
General David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, also warned that the fight in Helmand province, Afghanistan, where British and US forces are based, as well other areas, would become even tougher before the situation improved.
Frontline offensives will run alongside initiatives to reach out to Taleban elements. When the time was right, General Petraeus said, there was a possibility that Afghan officials would hold reconciliation talks with senior Taleban and other insurgent leaders, perhaps also involving Pakistan.
In 2005, the commander predicted that Afghanistan would be the longest campaign in the war on terror. “That turned out to be fairly prophetic,” he said, speaking at his headquarters in Tampa, Florida.
“It will get harder before it gets easier and that will result from offensive operations intended in Helmand [province] and others to take away Taleban sanctuaries and safe havens.”
The first two Marine battalions, which are part of a surge of 30,000 extra US troops announced by President Obama last month, are already on the ground in Helmand and an Army battalion is in the process of deploying. The majority of US troops are due to be in place by the end of August, along with several thousand extra soldiers from other countries, including Britain.
Violence in Afghanistan typically increases over the summer months and General Petraeus forecast that this year would again be bloody. He also said that it was premature to make predictions about whether the situation would improve by 2011.
“I have not assessed that Afghanistan could be turned as quickly as Iraq was turned — that it will be difficult to assemble all the same factors that we were able to bring together in Iraq to reduce the violence as rapidly,” said the general, who commanded US-led forces in Iraq during the surge.
George Bush, then President, sent 30,000 additional troops to the country in the first half of 2007 when it was on the brink of civil war. They pushed into no-go areas in and around Baghdad, killing or capturing al-Qaeda and other Sunni fighters as well as convincing insurgents — dismayed by the sectarian killings — to switch sides in return for money. Violence fell dramatically within nine months of the first troops being deployed.
The US military and other Nato forces in Afghanistan are trying to use public anger over an increasing number of attacks to prompt Afghans to repel the Taleban in the same way that Iraqis rejected al-Qaeda, although the level of civilian casualties is much lower than it was in Iraq.
There are also attempts to create local, anti-Taleban militias and to broker deals with low-level Taleban elements, willing to switch allegiance.
Every week Taleban fighters approach US and other Nato or Afghan forces wanting to talk and on occasion lay down their weapons, General Petraeus said.
“In those cases local officials are brought into this and there are local arrangements that are brokered even as the formal development of a reintegration programme at the highest level of the Afghan Government together with the international community is being finalised.”
He was referring to a plan expected to be presented by President Karzai at the London conference on Afghanistan this week.
As for higher up the Taleban chain of command, General Petraeus said: “The concept of reconciliation, of talks between senior Afghan officials and senior Taleban or other insurgent leaders, perhaps involving some Pakistani officials as well, is another possibility.”
He said, however, that many observers believed this would take time.
Asked whether it would include the top leadership, he said: “It’s not something that can be ruled out but it’s also not something that I would anticipate, as they say in the United States, ‘Coming soon to a theatre near you’.”
As head of Central Command, General Petraeus is also responsible for American security interests in 19 other nations through the Arabian Gulf region and into Central Asia. Also high on his agenda is Yemen, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is based.
He welcomed a series of strikes by the Yemeni Government over the past two months that he said had destroyed two training camps, killed three would-be suicide bombers and resulted in the capture of a fourth.
“A degree of disruption has been inflicted on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but certainly activities continue, threat streams continue and efforts to plan attacks in Yemen and elsewhere in the world continue.”
The US is planning to double its security assistance to the impoverished nation next year to $150 million (£93 million). The aid will include helicopters, some coastguard vessels as well as training.
General Petraeus said that there were no plans for American ground forces to deploy to Yemen but indicated that the two countries would continue to work closely together to tackle the issue.
“A variety of different training and assistance activities based on a schedule that we agreed mutually is certainly in the realm of the possible.”
In a sign of strong relations between America and Yemen, a curved sword in a jewelled sheath, which was presented to General Petraeus’s predecessor, Admiral William Fallon by the Yemeni President in July 2007, sits in a cabinet of gifts received by the head of Central Command from various dignitaries across the region.