The United States has reversed the Taliban's battlefield momentum in broad swaths of Afghanistan, but the war there will intensify in coming months as militants mount new attacks and seek to reestablish safe havens across the country, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Kabul, told lawmakers on Tuesday.
Petraeus, in his first appearance on Capitol Hill since assuming command of the unpopular Afghan war eight months ago, offered a generally positive assessment of conditions in the country. He said that U.S.-led offensives in former Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan had cleared the way for several districts and provinces to be handed back to the Afghan government later this summer. The commander said the gains would also enable the Obama administration to begin withdrawing some troops in July, meeting a White House-imposed deadline. Petraeus declined to say how many would be sent home, however, and military officials expect the number to be no more than about 3,000 of the 98,000 American troops now in the country.
Still, Petraeus cautioned that any coalition battlefield gains were "fragile and reversible," and he indicated that American battlefield casualties, already running at record levels, are likely to escalate in the months ahead. He also said that the U.S. was open to maintaining joint bases inside Afghanistan beyond 2014--the administration's stated timeframe for winding down the war--if the Kabul government was amenable.
"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," Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "That clearly will entail additional tough fighting."
The nearly 11-year-old war, the general acknowledged, has been "a roller-coaster ride," and its ultimate outcome remains deeply unclear. The Pentagon's No. 3 civilian official, Michele Flournoy, said that the Afghan government had indicated a general desire for U.S. troops to remain in the country after 2014. She said that the U.S. would be open to maintaining "joint facilities" into the indefinite future if Kabul made a formal request for Washington to do so.
The testimony comes at a difficult moment for the war effort. The Obama administration sent 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan in a surge last year as part of a major escalation of the conflict. American forces have scored some clear gains in the onetime Taliban-held areas of Helmand and Kandahar provinces. But the overall level of violence in the country continues to increase; American and NATO casualties are at historic highs; and ongoing tensions with the Karsai government have clouded the entire war effort.
Here at home, fewer and fewer Americans are paying attention to the Afghan war, and those that do follow it don't like what they're seeing. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll found that about two-thirds of Americans believe that the war is no longer worth fighting, the highest number ever recorded in the survey. The poll found that nearly three-fourths of Americans want the administration to withdraw a “substantial number” of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this summer, something that seems highly unlikely.
At the same time, most Americans seem to have started tuning out the fighting. With the economy sluggish and the nation transfixed by the crisis in Japan and the political revolutions sweeping the Middle East, Afghanistan has increasingly become a forgotten war. Coverage of the conflict has all but disappeared from the nation’s newspapers and TV channels. Gallup, for instance, runs a regular tracking poll with an open-ended question about what voters consider the most important problem facing the country. In its most recent survey, conducted March 3-6, 28 percent of respondents identified the economy, while 26 percent pointed to unemployment. Afghanistan ranked so low in the poll that it literally appeared as an asterisk. By comparison, at least twice as many people identified “lack of respect for each other.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Armed Services Committee's ranking member, asked Petraeus about the declining levels of public support for--and interest in--the war.
"I can understand the frustration," Petraeus replied. "We have been at this for 10 years. We have spent an enormous amount of money, we have sustained very tough losses."
Petraeus was an effective public proxy for the George W. Bush administration, which used the decorated commander to help boost flagging public and congressional support for the Iraq war in 2007. The Obama administration has now turned to the general to help make a public case for Afghanistan. With a war-weary public primarily focused on the U.S. economy, that will be a tough mission to accomplish, even for an officer as highly decorated and popular as Petraeus.
But he is clearly willing to fight the public-relations side of the Afghan war as hard as he's pressing the military aspects of the conflict.
"It is only recently that we have gotten the inputs right in Afghanistan," Petraeus said, in what amounted to an unspoken plea for public patience as the war grinds along. "This is, as President Obama has said, a vital national interest."