Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Kabul, said that continued progress in Afghanistan is critical to preventing the situation in neighboring Pakistan from deteriorating further – and to persuading Islamabad to mount a more aggressive offensive against the militants working to destabilize both countries.
Petraeus, winding up a weeklong trip to Washington, told an audience at the Newseum that Pakistan was hesitant about launching a broader campaign against the Islamist insurgents in its lawless tribal areas because key Pakistani leaders were unsure whether the U.S. was planning to remain in the region for the long term. Pakistani leaders worry that a U.S. failure in Afghanistan – or a premature American withdrawal – could threaten their own country’s internal stability, Petraeus said.
“Among the most important ways to influence over time in Pakistan is to continue making progress in Afghanistan,” Petraeus said at an event sponsored by National Journal. “If there is a hedging of bets … it is there because there is an uncertainty about how Afghanistan will turn out.”
Petraeus, who has traveled to Pakistan more than any other American military officer, said that the nuclear-armed nation was beginning to suffer the consequences of allowing insurgent groups to operate from its territory for so many years. The Pakistani military and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency have provided weaponry, money, and tactical training to a variety of insurgent groups for decades, largely with the understanding that the insurgents would confine their attacks to India and, in more recent years, to the American forces operating over the border in Afghanistan.
But many of those groups now routinely strike targets within Pakistan, posing what many security experts believe is an existential threat to Pakistan’s future. “This is the conundrum of allowing poisonous snakes to have a nest in your backyard with a tacit understanding that they’re going to bite your neighbor’s kids,” Petraeus said. “Sooner or later they turn around and bite your kids.”
During several days of testimony on Capitol Hill this week, Petraeus offered a measured assessment of the increasingly unpopular Afghanistan war. He said that U.S.-led forces had stemmed the Taliban’s battlefield momentum and pushed the armed group out of several long-held strongholds. But he warned that the gains were fragile and that tough fighting – and increased U.S. and coalition casualties – lay ahead.
In his remarks on Friday, Petraeus focused on a different aspect of the conflict: the ongoing effort to eliminate the “criminal patronage networks” run by corrupt Afghan officials that are rapidly sapping popular support for President Hamid Karzai's government.
Petraeus has had a rocky relationship with the Afghan leader, who has bristled at the American general’s demand for tougher action against corruption. Kzrzai has also accused the forces under Petraeus’s command of not doing enough to limit civilian Afghan casualties. After a particularly rough meeting earlier this year, Petraeus bluntly told Karzai that he was prepared to quit if the Afghan leader didn’t moderate his tone.
On Friday, by contrast, Petraeus spoke warmly of Karzai, agreeing that American forces needed to do more to limit civilian deaths and saying that Karzai has been correct to call for a strict limit on the number of foreign security firms operating within his country.
Petraeus said he believed the Afghan leader was genuinely committed to reducing corruption, noting that Karzai had recently fired the country’s surgeon general, Ahmad Zia Yaftali, and several officials from the top military hospital amid reports that they were selling foreign-donated medical supplies on the black market and replacing them with lower-quality counterfeits.
Petraeus said he hadn’t yet decided how large a military drawdown to recommend to President Obama. The administration has said that some American forces will leave the country by July, but White House and military officials have indicated it is likely to be a small withdrawal of no more than a few thousand of the 98,000 American troops now in Afghanistan. Petraeus said he was working with a pair of his top aides on a range of recommendations, and noted that it was “very likely that there will be combat forces in each of those options.”
The American commander is likely to remain in Afghanistan until at least the late fall, giving him more than 18 months in command of what is already the nation’s longest war. Most U.S. forces should be able to leave Afghanistan by 2014, he said, but the U.S. will need to provide direct support to the Afghan government and military well into the future.
The United States learned a bloody lesson when it withdrew from Afghanistan after American-armed Islamist fighters drove out the Soviet Union. Petraeus said that American policymakers needed to avoid making the same mistake twice.
“Remember, we funded these groups in the very beginning,” Petraeus said of the Islamist forces now menacing both Pakistan and Afghanistan. “This is how we got rid of the Soviets from Afghanistan, and then in the wake of ‘Charlie Wilson’s War,’ we left. We have seen this movie before -- what happens if you disengage.”
This article appears in the March 18, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.