WASHINGTON, July 12, 2011 — The commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, the officer many view as the architect of the Defense Department’s counterinsurgency strategy, assessed its results in Afghanistan as he prepares to retire.
During his last full week commanding coalition and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus discussed his tenure there with NATO TV yesterday.
“What we have done is implement the so-called NATO comprehensive approach, a civil-military campaign … that does indeed embody many of the principles of the counterinsurgency field manual that we developed back in 2006, and which we employed in Iraq in the surge of 2007–2008,” he said. “I think generally, it has borne fruit.”
Petraeus and Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, who succeeded him in August as commander of U.S. Central Command, jointly oversaw the manual’s development and publication. Petraeus has issued further counterinsurgency guidance on troop operations and contracting since assuming the ISAF command in July 2010.
There have been setbacks as well as successes, the general said, but over the last year coalition and Afghan forces have halted the Taliban’s momentum in much of the country, and reversed the insurgent hold in central Helmand province, districts around Kandahar city and in the security bubble in and around the Afghan capital of Kabul.
While ISAF and Afghan forces have increased their hold in many population centers, there is still a tough fight for control of the country, he said.
“We always say it gets harder before it gets easier, and we have definitely been in the ‘getting harder’ phase of this overall endeavor,” the general noted.
The number of enemy attacks between last May and this May was about the same, he said, and levels in June decreased by 3 to 5 percent from last year. That trend may not continue, but is still noteworthy for those two months, Petraeus said, particularly since the increase in violent incidents from 2009 to 2010 was “very, very significant.”
“But this is hard,” he said. “There is a resilient enemy, and there is no question … that enemy is willing to cause civilian casualties. It’s an enemy willing to blow himself up, in some cases, to achieve objectives.”
Enemy activity within Afghanistan’s border area with Pakistan is a very serious challenge, the general said.
Petraeus said ISAF and Afghan forces have worked together to establish a layered border defense in key locations such as the area between Khost province and North Waziristan. The protection force there “is quite effective and well supported,” he added.
Coalition troops plan to expand that force and establish similar defenses in Paktika province and other “rugged, mountainous tribal areas in which the insurgents have been able to establish safe havens over the years,” he said.
“Many of these areas, frankly, are just not those in which you will ever see sizeable Afghan or ISAF forces,” he acknowledged.
With mountains reaching to 14,000 feet and sparse population, he said, the border area requires sustainable security solutions that will deny insurgents access to the Afghan side of the border. The challenge then, he said, will be to “work with our Pakistani partners so that they can do the same on the other side.”
“Keep in mind, many of these insurgents are posing what we believe is the most existential threat to Pakistan,” Petraeus said. “[They] pose the most urgent threat to the very existence of the Pakistani state, as its citizens know it, … killing dozens of Pakistani civilians in an average week.”
In contrast, and in keeping with the coalition’s emphasis on minimizing civilian casualties, he said, coalition special operations activities generally result in no shots fired.
“They have been very effective, indeed, in getting those individuals we’re seeking,” he said. “Typically capturing them, because we want to interrogate them and … learn more about their networks.”
The hierarchy of Afghan security forces is capable “with some caveats,” the general said.
“The Afghan special operations forces, over 12,000 of them now, [are] really quite capable and indeed leading nearly a quarter of the so-called night raids at this point,” he said. “We certainly provide enablers for them … but they are the ones going through the door, they’re the ones doing the apprehensions, the searches, and all the rest of that.”
The Afghan regular army forces are “generally doing well,” he said. “Certainly there’s a range of them,” he added, “all the way from still being established … to an actual independent infantry battalion.”
The Afghan police forces, he said, “run the gamut from quite good to some that are suspect in the eyes of the local population.”
Petraeus said that during the attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on June 28, Afghan forces responded capably and relatively quickly in a situation involving a massive structure with hundreds of rooms, two huge wings and multiple floors.
“It does take a few hours to alert a force, assemble it, issue its equipment, develop initial plans, deploy to the location, get an update and then launch into operations,” he said, “keeping in mind that the individuals they were going after, each of them, was wearing a suicide vest and heavily armed.”
Afghan forces accomplished a “credible and courageous performance” clearing the hotel of heavily armed attackers in suicide vests, he said.
NATO forces assisted during the attack, Petraeus said. “But it was the Afghan forces that died in this operation,” he added. “There’s no better example … that they were the ones confronting these would-be suicide bombers, and ultimately forcing the remaining handful that remained up on to the roof, where they were killed by … other forces.”
Petraeus will turn over command July 18. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John R. Allen has been nominated for promotion to general and appointment as Petraeus’ successor.
Petraeus will retire from the Army on Aug. 31 and assume his new duties as CIA director Sept. 6.
Petraeus told NATO TV he never expected to end his military career in Afghanistan.
“I thought I would end it as the commander of U.S. Central Command,” he said. “This was unexpected. … We’ve jokingly said that I went to the White House for the monthly National Security Council meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan with President [Barack] Obama, and came out with a new job.”
Serving as NATO ISAF commander was “an extraordinary privilege,” Petraeus said.
“There’s no greater honor, there’s also no greater responsibility, than that of command,” he said. “I’ve had probably more than my share of commands, especially as a general officer, and especially in some pretty important endeavors in combat.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)