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Petraeus Endorses Obama’s Afghanistan Strategy, Though ‘Everything Is Hard All the Time’

“Let me state up front that I fully support the policy that President Obama announced at West Point last week,” said Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, during his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. “None of this will be easy.” Yep, that sounds him all right. “While different and in some ways more difficult than Iraq,” it is “no more hopeless” than Iraq was when he took command.

“The relationship between these groups remains strong,” Petraeus continued. “The Taliban and al-Qaeda have become symbiotic, each benefiting” from the other. But the Pakistani Taliban is distinct, though “part of a syndicate of extremist groups” that “threatens the stability of Pakistan and Afghanistan and, indeed, the entire region.” Defeating al-Qaeda and enhancing Afghan security “cannot be untethered, as much as we would like that to be the case.” But the Taliban “command significantly less support among Pashtuns than either Sunni or Shia extremists did in their communities” in Iraq. “Iran has played a mixed role” in Afghanistan, he continued, “helping with development” while providing less support to extremists than it did in Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, Petraeus praised Gen. Stanley McChrystal fulsomely, and described the broadening of McChrystal’s NATO command to more comprehensively both clear areas of the Taliban and effectively “partner” with Afghan forces to train them by mentoring. And Petraeus also praised the controversial Community Defense Initiative, which he said is designed so Afghan civilians not in the security services “can help defend themselves against extremists.” (He didn’t mention concerns by Afghan human rights officials that the initiative might provide a return to warlordism.) McChrystal “has changed the way our forces operate,” consistently throughout the NATO alliance, to provide “critical focus on securing the population” and “reduc[ing] civilian casualties.”

On Pakistan, Petraeus echoes Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for praising Pakistani military operations for “significantly degrad[ing]” the Pakistani Taliban. “To be sure,” he said, “these operations have not directly engaged the sanctuaries of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan, nor some of the extremist syndicate.” But the “determination” of the Pakistani military “is an important step forward” toward the ultimate objective of defeating al-Qaeda.

“Everything in Afghanistan is hard, and it’s hard all the time,” Petraeus said, paraphrasing his old partner in Iraq, Ambassador Ryan Crocker. “Nonetheless I do believe that the policy the president announced last week … will, over the next 18 months, enable us to make important progress in several critical tasks” contributing to success. Particularly: population security; training the Afghans; degrading the capabilities of the insurgency; and collaborating with the Afghans for improving governance. The U.S. military has “been tested like never before” over the past eight years, Petraeus concluded, “but it has also performed like never before.”

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