Petraeus: Taliban Gaining Strength
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. The U.S. has a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and military leaders told Congress today that Americans must settle in for the long haul, that the war there is going to require a substantial and sustained commitment. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: If there was a takeaway message from today's hearing, this was it.
General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander, U.S. Forces): There will be nothing easy about the way ahead in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
KELLY: That's General David Petraeus, overall commander for U.S. Forces in the Middle East and Central Asia. And here's Admiral Eric Olsen, the U.S. Special Forces commander.
Admiral ERIC OLSON (Commander, Special Forces): We know well that progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be neither quick nor easy.
KELLY: Admiral Olson, General Petraeus and Michele Flournoy, the Pentagon's number three official, briefed senators on the Armed Services Committee on the array of challenges confronting them, ranging from grand strategy to basic issues with gear. Let's start with the gear. Admiral Olson conceded that the bulky armored vehicles that worked so well in Iraq, known as MRAPs, do not work in Afghanistan.
Adm. OLSON: The laws of physics work against us in Afghanistan. Protection requires mass and mass doesn't work well in the bridges, and the roads and the terrain of especially the mountainous regions of Afghanistan.
KELLY: An urgent effort is underway to develop a lighter more agile version of the MRAP for troops in Afghanistan. Then there's what administration officials are calling their single most daunting challenge, what to do about insurgent safe havens in western Pakistan. Michele Flournoy was asked about links between insurgents and Pakistan's spy service, the ISI.
Ms. MICHELE FLOURNOY (Under Secretary of Defense for Policy): I think ISI is a - or parts of ISI are certainly a problem to be dealt with.
KELLY: So far, Flournoy added, there hasn't been adequate progress, but she said part of the new strategy is to empower political and military leaders in Pakistan who do want to crack down on extremists. Senators mostly seemed on board with the administration's new strategy for the region, but several, including Republican Susan Collins of Maine, criticized the lack of benchmarks to measure progress.
Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): How will we assess whether the new strategy is working? How will we know if we're winning?
KELLY: Collins argued that the administration should have laid out specific benchmarks before agreeing to send in 21,000 additional troops. Flournoy responded that benchmarks are coming and will be finalized soon. And as for the decision to go ahead and send in more troops...
Ms. FLOURNOY: There is a sense of urgency by our commanders on the ground, on -with the fighting season coming, the need to reverse momentum, the need to get in there and begin protecting the population, secure things for the elections and not lose ground, that it - there was a sense of urgency that we needed to go forward even as we were refining our metrics and so forth.
KELLY: Meanwhile, as if to underscore the message that progress will not be quick or easy, senators also asked about a troop request from General David McKiernan, the top ground commander in Afghanistan. General McKiernan has asked for an additional 10,000 troops to be deployed to Afghanistan next year.
Gen. PETRAEUS: There is a request for forces for those elements center. It did move through me.
KELLY: General Petraeus. Michele Flournoy added that President Obama is aware of the request and plans to decide on any future deployments this fall based on how the situation looks then. On the good news front, General Petraeus said the situation in Iraq continues to improve. Progress in Iraq remains fragile and reversible, he said, but the level of violence is significantly lower.
Petraeus said Iraq now averages between 10 and 15 attacks per day, compared to 180 attacks per day back in the spring of 2007. That progress report prompted this question from South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.
Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Due to the success in Iraq, would you now consider Afghanistan the central front in the war on terror?
Gen. PETRAEUS: I think you have to take Afghanistan and Pakistan together.
Sen. GRAHAM: Okay, those two together.
Gen. PETRAEUS: But as a - as a problem set, those two together, yes sir.
Sen. GRAHAM: And you would consider that now the central front.
Gen. PETRAEUS: In fact, our focus is truly shifting to that front.
KELLY: A front where the fighting is now ramping up, rather than winding down. Petraeus told Senator Graham that he thinks Vice President Joe Biden got it right, when after his last trip to the region he said this is going to get harder before it gets easier.
Marie Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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