Petraeus: Afghan War Headed In Right Direction

Gen. David Petraeus was back on the Hill on Wednesday, testifying before committees from both chambers that the surge program in Afghanistan is working, and that more time and patience are needed to bring success. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also on hand to bolster the case.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

On Capitol Hill today, the nation's top military officials, civilian and uniformed, attempted to walk a fine line. They tried to reassure lawmakers that the mission in Afghanistan is going better than it appears. At the same time, the Pentagon brass had to reverse course on plans for a make or break military offensive that was to begin this month in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA: More U.S. troops are dying in Afghanistan than ever before. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates assured the Senate Appropriations Committee things are not as bad as they might seem in what's now the nation's longest war ever.

ROBERT GATES: I think, frankly, that the narrative over the last week or so, possibly because of the higher casualties and other factors, has been too negative. I think that we are regaining the initiative. I think that we are making headway.

WELNA: And the next big effort to make more headway is beginning in the birthplace of the Taliban, the southern provincial capital of Kandahar. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen told the appropriations panel the Taliban used Kandahar to train, equip, plan and intimidate.

MICHAEL MULLEN: It is from Kandahar that the Taliban attempt to control the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. It is my belief that should they go unchallenged there and in the surrounding areas, they will feel equally unchallenged elsewhere. As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan.

WELNA: A full military offensive on Kandahar had been planned for this month. Instead, U.S. forces are mainly involved in trying to get Afghan police established in the southern provincial capital. In a separate hearing today, defense undersecretary Michele Flournoy told the Senate Armed Services Committee that reports of a delay in the Kandahar campaign have been overplayed.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: If that means delaying some aspects by a little bit of time to make sure that that Afghan ownership and leadership is in place, then we should all be supporting that. And that is not any sign of failure at all. It's a sign of good counterinsurgency strategy.

WELNA: Flournoy called the current approach in Kandahar shaping, and aims to improve basic services such as electricity and policing. U.S. Central Command Chief General Petraeus told the armed services panel the idea is to create what he called a rising tide of security. And Petraeus said the key person for making that happen is still Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who went to Kandahar on Sunday to try to sell his fellow ethnic Pashtuns on an offensive that may begin in late summer.

DAVID PETRAEUS: This is very important in getting the people on the side of the government, knowing what is going to happen, understanding. And he also didn't hold out rosy futures. He said this will be difficult. We're going to need to fight the Taliban together, et cetera. At the end of the day, his success is our success.

WELNA: Petraeus made no mention of failure.

David Welna, NPR News, the capitol.

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