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LONDON – As he prepares to take up his post as head of Central Command, Gen. David H. Petraeus said in an interview this week that he expected the fight against the insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan to get worse before it got better.
“Obviously the trends in Afghanistan have been in the wrong direction, and I think everyone is rightly concerned about them,” said General Petraeus, who as the commander of forces in Iraq oversaw the troop “surge” that has been credited with helping to reduce the violence there.
Turning things around in Afghanistan and Pakistan would require taking away militant sanctuaries and strongholds that the insurgents would defend tenaciously, he said. “Certainly in Afghanistan, wresting control of certain areas from the Taliban will be very difficult,” he said.
The same went for Pakistan, he said, where extremism presented a deadly threat, graphically highlighted by the recent Marriott Hotel bombing. “In both places, in certain areas, the going may be tougher before it gets easier,” he said.
General Petraeus was in London and Paris this week as part of several weeks of information gathering before he takes up his job as commander of all American forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan on Oct. 31.
He visited Afghanistan in August and spent a day with the Pakistani chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, on a United States aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea as part of his information gathering, he said.
General Petraeus’s experience in Iraq has allowed him to develop a comprehensive approach to fighting the counterinsurgency. But the general was careful not to take any lessons from Iraq too hastily, and said he would not be directing things in Afghanistan and Pakistan with a “several-thousand-mile screwdriver” from Central Command.
“People often ask, ‘What did you learn from Iraq that might be transferable to Afghanistan?’ ” he said. “The first lesson, the first caution really, is that every situation like this is truly and absolutely unique, and has its own context and specifics and its own texture,” he said.
“Counterinsurgents have to understand that in as nuanced a manner as possible, and then with that kind of understanding try to craft a comprehensive approach to the problems.”
Counterterrorism operations were just one small part of that approach, he said, among other efforts, which could include tribal Awakening Councils, jobs programs, efforts at reconciliation and diplomatic relations with neighboring countries.
For Afghanistan, he spoke of increasing international forces and what he called “thickening” local forces as well, through greater political engagement of tribes and reconciliation with fighters who were not hard-core. There was also the need to engage countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, to help with the Taliban, he said.
The general also stressed the need to work closely with Afghan leaders on all elements of strategy. “There has to be as much unity of effort achieved in the overall international effort in complete conjunction with the national government as this moves forward,” he said.
Yet some of the Iraq experience is already being examined in the Afghan context, he said. In particular the success of the Awakening Councils, and persuading former insurgents to reconcile and work against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, could work in Afghanistan and was already under consideration there, General Petraeus said.
“Certainly many on the ground think that perhaps in certain areas local reconciliation initiatives hold some potential,” he said.
“One of the areas that of course proved very important in Iraq and may, and I underline may, have some relevance in Afghanistan, is the concept of reconciliation,” he added. “That you cannot kill or capture your way out of an insurgency that is as significant in size as was the one in Iraq, nor, I believe, as large as the one that has developed in Afghanistan.”
In Iraq, General Petraeus had a two-star British general and a senior American diplomat working solely on reconciliation, he said. “Its sole mission was to understand various local situations and dynamics, and then in full coordination with the Iraqi government to engage tribal leaders, local governmental leaders, and in some cases insurgents and opposition elements,” he said.
In Afghanistan, efforts by the government of President Hamid Karzai to persuade the Taliban to give up the fight and reconcile with the government have largely failed, diplomats there say.
Even as several thousand Taliban have come over to the government in recent years, the size of the insurgency has swelled at a greater rate since 2006.
“These efforts truly do require a degree of outreach to as many as possible who would be willing to be part of the solution instead of a continuing part of the problem,” he said, “and the more of the former insurgents who can be reconciled, the less that have to be killed or captured.”
On Pakistan, he said he recognized the country’s determination to handle the problem of extremism using its own forces, as well as its opposition to United States military intervention, and said that was to be applauded and helped.
In particular he welcomed the government’s recent public recognition that extremism was now the most severe threat facing the country, because that recognition meant it would be adopted through all government institutions, he said.
“The heartening aspect is there appears to be a willingness on the part of the Pakistani government and military to undertake the kind of operations necessary,” he said.