WASHINGTON — The rapid U.S. build up in the Afghan war will include more terrorist-hunting forces to chase down militants deemed too extreme to change sides, a top U.S. general revealed on Wednesday.
“There’s no question you’ve got to kill or capture those bad guys that are not reconcilable,” Gen. David Petraeus, the chief of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And we are intending to do that.”
In his first congressional testimony on President Barack Obama’s announced plan to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, Petraeus also cautioned that progress against the insurgency in Afghanistan probably will be slower than during the build up of U.S. forces in Iraq two years ago, and the war will be “harder before it gets easier.”
Petraeus said that in addition to an effort to “reintegrate” Taliban and other insurgents into mainstream Afghan society, there will be a harder push to eliminate the most hardcore extremists.
“In fact, we actually will be increasing our counterterrorist component of the overall strategy,” Petraeus said. He provided no details beyond saying that additional “national mission force elements” would be sent to Afghanistan next spring.
Petraeus appeared to be referring to classified units such as the Army’s Delta Force that specialize in counterterrorism and that have been used extensively in both Iraq and Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal, who now oversees the Afghan war and will testify tomorrow before a House committee, previously headed up those units inside the war-torn country.
Those extra forces would conduct counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban and accelerate the training of Afghan soldiers and police. The first of those forces are to begin heading to Afghanistan this month.
Much of Wednesday’s hearing focused on the link between instability in Afghanistan and the presence of Taliban, al-Qaida and other extremist groups in neighbouring Pakistan.
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the committee, said he’s confident allied forces will improve security in Afghanistan, but that the biggest question is whether that will help root out Taliban and al-Qaida havens across the border in Pakistan.
“The president has said that the United States did not choose this war, and he is correct,” he said. “But with these troop deployments to Afghanistan, we are choosing the battlefield where we will concentrate most of our available military resources.”
“The risk is that we will expend tens of billions of dollars fighting in a strategically less important Afghanistan, while Taliban and al-Qaida leaders become increasingly secure in Pakistan,” Lugar said.
Committee Chairman John Kerry agreed. “Pakistan is in many ways the core of our challenge,” said the Massachusetts Democrat.
He praised Pakistan’s military for taking on Pakistani insurgents in offensives of recent months. “Now we are looking for Pakistan to also take on the Afghan Taliban,” al-Qaida and other insurgents in their territory, Kerry added.
Pakistan’s stepped-up efforts have been the most effective it has undertaken against internal extremists, Petraeus said. That, he said, is “an important step forward” and does help U.S. efforts to degrade extremist groups in the border region and to defeat the main U.S. target: al-Qaida.
There are limits to how much the Pakistani government can do, however, Petraeus said.
“You know, they say that you can only stick so many short sticks into so many hornets’ nests at one time,” he said.
In Afghanistan, Petraeus forecast an increase in bloodshed next summer. He cited a combination of increased U.S. and NATO military operations against the Taliban and increased turmoil resulting from expected Afghan government actions to combat corruption by replacing “malign actors” within the government.
Petraeus, who executed the Iraq surge in 2007, told the committee that he supports Obama’s revamped strategy but he did not explicitly predict that it will succeed.
He called success “attainable” and forecast “important progress” over the coming 18 months. But in his less-than-rosy assessment, he called Afghanistan “no more hopeless than Iraq” when he got there in early 2007.
Petraeus is commanding general of U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for overseeing US military activities in Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the Middle East. He appeared with the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, and Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew.
Petraeus would not give an estimate of how many years it would take for Afghan security forces to fully assume responsibility for the country’s security.
“Certainly it is going to be years before they can handle the bulk of the security tasks and allow the bulk of our troopers to redeploy,” he said.