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Gen. David Petraeus said fighting in Afghanistan will intensify this year.
“It shows the importance of leaders to listen to their people,” said Petraeus, adding that he was monitoring the situation and its potential to have wider implications in the global struggle against terrorism.
“The wise man listens and shows that they are listening. And that is a universal lesson that is reaffirmed in these circumstances,” said Petraeus.
In a wide-ranging interview with GlobalPost inside the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters, Petraeus said that coalition and U.S. troops would be entering the so-called “fighting season” next month with significant gains in clearing and holding the former Taliban strongholds of Kandahar and central Helmand provinces.
“The biggest difference from say last year is that there are many, many more troops, 110,000 more to be exact. And they are now in places that last year were very important safe havens and strong holds for the Taliban,” he said.
He explained that the troop increase includes the surge of 30,000 U.S. troops ordered by U.S. President Barack Obama last year, an additional 70,000 Afghan forces which are in the final stages of training, and 10,000 coalition forces and advisers.
A mild winter has meant that fighting has let up relatively little between the Taliban and ISAF, he said, but he added that the springtime still promises intensified battles and a decisive moment in a war that has dragged on for 10 years.
“We know the Taliban is intent on trying to take back some of these areas that have meant so much to them and we have to be, and will be, prepared for that,” he added.
Petraeus said the focus in the coming weeks was to expand some of the gains that have been made and link areas of control outside of Kandahar, particularly in Maiwand, which will allow them to effectively control Highway One, the main road connecting the province to Kabul.
But Petraeus said that an attrition rate of more than 20 percent among the Afghan recruits was a significant issue and one that ISAF commanders were working to improve.
In addition, the 70,000 Afghan forces include village defenses that are essentially local militias, although ISAF dislike the word “militias” because of the negative connotation they hold here after 30 years of war in which warlords pitted their militias against each other. Critics have said these local forces are unlikely to be effective in assisting the war effort.
But Petraeus defended them as a valid and helpful piece of the coming offensive against the Taliban, saying, “This is the mobilization of villages and valleys to defend themselves. And no one defends their home better than the homeowner. They don’t want this repressive, brutal force returning to their communities.”
Asked whether the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police and particularly the local forces could be counted on, Petraeus said, “I am sure they can.”
Referring to the village forces and concerns that some might be getting training and arms from, and still be loyal to, the Taliban, he added, “Again, there is a very detailed process for standing these units up before they are ever allowed to carry weapons and operate under the district chiefs of police.”
The successful build up for the offensive comes after months of establishing new organizations for counter-insurgency, which emphasize civilian aid and coordinating a greater unity of effort within ISAF. Petraeus called this process “getting the inputs right” so that now they are able to see “the output,” or greater impact in the field in taking on the Taliban.
Increased intelligence assets, ranging from developing sources in the field to adding more surveillance drones, have given ISAF an “unblinking eye” along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“The real break through in intelligence has been the fusion of all the different kinds of intelligence … When you bring all of this together, especially when you can digitize the products, and put them all together and build a massive data base. It allows us to manipulate the data and what is needed in the field on so-called actionable intelligence,” he said.
This, Petraeus added, has resulted in successful targeted attacks on Taliban commanders. But military analysts say that the greatest challenge is still the safe havens the Taliban is finding inside Pakistan. U.S. military officials privately express frustration with Pakistan for failing to sufficiently disrupt the Taliban safe havens. But Petraeus emphasized that he felt Pakistan has been trying to do its best in taking on the Pakistani Taliban and other militant movements and has made many sacrifices and met many challenges in the process.
One of the more significant challenges that lies ahead, Petraeus added, is to begin to confront systemic corruption in which networks that are essentially organized crime rings are taking a cut out of the hundreds of millions of dollars in military and U.S. Agency for International Development aid that is being funneled into Afghanistan with inadequate oversight and monitoring. Petraeus confirmed that at times this money can even be ending up in the hands of the Taliban through a protection racket, as GlobalPost reported last year.
“In fact, this is so serious that in this particular mission not only did I issue the traditional counter-insurgency guidance … I also issued counter-insurgency contracting guidance. Because if the counter-insurgency guidance says that ‘money is ammunition,’ and it does, the contracting guidance should say if money is ammunition, we need to put it into the right hands and make sure that it doesn’t go into the wrong hands,” he said.