General gives upbeat assessment of progress in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan -- On the eve of a long-anticipated review of Afghan war strategy, Defense Secretary Robert Gates met here Tuesday with his wartime commander, who gave a relatively upbeat assessment of the war effort.

Army Gen. David Petraeus reported that U.S. and allied forces had not only arrested the momentum of the Taliban in many parts of the country, but had also reversed it in important areas, including Helmand Province and the region around the former insurgent stronghold of Kandahar.

Next year, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan also plan to begin transitioning control of key areas to Afghan security forces, to include the capital.

"We've made important progress in recent months, both on the ground and psychologically, because we've demonstrated that ISAF and Afghan security forces can take away areas that mean a great deal to the Taliban," Petraeus told reporters.

His assessment appeared to counter the impression he left Monday on ABC's Good Morning America, when he declined to express confidence that the White House goal of withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2014 would be met. "I think no commander ever is going to come out and say, 'I'm confident that we can do this,'" he said on the program.

"But again, I don't think there are any sure things in this kind of endeavor," he added. "And I wouldn't be honest with you and with the viewers if I didn't convey that."

Tuesday, Petraeus said the "counterinsurgency math" was finally beginning to add up. Increasing the size of allied forces by 80,000 troops in the past two years, tripling the number of U.S. civilians deployed in Afghanistan, and expanding the size of Afghan security forces -- which are on track to reach 304,000 by November 2011 -- are making the difference, he said.

"But clearly the Taliban still has freedom of movement and arguably momentum in some areas, so there's a lot of work that remains to be done," he said.

The four-star general acknowledged that the progress to date has been purchased at high cost, with 2010 representing the deadliest year of the war in terms of U.S. casualties.

"All of these operations have been really hard-fought, with some really tough casualties," he said. "The enemy will fight when you take away something that matters to him."

Perhaps the most welcome recent development was the declaration at NATO's recent summit in Lisbon, Portugal, that the alliance would turn over security responsibilities for the entire country to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, quelling concerns that had been raised by President Obama's July 2011 deadline to "begin" withdrawing U.S. forces.

"The importance of NATO heads of state accepting the goal of Afghan forces assuming the lead in operations throughout the country by the end of 2014 can't be overstated," said Petraeus.

"I was in a remote Afghan village recently, and all of the elders had already gotten the message about 2014, and that commitment meant a great deal to them," he added. "They saw it as the international community pledging to stay with them in this tough fight through 2014, with the character of our support changing as Afghan forces step forward."

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