WASHINGTON – U.S. policy to win in Afghanistan must recognize the poor nation's limitations and its neighborhood, especially its intertwined relationship with U.S. terrorism-fighting ally Pakistan, the top U.S. military commander in the region said Thursday.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, who became a household name overseeing the war in Iraq, now oversees the older, smaller and less promising fight in Afghanistan as well. He predicted a long war in Afghanistan, without quantifying it.
Petraeus told a Washington audience that a winning strategy in Afghanistan will look different from the one in Iraq. He offered few specifics as the incoming Obama administration assess its options in the 7-year-old Afghanistan war that has gone much worse than anticipated, just as U.S. fortunes have improved in Iraq. He also suggested the United States and its partners may one day have common purpose with Iran, another Afghanistan neighbor, in stabilizing and remaking that country.
"There has been nothing easy about Afghanistan, indeed nearly every aspect has been hard and that will continue to be the case in 2009 and the years beyond," Petraeus said in an address to the United States Institute of Peace.
The address was part of a conference highlighting world trouble spots at the moment of political transition in the United States. The institute released a sober outline of problems in Afghanistan as part of the session.
The report said the U.S. and its partners have shortchanged Afghanistan by focusing on short-term goals pursued without a cohesive strategy or clear understanding of how the decentralized country works. It suggested President-elect Barack Obama should refocus the U.S. war and rebuilding effort in Afghanistan and think of the project as the work of at least a decade.
Petraeus' own review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is expected to be presented to Obama the week after he takes office Jan. 20. The plan would shift the focus from the waning fight in Iraq to the escalating Afghan battle.
President George W. Bush's in-house Iraq and Afghanistan adviser has already done a separate assessment; it has not been made public.
The U.S. is rushing 20,000 American troops into Afghanistan to combat a Taliban insurgency that has sent violence to record levels. U.S. officials have warned the violence will probably intensify in the coming year. More U.S. troops, 151, died in Afghanistan in 2008 than in any other year since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban.
A suicide bomber struck U.S. troops patrolling on foot in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, killing at least two soldiers and three civilians and wounding at least nine others, officials said.
Petraeus linked Afghanistan's fortunes directly to Pakistan's, where a U.S.-backed civilian government is struggling and the country's ability to control militants along its border with Afghanistan is in doubt.
"Afghanistan and Pakistan have, in many ways, merged into a single problem set, and the way forward in Afghanistan is incomplete without a strategy that includes and assists Pakistan," and also takes into account Pakistan's troubled relationship with rival India, Petraeus said.
On Iran, Petraeus said he would leave the details to diplomats. But he suggested that the longtime U.S. adversary could be part of a regional effort to right Afghanistan. Afghanistan's strategic location and recent history both as a cradle of terrorism and source of most of the world's heroin make it of interest to nations from the West to the Middle East and beyond.
"Iran is concerned about the narcotics trade — it doesn't want to see ... extremists running Afghanistan again any more than other folks do," Petraeus said.
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