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Top U.S. Commander Considers Road Ahead in Afghanistan

David McKeeby, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State

Stabilizing Afghanistan will take an intensified international commitment to securing and serving the Afghan people, says U.S. Army General David Petraeus.

"Together with our Afghan partners, we have to work to provide the people security, to give them respect, to gain their support, and to facilitate the provision of basic services," Petraeus told world leaders and top diplomats attending the Munich Conference on Security Policy February 8.

Afghanistan faces an increasingly active insurgency operating from safe havens across the border in Pakistan, a burgeoning narcotics trade in the country's southeastern provinces, and corruption in the new Afghan government. Combined, these problems threaten to roll back progress made in the South Asian nation since an international coalition toppled the Taliban regime in 2001.

As America's top commander in Iraq, Petraeus oversaw the successful "surge" that dramatically reduced violence in the country, setting the stage for political reform and continued progress on reconstruction and economic development. In 2008, Petraeus was promoted to lead the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations across the region, including Afghanistan, which the new administration has identified as a top foreign policy priority. (See Analysis: Afghanistan Needs the World's Help.)

Afghanistan is a much different place than Iraq, Petraeus said. According to Petraeus, the fundamental principles of counterinsurgency doctrine will be essential to success: clearing communities of Taliban and other extremist groups, working with Afghan security forces to prevent militants from returning, extending humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance to local residents, and helping Afghans build effective institutions capable of assuming full responsibility for security and governance.

As in Iraq, all counterinsurgency is local, Petraeus said. Forces will need to work more closely with the communities they protect. "This requires listening and being respectful of local elders and mullahs, of farmers and shopkeepers," he said.

Closer cooperation with Afghan security forces will also be essential, Petraeus said, in an effort to safeguard residents and reduce civilian casualties. "We need to live our values," Petraeus said. "This is, after all, an important element that distinguishes us from the enemy."

There is no purely military solution in Afghanistan, Petraeus said, but a short-term infusion of forces will be essential to arresting the current downward spiral of instability. Petraeus urged nations to join the United States in sending additional troops to bolster the 41-nation, 40,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) led by NATO.

Petraeus urged reluctant allies to consider other options, as seen in Germany's pledge during the Munich conference to deploy additional army and police training teams to Afghanistan - a key component for consolidating future security gains. Civilian expertise is also needed to help Afghan officials deliver essential services, reduce corruption and increase the fledgling democracy's legitimacy among its citizens, he said.

Along with strengthened international partnerships, Petraeus said, ISAF forces must also recommit to supporting the Afghan government in political reconciliation efforts with militant groups willing to return to civilian life.

"Programs already exist in this area," Petraeus said. "Careful application of them will be essential in the effort to fracture and break off elements of the insurgency in order to get various groups to put down their weapons and support the legitimate government and constitution of Afghanistan."

Petraeus is a key player in the Obama administration's comprehensive review of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The White House seeks to complete its review before Obama travels to Europe in April for the NATO 60th Anniversary Summit, hosted by France and Germany.

What actions should President Obama consider to help bring security and stability to Afghanistan? Comment on America.gov's blog.

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