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Petraeus cites successes in Afghanistan

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, the general says gains are 'fragile and reversible,' but that Afghan forces could take over security by 2014.

March 16, 2011|By Ken Dilanian, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The U.S. has halted the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan and is on track to hand off security to Afghan forces by 2014, though the gains are "fragile and reversible," the top general leading NATO forces told Congress.

In a three-hour hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus did not directly respond to the assessment by U.S. intelligence officials that the recent battlefield successes had failed to fundamentally undermine the Taliban as a fighting force.

Instead, Petraeus cited "achievements" while acknowledging that much work is left to be done. No senators challenged his premise that a large footprint of American troops was needed in the country for years to come.

"The past eight months have seen important but hard-fought progress in Afghanistan," Petraeus told lawmakers as he testified alongside Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of Defense for policy.

A year after President Obama added 30,000 American troops, bringing the total number of coalition forces to 140,000, Flournoy said, "Our strategy is working."

Obama ordered that some U.S. troops begin coming home in July, but Petraeus said he had not decided what level of withdrawal he would recommend. It is expected to be small.

Petraeus' congressional appearance, his first since he replaced Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal in June, came on the day a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans say the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting.

Key senators nonetheless expressed confidence in the strategy, including Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee and who strongly opposed President George W. Bush's troop increase in Iraq, which was led by Petraeus.

Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy, Levin said, has been the key to "turning the tide."

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the committee, also praised what he called "a great deal of progress" in recent months.

McCain asked Petraeus to respond to a report in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times quoting U.S. intelligence officials as telling Congress last week that the Taliban remained resilient and still enjoyed havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan, while a corruption-plagued Afghan government had struggled to assert control.

The story noted that the intelligence assessments contrasted with the optimism expressed by Petraeus in recent interviews.

"With respect, I have tried to avoid what might be labeled optimism or pessimism, and have tried to provide realism," Petraeus said. He said the improvements he cited represented "reality on the ground."

Last week, U.S. intelligence officials told the same committee that the positive developments had not changed a gloomy strategic picture.

The U.S.-led coalition has been killing Taliban militants by the hundreds, said Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, but there had been "no apparent degradation in their capacity to fight."

Petraeus did not rebut that assessment. He did speak to the weakness of the Afghan government, saying, "There is no question that government capacity is an area of, in a sense, strategic risk."

McCain asked Petraeus about the American public's low support for the war.

"I can understand the frustration," Petraeus said. "We have been at this for 10 years. We have spent an enormous amount of money; we have sustained very tough losses and difficult, life-changing wounds…. But I think it is important to remember why we are there. That is where 9/11 began, that's where the plan was made … that is where Al Qaeda had its most important sanctuary in the world."

ken.dilanian@latimes.com

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