From NBC's Kelly Paice
As today marks the eighth anniversary of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and while President Obama continues to weigh the future of the Afghan war, General David Petraeus gave a situation report on the U.S. Central Command region at the annual Association of the United States Army conference yesterday.
The general began with an explanation of CENTCOM's jurisdiction: an area comprised of 20 countries—the smallest of geographic combatant commands—but, as Gen. Petraeus described, it "has its lion share of problems." Rich in oil and natural resources, but plagued with such issues as war and ethnic and sectarian problems, CENTCOM is "an area of haves and have-nots…that has just about every challenge that you might consider," he contended.
Iraq is just one small part of the region, a country in which Gen. Petraeus called 2009 a "transition year" and where progress is "fragile and reversible." Nonetheless, progress is being made, as provincial governments become much more representative and as U.S. forces take on an "advise and assist" role, he furthered. U.S. forces will draw down to about 120,000 by the end of the month and to some 50,000 by the end of August next year, Petraeus predicted. "Iraqi security forces are very much shouldering tasks," he said, but added, "There are certainly still bad guys in Iraq…and a host of challenges still to be worked out."
General Ray Odierno, commander of Multi-National Force Iraq, recently assessed that violence in Iraq is down by about 85 percent since spring 2007. Gen. Petraeus reported that there were over 230 monthly high profile attacks in Iraq in early 2007, a number now down to about 25 per month. Gen. Petraeus further highlighted developments in Iraq afforded by improved security, such as the increase in electricity available, a rise in oil production, judicial capacity increases—for example, female trial judges are up 842 percent, although Gen. Petraeus recognized there were maybe two or three to begin with—and a showing increase in the perception of security, what Gen. Petraeus described as an "awfully important" factor.
Turning to Afghanistan, Gen. Petraeus agreed with General Stanley McChrystal's assessment of the Afghan situation as "serious but doable," that "requires a sustained substantial commitment." He furthered, "Everyone agrees that additional Afghan security forces are needed," in facing an industrial strength insurgency in the country. In addition to working to build a strong national security force in Afghanistan, Gen. Petraeus said that several community defense initiatives are currently being experimented with, as well. And he said that there is "no question that we have to take a regional approach," especially referring to the country's neighboring Pakistan where there has been "considerable concern and worry in the Swat valley" regarding Taliban operations; however, he furthered that there is "quite heartening progress" occurring in Pakistan. Also in the region, Gen. Petraeus called Iran "the best recruiting agent for CENTCOM," as its missile program causes "considerable concern" along with its uranium processing operations.
Further, the commander identified the Afghan narcotics industry as a problem along with "the overall corruption that has crept into the government." He called the legitimacy of the government "a key ingredient" to a stable, successful country. Despite "deterioration of security in certain areas," Gen. Petraeus detailed some of the progress occurring in Afghanistan, such as access to health care increasing nearly 90 percent since 2002, great advances in telecommunications, a rising GDP, and also a great increase in education enrollment—especially among Afghan girls. He also made clear that "reintegration of reconcilables" in Afghanistan is a priority.
He concluded that al-Qaeda "certainly in the region and arguably globally…is a considerably diminished organization." When asked to predict the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, Gen. Petraeus was careful to only estimate a potential full development of Afghan security forces and a transfer of security leadership to the Afghans around 2013 or 2014, stressing that the development of those forces depends on the security of the region.
As top military leaders met with President Obama last week and will continue the discussion this week regarding the future steps to be taken in the region, Gen. Petraeus said, "My assessment is that we've had an ample opportunity to provide our best military advice."