WASHINGTON/KABUL (Reuters) - Violence in Afghanistan and turmoil within the Karzai government are likely to rise in the short term, General David Petraeus said on Wednesday, calling on U.S. lawmakers to reserve judgement on President Barack Obama’s new war strategy for a full year.
The comments by Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, came as Defence Robert Gates visited U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, promising that Obama’s order to send 30,000 extra troops would give them what they need to fight the Taliban.
“We have all the pieces coming together to be successful here,” Gates said.
All of the additional troops are expected to be sent to the war zone by the summer or fall, aiming to reverse the momentum of Taliban militants and allow for a gradual U.S. withdrawal starting in July 2011, according to Obama’s strategy.
Lieutenant General William Caldwell, head of the U.S. and NATO training mission in Kabul, said Washington had set a goal to expand the Afghan security forces by 50 percent before U.S. troops begin to pull out but he acknowledged the goal was probably out of reach.
Petraeus, in charge of drawing down forces in Iraq and overseeing the surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said he expected increased fighting in the spring and the summer.
He said President Hamid Karzai’s expected moves to combat corruption likely would result in “greater turmoil within the government as malign actors are identified and replaced.”
“It will be important, therefore, to withhold judgement on the success or failure of the strategy in Afghanistan until next December,” Petraeus told a Senate committee.
He expressed his full support for Obama’s plan and called success in Afghanistan “necessary and attainable.”
But Petraeus, who in his previous role as the top Iraq commander oversaw a surge of U.S. forces in 2007 credited with helping pull that country back from the brink, cautioned that progress in Afghanistan would be slower than in Iraq.
SOFTER LINE Towards KARZAI
Analysts say a perceived deterioration of conditions in Afghanistan with the new war strategy could hurt Obama’s Democrats in 2010 midterm congressional elections, further eroding public support for the costly, eight-year-old war.
The latest New York Times/CBS News opinion poll, published on Wednesday, showed Americans supported the decision to send the extra 30,000 troops by a margin of 51 percent to 43 percent.
But 55 percent said setting a date to begin the pullout of U.S. forces was a bad idea.
“Just under half thought that the United States would succeed in what Mr. Obama said was one of the central missions: preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base of support, while just 39 percent said they thought an increased effort in Afghanistan would make the United States safer from a domestic terrorist attack,” the Times said on its website.
The United States now has about 68,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, with Britain, Germany, Canada, France, Australia and other allies contributing 42,000 more.
The trip by Gates, the most senior U.S. official to visit Afghanistan since Obama unveiled his plan last week, has been marked by a much less confrontational tone towards Karzai after months of criticism for not doing enough to tackle corruption and mismanagement in his government.
Karzai came under intense pressure from his Western backers to revamp his team, particularly after his re-election in an August 20 election was marred by widespread fraud.
Afghanistan has since announced some anti-corruption measures such as setting up an anti-graft unit and placing some ministers under investigation for embezzlement.
The Afghan government and the United Nations announced on Wednesday they would hold an anti-corruption conference on December 15 to 17. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is due to host an international meeting on Afghanistan in January.
Getting the U.S. troops out will depend on expanding and improving the Afghan army and police force.
Caldwell, the U.S. general in charge of training, said Washington’s target was to field 282,000 Afghan soldiers and police by 2011, an increase of about 50 percent from the current level of less than 190,000.
“Realistically, we think we’ll be between 250,000 and 280,000,” he said.
General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has said he would like to see the Afghan army and police eventually reach 400,000, which would take at least four years.
Gates was briefed on U.S. plans to embed its incoming soldiers with the Afghan army to improve the training of the local forces — a centrepiece of McChrystal’s new strategy.
The Pentagon chief also toured a new U.S.-led command centre for all NATO combat troops in a sprawling compound at Kabul airport where scores of staff sit in rows below giant screens with live video feeds of the battlefield.
Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, in charge of day-to-day command of combat troops, said the Western forces benefited from embedding with Afghans who know the local languages and terrain. He acknowledged a problem in keeping Afghan soldiers from quitting, especially in southern battlefield provinces.
Gates said he was surprised by Karzai’s remark on Tuesday that it would be 15 to 20 years before Afghanistan could afford the new, larger security force without international help.
“But the reality is, as their forces expand and ours begin to draw down, the costs for us will decline. And the truth of the matter is they (the Afghans) will begin to assume a greater proportion of this,” Gates told NBC’s “Today” show.
On Tuesday, he promised Karzai that Washington would not turn its back on Afghanistan and remove its forces abruptly.
Gates also appeared to soften Washington’s stance towards Karzai on the issue of corruption, praising some ministers in his Cabinet and accepting that the West shared blame for graft because of how it manages huge aid contracts.
Another concern Afghans say they have over the increased U.S. deployment is that more civilians will get killed, which McChrystal says could jeopardize the mission to win trust.
Rodriguez acknowledged some civilians may have been killed in a raid in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday. NATO forces had previously denied killing any civilians in the raid, while Karzai’s office said six civilians had died.
Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin and Yara Bayoumy in Kabul and Susan Cornwell in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff and John O'Callaghan; Editing by Peter Cooney