Offering an upbeat assessment of the war in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus today said progress -- some of it substantial -- has been made over the last 18 months.
Speaking at London's Royal United Services Institute, General Petraeus painted a picture of Afghanistan in which the Taliban's ability to mount attacks is being reduced, where Afghan led security and governance is growing and where civil society is beginning to take root.
NATO Ambassador Mark Sedwill, Petraeus' diplomatic counterpart, emphasized the need for coalition nations to get on the same page regarding the timeline in Afghanistan. Sedwill said the process of transitioning from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops to Afghan security will begin in 2011, with the goal of completing that transition by the end of 2014. Both men indicated the time is right to begin that transition.
Citing success with counterterrorism operations, Petraeus said 300 Taliban leaders had been captured or killed in the last 90 days, including the third highest ranking Al Qaeda operative in Afghanistan, who was killed in a "rough and rugged" area in the eastern part of the country. He described the Taliban leaders as "jackpot" type captures or kills, not low-level functionaries.
Petraeus said the number of counterterrorism, or precision special forces-type raids in Afghanistan, is three to four times as many as were conducted at the height of the surge in Iraq, because the US military has greatly increased the number of "enablers" used to plan for such missions. Likewise, the number of drones, analysts and the technological infrastructure necessary to pinpoint targets and conduct raids has never been greater.
Petraeus acknowledged that not every raid is successful. In an extraordinary moment, the general revealed that this morning, he contacted the father of Linda Norgrove, the British aid worker killed during a botched U.S. special forces raid meant to free her. In a sign of how sensitive the issue is for the coalition, Petraeus said he offered his condolences to John Norgrove and brought him up to date on the investigation.
He called it disturbing not to have the correct facts on the morning after the operation. He said it was only after investigators were reviewing video recorded from six camera feeds of the rescue operation, that investigators noticed one of the special operations personnel make a "throwing motion," which was followed by an explosion consistent with a grenade.
Preview of Upcoming Assessments
Generally, today's discussion appeared to be part progress report, part warm up for the Afghanistan conference scheduled for late November in Lisbon, and part dry run of the assessment Petraeus must deliver to Washington in early December.
He said over the last 18 months he and his predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, have tried to get the "inputs" right for Afghanistan. Petraeus asserted he believes they finally have the right recipe for getting the results they want on everything from targeting insurgents, to building the Afghan security forces, to reintegration of some of the Taliban and building capacity for Afghan governance.
The general cited Marja, in Helmand Province, as being among the places that are steadily improving after years of total domination by the Taliban. In Marja, schools have begun to open and markets are coming back to life, Petraeus said. And he added that residents were able to vote in recent elections, and the nascent Afghan government is slowly taking on more responsibility.
In Kandahar Province, Petraeus noted recent clearing operations there have had a significant impact on security. The next step he said "is to link the Kandahar security bubble with Helmand's."
Petraeus: Security, Civil Society Taking RootMore broadly Petraeus talked about nationwide progress over the last nine years. He said literacy is up, healthcare is more readily available, and in capital city of Kabul, where one-sixth of the country's population resides, people live in relative security, with Afghan security forces "in the lead" in all but one of Kabuls' districts.
With the insurgents knocked back, the Afghan government has begun low-level political discussions with representatives of the Taliban leadership currently hiding out in Pakistan. Petraeus said while neither the U.S. nor ISAF is taking part in the talks, ISAF forces have allowed Taliban members to make the trip to Kabul without being targeted or arrested. A political settlement is viewed as essential to any eventual handover of full power to the Afghan government.
ABC News' Martha Raddatz reports that a senior official in Afghanistan said that the U.S. allowed a representative of the Taliban into Kabul within the last two weeks "from a city in Pakistan," but would not be more specific. The official believes the Taliban representative drove into Afghanistan.
Dr. Gareth Price, head of the Asia program at London's Chatham House, said that while it's always hard to gauge progress in Afghanistan, Petraeus' upbeat remarks "make a lot of sense if you think we are moving toward some sort of political settlement." Price said that given all the fighting in the last year, what's different now is that the Taliban "aren't coming to talks with the upper hand."