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."
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."