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Gen. David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command (CENTCOM), warned Thursday that the past week's violence in Afghanistan was the worst since the NATO troops invaded the country in 2001. The new US commander in the country, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is headed to Kabul to develop a new counterinsurgency strategy – likely drawing on the one General Petraeus implemented in Iraq, which dramatically increased security.
"There is no question that the situation has deteriorated over the course of the past two years and that there are difficult times ahead," said Gen. David Petraeus....
"The past week was the highest level of security incidents in Afghanistan's history, at least that post-liberation history," Petraeus said in a speech at the annual conference of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
Petraeus's comments came as the United States is embarking on new strategy in Afghanistan, with increased troop levels and a focus on counterinsurgency tactics. Petraeus said America should draw on the lessons learned in Iraq.
President Barack Obama has approved a "surge" of some 20,000 US troops in Afghanistan, reminiscent of the troop surge that Petraeus oversaw while he was head of the US forces in Iraq. The Washington Post reports that Petraeus notes that the surge in Afghanistan will follow a different course than the surge in Iraq.
The strategy draws upon, but does not attempt to duplicate, lessons from the troop "surge" in Iraq, where attacks have dropped from 160 a day at the peak of the fighting in 2007 to about 10 to 15 a day during the past six months, he said.
In one significant difference, Petraeus said that in combating the largely rural insurgency of Afghanistan, it will not be possible for U.S. forces to move into neighborhoods the same way they did in Iraqi cities.
"You don't live among the people in Afghanistan," he said. "First of all, there's no empty houses. Second, the villages particularly in the rural areas tend to be small." Instead, he said, U.S. troops will establish outposts on high ground from which they can oversee nearby villages as well as roads leading in and out.
This approach, which Petraeus called both "culturally and operationally correct," will reduce the likelihood that the presence of U.S. forces will draw the fighting into rural communities, which would lead to more civilian casualties.
Still, General McChrystal, who was confirmed as the new US commander in Afghanistan by the Senate Wednesday, told The Wall Street Journal that it is unclear whether the forces available will be sufficient to carry out the surge.
In the interview, Gen. McChrystal noted he's unsure whether the planned troop levels for the job he envisions will be adequate – despite the Obama administration's commitment to raise the U.S. presence to 68,000 by year's end, to go along with 35,000 allied forces. Iraq surge commanders had more than 170,000 U.S. forces.
"I know that I want it to be an effective traditional or classic counterinsurgency campaign by getting people down in among the population," the general said. "I know that's easier said than done with a limited-sized force."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has given his new commander 60 days to come up with a campaign plan. Gen. McChrystal has indicated it will closely resemble the strategy used in Iraq by Gen. David Petraeus, now his boss as head of all U.S. troops in the region. Gen. McChrystal said he will push soldiers farther out of their bases and among residents, to bring a sense of stability to the people and to better develop nationwide intelligence.
The BBC reports that in an interview on BBC Radio 4, McChrystal emphasized the importance of the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, as well as protecting Afghan civilians both from the Taliban and "from the unintended consequences of our operation." McChrystal said:
"When we are in position, one of the things we'll do is review all of our rules of engagement and all the instructions to our units, with the emphasis that we are fighting for the population."
"That involves protecting them both from the enemy and from unintended consequences of our operation, because we know that although an operation may be conducted for the right reason, if it has negative effects it can have a negative outcome for everyone."