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His remarks come after a deadly summer for US troops in Afghanistan, with casualties at their highest rates since the invasion in 2001. The US is in the middle of an attempt to turn around the war, as it did in Iraq, with a troop increase. President Obama ordered an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan last fall, for a total of 100,000, and the number of foreign troops in the country is scheduled to peak in the coming weeks.
Petraeus made the remarks in an interview with the BBC that was broadcast on Monday. He said NATO forces had reversed the momentum the Taliban gained in the past several years in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, as well as near Kabul. He said NATO forces will regain momentum in other areas as well, but that challenges remain.
“You not only have to reverse the momentum, you have to take away those sanctuaries and safe havens that the Taliban have been able to establish over the course of those years," he said, adding that "that’s going to entail tough fighting.”
He seemed to warn that the high casualty rates for NATO forces could continue. ”When you take away areas that mean a great deal to the enemy, the enemy fights back. It gets harder before it gets easier,” he said.
The Associated Press reports that two members of the international force in Afghanistan were killed by roadside bombs Monday, one of them American. Four Americans died Sunday in heavy fighting in eastern and southern regions.
In the interview with the BBC, Petraeus also downplayed the July 2011 deadline for beginning troop withdrawal. “That’s a date when a process begins, nothing more, nothing less. It’s not a date when American forces look for an exodus and look for the exit and the light to turn off on the way out of the room,” he said.
He said American forces would begin to transition some of their tasks to their Afghan counterparts on that date, “in those areas where conditions allow it, and at a pace allowed by the conditions.” He also said he would offer the president his “best professional military advice” come July on whether the deadline is appropriate.
Those remarks echoed comments from a week prior that he made during a whirlwind media blitz that included interviews with NBC's Meet the Press, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, when he said he did not go to Afghanistan to engineer a “graceful exit” and may recommend against any drawdown of troops next summer.
Some critics have have taken the president to task for setting a withdrawal date in Afghanistan. But Agence France-Presse reports that Petraeus, who was the architect of the Iraq “surge,” will try to replicate the strategy in Afghanistan in hopes that Afghan forces will be ready to take on more responsibilities next year. While the strategy in Iraq was to enlist Sunni insurgents to fight against Al Qaeda, in Afghanistan, Petraeus is pushing for the creation of Local Police Forces, “armed men paid by the government to defend their villages,” reports the AFP.
The Taliban may be feeling some pressure, reports The Christian Science Monitor, at least in its effort to maintain the loyalty of Afghans. It recently called for a joint commission to investigate civilian casualties in Afghanistan.