Mideast edition, Friday, June 12, 2009

WASHINGTON — Gen. David Petraeus said Wednesday that after two years of backsliding, May was the worst month for violent "security incidents" in Afghanistan since the country’s liberation from Taliban government control.

"There is no question that the situation has deteriorated over the past two years, in particular, and that there are difficult times ahead," he said.

While 70 percent of the fighting happens in just 10 percent of the country’s districts, including near opium centers south of Kandahar and along the ring road, the CENTCOM commander said he expects violence to spread as U.S. forces begin to take the fight to insurgents and extremists.

Speaking Thursday to a Washington think tank, Petraeus laid out a broad assessment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reporting that the buildup of military forces and civilian workers in Afghanistan is on track, as is the drawdown of forces in Iraq.

But more work is needed in both theaters, the four-star general stressed.

"We are concerned about the continuation of attacks [in Iraq]. That shows the residual capability of al-Qaida in Iraq, in particular," he said, as well as Iran’s continued support for Shia extremists.

Despite "periodic sensational attacks" that are coming every three weeks, Petraeus said, the dramatic overall decrease of attacks in Iraq as the U.S. closes joint security stations and outposts remains a positive sign.

"Afghanistan, on the other hand, is headed in the other direction," he said. "There are some tough months ahead."

Those will come as the U.S. goes after extremist safe havens, he explained.

Many of those groups, however, are located inside Pakistan.

Petraeus said he was confident the Pakistani army is not only taking the threat seriously, but is effectively clearing some areas and tasking groups of soldiers to hold those areas.

"There is no question, I think, at this point, that the Pakistanis see very clearly the existential threat that is posted to their country by the extremists — in particular, by the Pakistani Taliban who have caused such problems in the Northwest Frontier Province."

"The Pakistani military has responded very strongly in Swat" and other districts, he added.

To be sure, Pakistani requests for security assistance, which usually take a long time to fill, are being met quickly, Petraeus said. Within two or three weeks of receiving a request from Pakistan, he said, the U.S. on Wednesday delivered to Pakistan four refurbished MI-17 cargo helicopters intended for counterinsurgency operations.

The delivery comes just days after U.S. special envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke traveled to Islamabad at the request of President Barack Obama, pledging another $200 million in U.S. aid.

Petraeus repeated to the Center for a New American Security a now-familiar strain that the problems of the region "require whole of government approaches, not just military approaches," requiring diplomacy and humanitarian aid.

Additionally, the United States must aggressively and effectively wage war in the information arena.

"When you’re dealing with the press, when you’re dealing with the tribal leaders, when you’re dealing with host nations, when you’re dealing with your bosses, whatever it may be, you’ve got to beat the bad guys to the headlines," he said.

"You’ve got to be first with the truth."

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