WASHINGTON - The United States will step up its counterterrorism activities in Afghanistan as part of President Obama's new strategy as it seeks to "kill or capture" insurgents who are outside densely populated areas and deemed unlikely to change sides, Gen. David Petraeus said Wednesday.
The chief of the regional U.S. Central Command told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "additional mission force elements" would be sent to Afghanistan this spring, but he declined to detail them in an open congressional hearing.
Although such "elements" have not been publicly discussed in the administration's strategy announcements, counterterrorism efforts - missiles fired at specific insurgent targets from unmanned drone and bombs from manned aircraft, as well the use of Special Forces units and intelligence surveillance - are expected to increase along with the deployment of 30,000 more U.S. ground troops.
The use of air attacks in Afghanistan has been curtailed in recent months as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander there, sought to avoid civilian casualties. But as described by Petraeus, the new concentration on pushing the Taliban out of population centers will allow more robust action against them in the countryside.
U.S. drone attacks have been used extensively against al-Qaida and Taliban targets in Pakistan, although their frequency has diminished recently as the Pakistani military has been engaged in a ground assault in South Waziristan. Obama has warned Pakistan that it must step up its effort in that region and others along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border or risk an escalation of U.S. activity.
Pakistan has prohibited any U.S. units from engaging in ground operations in its territory. Petraeus acknowledged Pakistani concern that expanded U.S. operations in Afghanistan would be likely to drive more insurgents across the border. Such actions will have to be closely coordinated between the two governments, he said, adding, "We have to be realistic that there's a limit ... they say you can only stick so many short sticks into so many hornets' nests at one time."
Petraeus testified along with Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, and Undersecretary of State Jacob Lew in the latest of a series of hearings to detail the new strategy. Outlining a civilian "surge" to accompany the military expansion, the two diplomats said they expected a total of 974 civilians on the ground by early next year, a number they said would probably grow by another 20 to 30 percent by the end of 2010.
Senators sharply questioned the officials about remarks Tuesday by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said he anticipated a U.S. combat presence in his country for another five years - about the same timeline Obama described, beginning with an initial troop escalation that started last summer and leading to a withdrawal that would start in July 2011, depending on Afghan capabilities. Karzai said he envisioned U.S. funding for Afghanistan's own security forces to continue for 15 years, a cost Petraeus estimated would total about $10 billion a year.
Noting that Karzai's timeline would extend to 2024, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., noted that "we're talking about $150 billion just on the security side," for Afghan forces alone, "before we get to the development side."
An increase in the size of the Afghan army and national police force is a major part of Obama's strategy. Listing "metrics" that will be used to measure progress, Petraeus said that the target for the army is 134,000 fully trained Afghan soldiers - compared with about 94,000 now, many of whom are not considered adequately trained or even on regular duty - by the end of 2010. Additional targets will be set for the future years depending on the initial results, he said.
Petraeus also provided additional details on plans to "reintegrate" Taliban fighters into Afghan society or security forces with monetary and other incentives. He described a new Force Reintegration Cell, headed by a retired British general who held the same job under for Petraeus when the latter was the U.S. commander in Iraq, that will identify insurgents likely to switch sides with the right incentives.
Those who cannot be reintegrated "can be killed, captured or run off," Petraeus said. But the idea, he said, was to make individual fighters "part of the solution instead of part of the problem." U.S. commanders in Afghanistan said Wednesday that they are funding a raise in Afghan military pay - from $180 a month to about $240 for an entry-level soldier, along with other tangible benefits - in order to compete with the Taliban, which offers up to $300 a month.
The strategy also includes development of "community defense" forces, tapping local leaders to defend their territory in conjunction with coalition and Afghan forces. That effort has long been pushed by the U.S. Special Forces Command, which has argued that the extremely localized nature of Afghan culture should be matched by a localized U.S. approach.
"It's a village-by-village, valley-by-valley effort," Petraeus said, "and we're using some of our best Special Forces teams right now to really experiment with this."