Petraeus Offers Words of Caution on Iraq, Afghanistan Outlook

The new head of U.S. Central Command praises the drop in violence in Iraq, but warns of "storm clouds."

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Gen. David Petraeus, in reviewing his 17-month tenure as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq during a speech yesterday, discussed the deeds of his soldiers and the dramatic decrease in violence there but ended the talk on a more somber note about what he called "the storm clouds" on the horizon.

In particular, Petraeus highlighted what he sees as the chief threats to Iraq's progress in the months to come. Among them are the upcoming provincial elections, the possible return of Shiite special group militia members from Iran (whose specialties include planting devastating roadside bombs), and the return of Iraqi refugees to homes that they may find occupied by militias.

These are among the key challenges Petraeus faces as he heads to Tampa later this month to take the helm of U.S. Central Command, putting him in charge of running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both will keep him busy. Petraeus has repeatedly warned that progress in Iraq remains fragile and tenuous. He noted, however, that there are indications that al Qaeda's leadership is more concentrated on Afghanistan these days. "We have seen some apparent shifting of focus," he said, adding that it is "certainly something" that he is keeping an eye on.

Many others will as well, hopeful that Petraeus can create the same kind of turnaround in Afghanistan that he is credited for in Iraq. Petraeus noted that he is frequently asked these days if "what will work in Iraq will work in Afghanistan." To that rhetorical question he gave no answers this week, but U.S. military officials have repeatedly warned that Iraq strategies may not fit Afghanistan.

Indeed, they continue to struggle with how to apply counterinsurgency lessons to two very different countries. On the topic of reconciliation, Petraeus echoed the need "to talk to enemies." It was on the heels of a question about comments made by a British general in Afghanistan who said this week that a military defeat of the Taliban is "neither feasible nor supportable." British Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith suggested reducing the insurgency to a "manageable level" and talking with the Taliban. If it were prepared to "talk about a political settlement, then that's precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this," Carleton-Smith, the departing commander of British forces in Afghanistan, told a London newspaper.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates may well prove amenable to the idea of dialogue. He said this week that "part of the solution is strengthening the Afghan security forces. Part of the solution is reconciliation with people who are willing to work with the Afghan government."

Petraeus, for his part, emphasized that during his command in Iraq, U.S. troops made a concerted effort to talk to Sunni insurgents to separate those who were reconcilable toward the government from those who were not. That said, he added, every counterinsurgency is unique.

He also mentioned one of his early trips to Afghanistan, with a comment that sounded mostly like a warning. During that visit, he recalled, he came to the conclusion that "Afghanistan was going to be the longest campaign of the long war."

Today, he says, "I still subscribe to that view."