Petraeus predicts intensified combat in Afghanistan

Progress will come more slowly from the U.S. troop escalation in Afghanistan than it did during a similar move in Iraq, the top American commander in the Middle East told Congress on Wednesday, predicting intensified combat in coming months.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, said Afghanistan was beset by problems that would challenge the new U.S. strategy, including government corruption, insurgent sanctuaries along the Pakistani border and the strength of the Taliban movement.

Petraeus commanded U.S. forces in Iraq in 2007 and ’08. He often called the situation there “hard but not hopeless.” Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said Afghanistan was “no more hopeless” than Iraq was.

“Achieving our objectives in Afghanistan . . . will not be easy,” Petraeus said. “The Taliban has in recent years been gaining strength and expanding the extent of its control of parts of Afghanistan.”

He predicted an increase in violence this summer, during the height of the next fighting season.

He also said that as pressure mounts on the Afghan government to fight corruption, political conflicts and other governmental turmoil are likely to result.

Petraeus urged senators not to pass judgment on the new strategy, but rather allow the administration a year to show that it will work.

He appeared with Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Jacob Lew, a deputy secretary of State, a day after Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, testified before congressional committees to outline the new strategy.

Senators on Wednesday questioned Petraeus, Eikenberry and Lew on Pakistan’s role in the strategy. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the committee chairman, predicted that developments there would influence the outcome in Afghanistan more than the Obama administration’s strategy shift or its decision to deploy 30,000 more troops.

“Pakistan is, in many ways, the core of our challenge,” Kerry said. “The interconnected extremist groups that we face don’t stop at the Afghan border. And so our strategy cannot stop there, either. It must extend to Pakistan.”

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who has been critical of the new strategy, said putting more troops in Afghanistan could draw attention away from the militant threat in Pakistan.

“The risk is that we will expend tens of billions of dollars fighting in the strategically less important Afghanistan, while Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders become increasingly secure in Pakistan,” he said.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) asked Petraeus whether stepped-up operations in Afghanistan could push militants into Pakistan, putting pressure on the Pakistani military and destabilizing that country.

Petraeus said the military was working to coordinate operations with the Pakistanis. But he said there was a limit to how many missions Pakistan’s military could take on.

“You can only stick so many short sticks into so many hornets’ nests at one time,” Petraeus said. “They have a very impressive military . . . but again, there are limits on their capacity.”