KABUL, Afghanistan — The outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan said Monday that the focus of the war will shift in coming months from Taliban strongholds in the south to the border with Pakistan where insurgents closest to al-Qaida and other militants hold sway.
On his last Fourth of July in uniform before becoming the new CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus said that come fall, more special forces, intelligence, surveillance and air power will be concentrated in areas along Afghanistan's rugged eastern border with Pakistan. There will be substantially more Afghan boots on the ground in the east and perhaps a small number of extra coalition forces, too.
"There could be some small (coalition) forces that will move, but this is about shifting helicopters — lift and attack. It's about shifting close-air support. It's about shifting, above all, intelligence, surveillance and recognizance assets," said Petraeus, a former commander of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
"The intent has always been that as the southwest and south are solidified, that these assets would focus on the east. It's not to say that we're not doing it now."
The U.S.-led coalition has concentrated most of its troops and attention in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan. That's where the majority of the more than 30,000 U.S. reinforcements were deployed last year. They have made gains in clearing the territory and now are trying to hold it as the Afghan authorities and international donors rush in with plans for development and better governance.
However, the civilian effort in the south has lagged the progress on the battlefield and the fight continues.
According to an Associated Press tally, 26 of the 65 international troops, including Americans, who died in Afghanistan last month, were killed in Helmand where the coalition is now pushing north into other hotbeds of insurgents. Five others were killed in neighboring Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban insurgency.
On Sunday, three U.S. senators visiting Afghanistan criticized the pace of withdrawal and expressed concerns that it may leave NATO with too few troops to deal a decisive blow to the insurgency.
"I believe that the planned drawdown is an unnecessary risk," John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said. McCain arrived in Afghanistan with Sens. Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham.