TAMPA — The nation's top commander in the Middle East on Friday did not echo the often-gloomy outlook for success in Afghanistan expressed by experts in the region at a symposium at the University of South Florida.
But Gen. David Petraeus wasn't declaring success, either.
Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, ended the three-day conference about Pakistan and Afghanistan by telling several hundred USF students and faculty members that great progress has been made in the last year, laying the foundation for a stable nation.
But the general said he doesn't use words like "victory" and doesn't pretend the task is easy.
"Those of us who have been in this business don't use terms like optimist or pessimist," Petraeus said. "We're realists. And the reality is that it is all hard and it's hard all the time. That is true of Afghanistan, very, very much."
Petraeus, who spoke at Brigham Young University the day before, has been on a national speaking tour to push the message that success in Iraq and Afghanistan will come when they are less dependant on U.S. military and more on governments in the region.
Extremists, he said, feed on lawlessness and the chaos it brings.
"The key is Afghan governance, governance that can achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the people," he said.
Perhaps befitting the officer who wrote the Army's counter-insurgency manual, Petraeus emphasized that reducing violence in the region took a combined effort of military, civil and political forces.
First, he said, security must be established and then quickly complemented by actions in Iraq or Afghanistan's political arena.
Establishing security can be risky, leading to higher civilian deaths. Petraeus noted that he was asked at BYU whether the United States could achieve its military objectives while reducing civilian casualties.
"The answer is yes and yes," Petraeus said. "You must reduce your civilian casualties. If you cannot, then you won't achieve your objectives. Your tactical operations will undermine your strategic effort overall. … We want (troops) to think long and hard before they drop a bomb on a house if they don't know who is in it."
A multidimensional approach to counterinsurgency can turn on something as seemingly insignificant as the quality of the driving of U.S. troops.
"Our driving was so egregious that we were making more enemies on the way to an engagement than we made friends in the engagement," Petraeus said.
William R. Levesque can be reached at (813) 226-3432 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This story has been changed to reflect the following correction:
A story about a talk on Saturday by Gen. David Petraeus misquoted the U.S. Central Command commander. Petraeus, speaking about the driving of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, actually said, "Our driving was so egregious that we were making more enemies on the way to an engagement than we made friends in the engagement."