The U.S. commander overseeing troops in Iraq and Afghanistan said Saturday that the military is on pace in its plans to shift away from a combat mission in Iraq, but he warned that casualties will worsen in Afghanistan.
Army Gen. David Petraeus said in a speech at Princeton University that after more than eight years of fighting in Afghanistan, the U.S. finally is getting enough troops, diplomats and organizational structure to be able to keep extremist groups from taking over again there.
"We've gotten the inputs right, now we are embarking on what's going to be the output," he said. "The reality is it's going to be hard, it's going to be hard all the time. We're going to have tough losses."
Petraeus, who was the top commander in Iraq before becoming head of the U.S. Central Command in October 2008, said the U.S. has done more than commit more resources to Afghanistan. It's also changed big ideas about how to handle the war, he said.
One key, he said, is recognizing the Afghani people as part of the terrain of war.
Last year, for example, the military cut back on use of air power as civilian casualties piled up. He said that tactical decision was made because the Taliban used the civilian deaths as propaganda. He says the policy change shifted that dynamic.
"We're going to be able to beat the enemy around the head with civilian casualties that he is causing," Petraeus said.
Petraeus said some of the approaches to Afghanistan come from Iraq, where he commanded the troop surge and where strategies were tested. Despite growing political problems there, the violence is down and the U.S. is on course to shift from a combat mission to one where the military will provide support and advice as of August.
"Touch wood on that, if you please," he added.
In the past week, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq dropped below 100,000 for the first time since fighting began there in 2003.
Petraeus was in Princeton to receive the Madison Medal, the highest award given by the graduate school there.
The general received a master's degree from Princeton in 1985 and a Ph.D. in 1987. He's so proud of his alma mater that he often signs his e-mails with "PITNS," shorthand for the school's motto, "Princeton in the Nation's Service and in the Service of All Nations."
Former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach, a Republican from Iowa, who now heads the National Endowment for the Humanities, received the Woodrow Wilson Award, a top honor for undergraduate alumni.