KABUL, Afghanistan – The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan said Tuesday that coalition forces face a tough fight in 2011 as they push to extend security gains in the Taliban's southern strongholds and reverse insurgent advances in others.
Gen. David Petraeus offered his latest assessment of the nearly decade-long conflict in a letter to the troops released hours ahead of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. Obama, who is expected in his speech to discuss the Afghan war he has expanded with both troops and funding, has said he hopes to begin drawing down U.S. troops in July, though that is dependent on the situation on the ground.
In his letter, Petraeus provides his take on the conflict since he assumed command in July 2010. He said the additional resources poured into the country over the past year have "enabled us to get the 'inputs' right in Afghanistan for the first time."
He called 2010 "a year of significant, hard-fought accomplishments," while warning that "the year ahead is likely to be a tough one, too."
Troops will have to hold onto progress made in the Taliban heartland in the south while working to overturn insurgent gains in the north and mountainous northeast, he said. Violence increased greatly in both of those regions over the past year, apparently because of a Taliban strategy to move forces into less contested areas.
Petraeus praised security gains in the capital, which has seen fewer large-scale attacks over the past six months, but added that this security bubble needs to be expanded into neighboring provinces.
NATO and U.S. officials have repeatedly said they hope the growing Afghan army and police force will be at the forefront of this security push, opening room for international allies to start bringing troops home. However, high attrition rates, ineffectiveness and corruption continue to plague the Afghan forces, even after billions have been poured into programs to bring them up to par.
And gains have come at the cost of higher casualty figures. More than 25 NATO service members have been killed so far this month — more than one a day. The latest death came from a bomb attack in the south on Tuesday.
Coalition fatalities topped 700 last year, making 2010 the deadliest for NATO forces in Afghanistan in the nearly decade-long conflict. Civilians deaths have also surged because of an increase in insurgent bombings in markets and along roads.
Turning to the enduring problem of corruption in Afghanistan, Petraeus said the international coalition will have to boost its efforts "to help Afghan officials implement President Karzai's direction to combat corruption and the criminal patronage networks that undermine the development of effective Afghan institutions."
Efforts to root out corruption and cronyism in the Afghan government have been troubled, partly because of a seeming unwillingness from President Hamid Karzai to allow prosecutions that touch his family or allies.
Much of the U.S. debate about troop levels and strategy in Afghanistan has centered on whether U.S. forces should be focusing their energy on a long campaign of nation-building, or simply on targeted strikes against terrorists.
Petraeus stressed that the goal of the fight in Afghanistan is to ensure that the country does not again become a sanctuary for al-Qaida or other extremists, but said establishing a functioning government is key to meeting that goal.
"Achieving that objective requires that we help Afghanistan develop the ability to secure and govern itself," he said
A new constitutional crisis appeared to have been averted this week when Karzai bent to international and internal pressure and agreed to inaugurate the elected parliament he had appeared ready to reject.
Karzai has now committed to convening parliament on Wednesday — three days later than originally planned, but well ahead of the Feb. 23 date he had announced last week. Lawmakers had threatened to start passing laws without his approval if he didn't back down from the one-month delay, which he said was needed to allow a disputed court to reinvestigate charges of electoral fraud.
Afghanistan's Western allies welcomed Karzai's decision, as did parliamentarians, even though Karzai rejected lawmakers' demand to abolish the disputed tribunal.
Long after a wide-ranging probe by official fraud investigators has been completed, the tribunal has threatened to change election results. The tribunal was largely condemned by the international community as unconstitutional.
Karzai met with a group of the losing parliamentary candidates Tuesday to try to assuage their concerns, according to a statement issued by his office.
One candidate suggested that Karzai resign and ask the Afghan people for forgiveness. "I thought you were the president of Afghanistan, but this shows you are not a leader," the statement quoted the candidate as saying.
Karzai told the group that he had endured interference from "foreigners" who questioned the delay. He said he had refused to abolish the special tribunal to ensure that the candidates' charges are thoroughly investigated.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.