Afghanistan is hard all the time, but it’s doable

Colin Cramphorn, a policeman who served with distinction in Northern Ireland among many other places, observed that while every location is different, all are nonetheless connected. He realised not only that local knowledge is critical, but that the fate of one location often depends on the destiny of another. This insight was almost John Donnesque, akin to his observation that “no man is an island”. It is a key insight for our security: no problem can be viewed in isolation.

The region under my command consists of 20 countries, from Egypt in the west to Pakistan in the east, and from Kazakhstan in the north to Yemen and the waters off Somalia to the south. This region sits astride the traditional land of former empires and the pull of ancient tensions can still be felt.

It includes some 530 million people from at least 22 large ethnic groups, who speak 18 languages, and ascribe to four leading religions. The area is rich in oil and natural gas but poor in fresh water. It has countries with the highest per capita income in the world, and others in the lowest five. In 18 of the 20 states, young people between the ages of 15 and 29 constitute more than 40 per cent of the population, and economic opportunities for many are insufficient. It is the unique combination of all of the dangers and resources in the Central Command Region that make it so critical to the security of all developed nations.

Countering terrorists and extremism requires more than a conventional military approach. Military operations enable you to clear areas of extremist and insurgent elements, and to stop them from putting themselves back together. But the core of any counterinsurgency strategy must focus on the fact that the decisive terrain is the human terrain, not the high ground or river crossing.

Focusing on the population can, if done properly, improve security for local people and help to extend basic services. It can help to delegitimise the methods of the extremists — especially if you can contrast your ability and willingness to support and protect the population with the often horrific actions of extremist groups. Indeed, exposing their extremist ideologies, indiscriminate violence and oppressive practices can help people to realise that their lives are unlikely to be improved if under the control of such movements.

For the strategy to work, it is also necessary to find ways to identify reconcilable members of insurgent elements and to transform them into part of the solution.

In Iraq, security has improved dramatically over the past two years, though, as always, the situation remains fragile and reversible. Insurgent attacks are down from more than 160 per day in June 2007, to about 20. There have been similar declines in violent civilian deaths, high-profile attacks and virtually every other measure of security.

In Afghanistan, security is the principal concern, although there are numerous other challenges as well, with governmental legitimacy prominent among them. Clearly, the security trend in Afghanistan has been a downward spiral, with levels of violence at record highs in recent weeks.

At a time when the challenges loom so large, it is important to remember why we are there. That is to ensure that al-Qaeda and other transnational extremist groups are not able to re-establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan like those they had during Taleban rule there before 9/11.

General Stan McChrystal, the Commander of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force, who has spent most of his career since 9/11 leading the US’s most elite counterterrorist element, the Joint Special Operations Command, is employing a comprehensive, counterinsurgency campaign. He is the first to recognise not just the extraordinary capabilities but also the limitations of counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan.

In addition to our military operations we are helping the Afghan Government to combat the corruption that has undermined the legitimacy of certain Afghan institutions. We are also working hard to accelerate the development of the Afghan security forces. And we are working to disrupt narcotics trafficking by promoting agricultural alternatives and developing the infrastructure to help Afghan farmers to get their products to market.

But we need to be realistic in recognising that the campaign will require a sustained, substantial commitment. Many tough tasks loom before us — including resolution of the way ahead after the recent election, which obviously has been marred by allegations of fraud. The challenges in Afghanistan clearly are significant. But the stakes are high. And, while the situation unquestionably is, as General McChrystal has observed, serious, the mission is, as he has affirmed, still doable. In truth, it is, I think, accurate to observe that, as in Iraq in 2007, everything in Afghanistan is hard, and it is hard all the time.

Iran constitutes the main state-based threat to stability in the region. The impact of its malign activities and harsh rhetoric are felt throughout the Arabian Peninsula, making it, ironically, the best recruiter with prospective partners. We now have eight Patriot missile batteries spread across countries on the western side of the Gulf, where two years ago we had far, far fewer.

If Cecil Rhodes was correct in his wonderful observation that “being an Englishman is the greatest prize in the lottery of life”, and I’m inclined to think that he was, then the second greatest prize in the lottery of life must be to be a friend of an Englishman, and based on that, the more than 230,000 men and women in uniform who work with your country’s finest day by day are very lucky indeed, as am I.

David Petraeus is Commander, United States Central Command. This is an edited and abridged version of a speech that he gave last night at a Policy Exchange event in London.