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CIA chief: Afghan war 'harder than anticipated'

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 28 June 2010

CIA chief Leon Panetta and the head of the British army both give interviews on the strategy in Afghanistan, but, writes international correspondent Jonathan Rugman, their answers point to a potential rift between London and Washington.

US soldier talking to Afghan children (credit:Reuters)

Just days after the US's chief military commander was sacked and as US public opinion on the war reaches its lowest ebb, CIA chief Leon Panetta has announced al-Qaida's presence in Afghanistan is now "relatively small".

Speaking on a major US network, the intelligence chief announced there is "no question" that the Taliban "is engaged in greater violence right now" than when Obama took office.

"In some ways they are stronger, but in some ways they are weaker as well," he said, noting that the US is "undermining their leadership, and that I think is moving in the right direction."

Although the message - which appears to be positive - will fall on welcoming ears, the timing of the statement is questionable.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama selected General David Petraeus to take the reins as commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, after General Stanley McChrystal was relieved of his command following a frank interview given to Rolling Stone magazine.

Many argued that McChrystal was the only man to lead the war effort in the hostile territory. He devised the surge strategy that was approved by Obama early last year which could see up to 17,000 more US troops sent to the country in a last ditch effort to try and win the war.

More articles on Afghanistan
- Obama relieves McChrystal of Afghan command
- Afghanistan: the challenges ahead for Petreaus
- Nato turns to militias in Afghanistan battle
- The hunt for Osama bin Laden
- Bomb squad: tackling Afghanistan's IED threat

Now Panetta's words (his first since his appointment as CIA chief in January 2009) appear to be designed to reinforce the message that the US is fighting a war that can be won:

"There are some serious problems here. We are dealing with a tribal society. We're dealing with a country that has problems with governance, problems with corruption, problems with narcotics trafficking, problems with a Taliban insurgency.

"We are making progress. It's harder, it's slower than I think anyone anticipated."

Al Qaeda intelligence
Panetta went on to claim that al-Qaida is probably at its weakest point since the 9/11 attacks because of US- led strikes, with "only 50 to 100 Taliban operating in Afghanistan and the rest hiding along the tribal areas."

However this claim was tempered by the admission that the US had not received any significant intelligence on Osama bin Laden's whereabouts for years, believing he was in "very deep hiding" but that consistent pressure would "flush" him out.

Panetta also told reporters the terrorist network is finding increasingly innovative methods of attacking allied forces and of greatest concern was al-Qaida's reliance on operatives without previous records, or living outside the US.

Nato operations
Panetta's comments come during a month in which Nato forces have suffered record casualties. And there are fears that the US military shake up will further slow the push into southern Afghanistan. 

From international correspondent Jonathan Rugman:
"The head of the British army, General Sir David Richards, and the head of the CIA, Leon Panetta, were asked in separate interviews over the weekend about the notion of talking to the Taliban as part of Britain and America’s exit strategy from Afghanistan. Their answers were so different that they point to potentially the biggest policy rift between London and Washington in a decade.

"London and Washington do agree at least that the military campaign must continue so that, in the words of General Richards,  "they don't think that we are giving up." But unlike the British, the Americans appear to be clinging to the increasingly bizarre notion of inflicting a strategic defeat on the Taliban before talks can begin.

"I think General Richard's... supposedly "private view" is being aired now as a very deliberate and public warning to the United States that they must engage, as Britain is, with the idea of a negotiated retreat - though of course nobody will couch it in these terms."

- Read Jonathan Rugman's blog in full here

The US's top military officer Admiral Mike Mullen is in Afghanistan to assure President Karzai that the counter insurgency plans will stay in place under Petraeus, who is due to arrive in the country within the next 10 days.

Nato spokesman Brigadier General Josef Blotz told reporters in Kabul: "We will not miss a beat in our operations to expand security here in Afghanistan."

To reinforce this message Nato has announced that more than 600 Afghan and international troops have been battling al-Qaida forces close to the Pakistan border. On Sunday three allied soldiers and "a number of insurgents" were killed.

Nato military deaths in Afghanistan
United States - 1,139
Britain - 309
Canada - 150
France - 44
Germany - 43
Denmark - 33
Spain - 28
Italy - 24
Netherlands - 24
Other nations - 85
Total Casualties - 1,879
Source: Reuters/icasualties


'Taliban talks'
But the message coming from the British camp is somewhat more reserved. British Defence Secretary Liam Fox is calling for negotiations with elements of the Taliban.

"While the military mission is very important from a national security point perspective," he told journalists on Monday, "there has to be a political dialogue to give us a longer-term way of exiting from Afghanistan without leaving a security vacuum."

His comments come just a day after the head of the British army said talks with elements of the Taliban should be opened "pretty soon".

Insisting he was merely expressing a "private view", General Sir David Richards said talking to the enemy was inevitable.

"If you look at any counter-insurgency campaign throughout history there's always been a point at which you start to negotiate. I think there's no reason why we shouldn't be looking at that sort of thing pretty soon."

While politicians have expressed reluctance to engage in peace talks for fear it would seem like an admission of defeat, Richards believes that combat and negotiation must run concurrently, saying he is "less certain" that defeat could ever be inflicted militarily as the Taliban insurgency continues to grow in strength. 

Something that clearly contradicts the message coming out of Washington.

Deadliest month
Under General McChrystal gains were made in terms of lowering civilian casualty rates and improving relations with the Afghan leadership.

The Taliban insurgency has strengthened over recent months and the current counter insurgency is seen as crucial in deciding the direction of the war, future commitments and troop withdrawals. 

- British fatalities in Afghanistan

On Monday, British troop suffered another blow as bomb disposal expert was killed during operations in Helmand province: he is the 19th British fatality this month. In all 308 British servicemen have now died in the Afghan campaign.

Amid the turmoil the US and Britain and Nato troops remain locked in this battle together. This week the British defence secretary Liam Fox will make his first official visit to Washington where he is expected to reassure the US that Britain will continue to stand "soldier to soldier" in the fight, but will warn of more casualties to come.

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