KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan said Monday that the focus of the war will shift in coming months from Taliban strongholds in the south to the eastern border with Pakistan where insurgents closest to al-Qaida and other militants hold sway.
On his last Fourth of July in uniform before becoming the new CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus said that come fall, more special forces, intelligence, surveillance, air power will be concentrated in areas along Afghanistan's rugged eastern border with Pakistan. There will be substantially more Afghan boots on the ground in the east and perhaps a small number of extra coalition forces too.
"There could be some small (coalition) forces that will move, but this is about shifting helicopters — lift and attack. It's about shifting close-air support. It's about shifting, above all, intelligence, surveillance and recognizance assets," he said in interviews with The Associated Press and three other news outlets.
The U.S.-led coalition has concentrated most of its troops and attention in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan. That's where the majority of the more than 30,000 U.S. reinforcements were deployed last year. They have made gains in clearing the territory and now are trying to hold it as the Afghan authorities and international donors rush in with plans for development and better governance.
However, the civilian effort in the south has lagged behind the progress on the battlefield and the fight continues.
According to an Associated Press tally, 26 of the 65 international troops, including Americans, who died in Afghanistan last month, were killed in Helmand where the coalition is now pushing north into other hotbeds of insurgents. Five others were killed in neighboring Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban insurgency.
"The priority has been central Helmand province and Kandahar," Petraeus said. "We have made significant progress there. ... It remains a tough fight because the enemy wants to come back and try to regain the momentum the Taliban had until we took it away sometime last fall."
"We intend to hang on to those areas and solidify that progress and transition, increasingly, to a greater Afghan presence."
That, he said, will allow the coalition to shift focus to the east, which is home to the Afghan Taliban and other groups such as the al-Qaida affiliated Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Petraeus spoke at the U.S.-led coalition headquarters where troops, carrying paper plates of hotdogs, steak and lobster were celebrating the Fourth of July.
Earlier in the day he spoke at re-enlistment ceremonies for several hundred troops.
"You raised your right hand and said 'Send me,' and today you raised your right hand again and said 'Send me again, if needed,'" he told the soldiers at the first stop at Kandahar Air Field.
The trip was one of the last of his command. Petraeus will be succeeded by U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen at a ceremony scheduled for July 18.
Petraeus' exit from Afghanistan comes as the United States begins a 15-month drawdown of some 33,000 troops by September 2012. He and other military officials had recommended that President Barack Obama adopt a longer timeline — one that would extend through next year's fighting season. Petraeus was not in the mood to discuss the differing recommendations.
"I think it's probably time to stop second-guessing the decision that only the president can make. Only he has the full range of issues, considerations that he has to deal with," Petraeus said. "That decision has been made. ... It is our job to get on with it and do the absolute best we can."
On Sunday, three U.S. senators visiting Afghanistan criticized the pace of withdrawal and expressed concern that it may leave NATO with too few troops to deal a decisive blow to the insurgency. Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the drawdown was too aggressive and amounted to an "unnecessary risk" and that there may not be enough forces to "finish the job" in the east.
Petraeus said that after the surge forces leave, 68,000 U.S. troops will remain on the ground plus at least 30,000 to 40,000 non-U.S. coalition forces. During the drawdown, he said there will be an increase of 70,000 Afghan police and soldiers.
While the Afghan security forces have made strides, there is still concern about their ability to protect and defend their homeland.
One measure will be how well they do when they take the lead for security later this month in provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan, Herat in the west, Mazer-e-Sharif in the north and Mehterlam in the east. In addition, Afghan police and soldiers will take charge in all of Bamiyan and Panjshir provinces, which have seen little to no fighting, and all of Kabul province except for the restive Surobi district.
The strength of the Afghan security forces was tested last week when nine insurgents wearing suicide vests attacked Kabul's Inter-Continental hotel, killing 20 people including the attackers. Residents of the capital noted that fire from a coalition helicopter helped end the hours-long siege, but Petraeus praised the Afghan response.
"Do you realize how quickly they cleared a massive hotel?" he asked. "These guys were all wearing suicide vests. They (the Afghan forces) took it down in a single night."
On other issues, Petraeus said there was no question that U.S. relations with Pakistan had become increasingly strained in recent months. Pakistani officials viewed the Navy SEAL raid that killed al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May as a violation of its sovereignty and were incensed that they didn't get advance word of the operation. The U.S. has repeatedly complained that Pakistan is not doing more to stamp out hideouts on its side of the border where militants plot attacks on Afghan and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is like a "roller coaster ride" at times, Petraeus said.
"I have repeatedly been very forthright in noting that there is no question that there needs to be more done. Pakistani leaders note this as well." he said.
"What we need to do is figure out how to get back on with it — how to make our way together so that we can work together to combat extremists."
As Petraeus joined troops to celebrate the United States' 235th birthday, violence continued across Afghanistan.
A missing British soldier was confirmed dead Monday in an apparent insurgent attack in southern Afghanistan, hours after British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived in the country to hail improved security and announce plans for the withdrawal of hundreds of his nation's troops.
The killing curtailed his plans for security talks with political leaders in the transition site of Lashkar Gah.
Britain's defense ministry confirmed the soldier, who was reported missing in the early hours of Monday from a base in central Helmand, had been found shot dead following a huge search effort across the province.
Another NATO service member was killed Monday in a bomb attack in the east, bringing to 275 the number killed so far this year, including at least 197 Americans.
Also in the east, the Afghan Border Police arrested seven insurgents dressed as women in the Nazyan district of Nangarhar province, said Aminullah Amerkhail, the eastern region border chief. They were traveling from Pakistan and at least one was strapped with an explosive vest. The border police confiscated six AK-47 rifles. Five of them men were Pakistani and two were Afghans.