March 16th, 2010
03:12 PM ET

Petraeus warns tough fighting ahead in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON - The war in Afghanistan will get tougher before it gets easier, the general in charge of military operations in the region told a Senate committee Tuesday.

Gen. David Petraeus - the head of Central Command, which includes both Afghanistan and Iraq in its area of responsibility - told the Senate Armed Services Committee that as the United States institutes its surge of 30,000 troops and NATO increases operations, the fighting is "likely to get harder before it gets easier" because "the enemy will fight back."

Petraeus said in his opening statement to the committee that the fighting in 2010 will be difficult and will include "setbacks." But he also said the violence will not be as high as it was half a year ago, before the Obama surge strategy was instituted.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the top Republican on the committee, questioned what he described as the Obama administration plans to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011.

Petraeus defended the plan by saying that July 2011 "is not a date when we bolt for the exits" but a point of transition to Afghan security forces and a "responsible" reduction of force.

On Iraq, Petraeus said the situation has improved and the United States continues its plan to draw down troops with an eye on the fragile security situation while that country works out the results of its latest election.

He said the military might reconfigure the forces that stay to include another headquarters "if indeed we think there is a particularly fragile situation, say in a certain area, say in the north," where the security situation is less stable.

However, Petraeus said the United States remains on track to be at 50,000 troops by year's end and emphasized that any change would be in reconfiguration of the troops that stay, not in the overall number. About 100,000 U.S. troops are currently in Iraq.

President Barack Obama has said that the U.S. combat mission in Iraq will end by August 31 this year, and all U.S. forces will be out of the country by 2012, the deadline set under an agreement the Bush administration signed with the Iraqi government.

–CNN's Katherine Cotsonas contributed to this report.

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