- Associated Press - Monday, January 10, 2011

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan | NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan said Monday that a recent pledge by a southern Afghan tribe to stand up to the Taliban shows the military push in the country’s most violent region is making headway and stifling the insurgents’ “central nervous system.”

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told the Associated Press that a shift in thinking by the Afghan government and NATO means that the tribe’s risky move is being embraced rather than ignored. And that brings the hope that others may follow suit, he said.

Later Monday, Gen. Petraeus was on hand in Kabul to greet Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who made a surprise visit to Afghanistan to assess progress toward the key objective of handing over security from international forces to Afghans.

The White House said Mr. Biden, who was last here in January 2009, was to meet with President Hamid Karzai as well as U.S. troops.

Gen. Petraeus spoke with the AP during a visit to the capital of Helmand province, where he discussed last week’s tribal pledge with provincial Gov. Gulab Mangal. He told the AP that the Taliban is losing sway in volatile Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south.

Gen. Petraeus said there is increasing dissension among the fighting ranks of the insurgency and that fighters are bristling at being ordered to battle through the winter by bosses sitting far away in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, targeted strikes on midlevel leaders in Afghanistan have fractured the hierarchy, Gen. Petraeus said.

“The sheer losses that they’ve sustained are tremendous. That in and of itself is very significant, and it’s caused enormous stress on the central nervous system of the command and control structure,” he said.

A prime indicator of this success, Gen. Petraeus said, is the announcement by the Alikozai tribe that they would halt insurgent attacks and expel foreign fighters from one of the most violent spots in the country — Helmand’s Sangin district. The expansion of NATO and Afghan forces in the region has made such a move much more tenable that it would have been a year ago, he said.

“It has pushed out the security bubble,” Gen. Petraeus said, adding “2010 was a pretty bumper year for Helmand province.”

A year ago, President Obama approved a troop surge of 30,000 forces, most of whom went to the south to try to beat back Taliban forces from their traditional strongholds.

The surge of forces in the south is seen as key to bolstering security enough that Afghan forces can take charge, which would in turn allow U.S. and NATO forces to draw down troops.

The Obama administration has promised to start pulling troops out in July, meaning that Petraeus has only a few more months of operations before he has to start deciding where he can cut back.

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