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."