PARIS (Reuters) - General David Petraeus, Washington’s new intelligence chief, said on Wednesday he trusted Pakistan as an ally in the fight against al Qaeda and gave a cautiously upbeat overview of the war in Afghanistan which he led for the past year.
Petraeus, who handed over command of foreign troops in Afghanistan on Monday, spoke in support of Pakistan’s military leadership in the midst of heightened tensions between the United States and its at-times reluctant regional ally.
“I do believe they want to eliminate the al Qaeda presence and I do believe they want to eliminate the Taliban Pakistani presence,” Petraeus said at a news conference in Paris, where he stopped on the way back to the United States from Afghanistan.
After many in Pakistan were infuriated by a secret U.S. raid that killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in May, U.S.-Pakistan relations were further strained this week with the arrest in Virginia of a U.S. citizen charged with illegally lobbying the United States for the Pakistani government.
“It is credible they did not know” Osama bin Laden had been living in a compound in the city of Abbottabod, the site of a Pakistani military school, Petraeus added.
Petraeus, whose new role as director of the Central Intelligence Agency puts him in charge of handling delicate relations with Pakistani secret services, described the relationship as “difficult” but commended efforts to fight Pakistan’s Taliban.
“There are limits to how much they can do,” he said.
“They have a lot of short sticks in hornets’ nests right now and they have to consolidate some of those,” he said, referring to offensives against al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban strongholds in the country’s restive northern region.
As Petraeus handed over command to U.S. General John Allen, violence continued unabated in Afghanistan, with Taliban insurgents claiming responsibility for the killing of seven police officers.
The handover was also marred by the recent assassinations of an advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and of his half-brother. A recent United Nations report showed more Afghan civilians had died in the first six months of 2011 than at any other period in the decade-old war.
Petraeus countered by pointing to a chart showing the number of insurgent attacks in the first six months of 2011 had fallen compared to the same period last year -- the bloodiest on record since the coalition invaded in 2001.
“We have information, for example, that Taliban leaders consider that their portion of the summer offensive has failed,” he said, referring to the months when fighting is typically most intense in Afghanistan.
“I don’t want to diminish the challenges, risks, and everything else ... this is a tough fight and it will remain a tough fight,” he added.
In Iraq, where Petraeus is credited with reversing a descent into all-out civil war, the arrival of additional U.S. troops had led to an “excruciating” spike in violence before subsiding to more manageable levels, he said.
Asked if the coalition was holding talks with the Taliban ahead of a phased troop withdrawal, Petraeus said: “I wouldn’t say so ... Afghanistan is going to be the longest of the long war.”
Editing by Sophie Hares