Petraeus: Afghan fight slowly shifting to east

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - The outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan said the focus of the war will shift in upcoming months from Taliban strongholds in the south to the porous eastern border with Pakistan where al-Qaida factions and others hold sway.

On his last Fourth of July in uniform before becoming the new CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus said more special forces, intelligence, air power and some possibly some ground troops will be moved - probably by fall - to battle insurgents along the mostly rugged mountainous border with Pakistan.

The U.S.-led coalition has focused much of its troop strength, resources and attention on Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, but the main effort of the war soon will turn eastward, he said. The east is home to the Afghan Taliban hotbeds and other groups such as al-Qaida and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

"It's a shift of intelligence assets. It's a shift of armed and lift helicopters and perhaps the shift of some relatively small coalition forces on the ground and substantial Afghan forces on the ground," he said in interviews with The Associated Press and three other news outlets after attending two re-enlistment ceremonies.

"The intent has always been that as the southwest and south are solidified, that these assets would focus on the east. It's not to say that we're not doing it now."

Petraeus' visit to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan and Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul, was one of the last of his command in Afghanistan. Petraeus, who recently was confirmed as the next CIA director, will be replaced by U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen at a ceremony scheduled for July 18.

Petraeus leaves just 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.

"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, declining to discuss the differing recommendations. "That decision has been made. It is now the job of military commanders and troopers to get on with it."

On Sunday, three U.S. Senators visiting Afghanistan criticized the pace of withdrawal and expressed concerns that it may leave NATO with too few troops to deal a decisive blow to the insurgency.

"I believe that the planned drawdown is an unnecessary risk," John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said. McCain arrived in Afghanistan with Sens. Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham. McCain lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential race.

Separately, a British soldier who is part of the NATO-led international force fighting in southern Afghanistan went missing in the country's restive south and an extensive operation is under way to find him, Britain's Ministry of Defense said.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi claimed insurgents captured the soldier during a firefight with NATO troops in the Babaji area of Helmand province and that he died in the crossfire. Ahmadi said that six other NATO troops died in the gun fight. The Taliban claim could not be independently confirmed.

As troops celebrated the United States' 235th birthday, violence continued across the nation.

A NATO service member was killed Monday in a bomb attack in the east, bringing to 274 the number killed so far this year, including at least 197 Americans.

Also in the east, In Nazyan district of Nangarhar province, 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.