The head of the U.S. Central Command said Thursday the American military will increase its presence near the Horn of Africa in the coming days as negotiators work to free an American ship captain being held hostage by pirates.
Gen. David Petraeus spoke to a group of about 750 people at a gathering of the nonpartisan Forum Club of the Palm Beaches. He did not give details about how many ships would enter the region.
“I can tell you there definitely will be more ships in that area within the next 24 to 48 hours,” Petraeus said. “This is a very complex situation, though, because you have a hostage situation.”
Somali pirates tried to hijack the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama on Wednesday, but the crew regained control of the ship. The armed pirates escaped on one of the ship’s lifeboats, taking the Maersk captain hostage. FBI negotiators joined U.S. Navy efforts Thursday to free him.
“This is going to have to play out some,” Petraeus said. “There are mother ships of the pirates … in the area, as well, so again, we will have to let this develop.
“Needless to say,” he added, “we want to ensure that we have all the capability that might be needed over the course of the coming days.”
Petraeus took over as commander of the Tampa-based U.S. Central Command last year after spending 20 months as the top U.S. commander in Baghdad. He now oversees U.S. military operations across the Middle East.
He said the situation in Iraq is “considerably better” than just two years ago, noting a drop in violence not seen since 2003. He said he expected the situation to continue to improve as more U.S. combat troops are brought home.
“And though al-Qaida in Iraq clearly does remain a force capable of periodic sensational attacks,” Petraeus said, “Iraqi and coalition forces have dealt the extremists significant blows over the past two years, reducing their capabilities substantially.”
“The situation in Afghanistan, on the other hand, stands in contrast to that in Iraq,” he said. “The trend has frankly been a downward spiral.”
Petraeus said the only way to gain ground there is to strengthen the Afghan government, rid it of corruption, reduce the drug trade and create economic opportunities for the people, in addition to increasing U.S. military presence.
President Barack Obama recently ordered the deployment of thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to try to reverse militant gains in the last three years.
“There will be nothing easy about Afghanistan,” Petraeus said. “It is clear that a sustained substantial effort will be required.”