US commander in Afghanistan confident of success

WASHINGTON // The top US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, praised Barack Obama's new war strategy yesterday, telling legislators that the additional 30,000 troops will help him reverse the Taliban's momentum and turn the tide of the war.

In much-anticipated testimony before the House armed services committee, the first of several scheduled appearances on Capitol Hill this week, Gen McChrystal described the new strategy as a "realistic and effective approach" and said he believed success in the central Asian war zone is "achievable". "The president's decision rapidly resources our strategy, recognises that the next 18 months will likely be decisive, and ultimately enables success," said Gen McChrystal, who also commands Nato troops and is considered by US officials to be the foremost expert on counterinsurgency. "I fully support the president's decision."

Gen McChrystal broadly outlined his vision of success as a "stable Afghanistan, a defunct al Qa'eda and a secure future in that vital region of the world". He also said disrupting the Taliban's "capacity" and "denying their access to the Afghan population" is a "prerequisite to the ultimate defeat of al Qa'eda". Gen McChrystal appeared alongside Karl Eickenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, who also served there as lieutenant general in the army there before taking up his diplomatic post. Their joint appearance fulfils a long-standing request by legislators for the two key players in the US war effort to appear for questioning before Congress. The two met Mr Obama on Monday and were scheduled to appear before the Senate armed service committee later yesterday.

Mr Eickenberry, who will oversee the tripling of US civilian actors in Afghanistan, said the US mission has reached a "critical juncture" after years of being under-resourced by the Bush administration. He also voiced strong support for Mr Obama's plan, saying it gives the United States "the best possible chance of achieving success on a reasonable timetable". He described the so-called "civilian surge" - or plans to deploy 1,000 civilians, from drug enforcement agents to agricultural experts, by early next year - as essential to the war effort. He cited goals that included building up the Afghan farming sector, cracking down on government corruption and enforcing border security, though he stipulated, as administration officials have, that US goals do not amount to "nation building".

Both men said success was contingent on enhanced co-operation with Pakistan, though Gen McChrystal stressed that its sovereignty is as "sacred as the sovereignty of any other country". The administration is in the middle of an all-out blitz to sell the troop increase to sceptical legislators and a war-weary public and there are signs the sales pitch is working. In a new Quinnipiac University survey of 2,313 registered voters, respondents supported the surge by a 58 per cent to 37 per cent margin.

The war plan, unveiled by Mr Obama last week, calls for the deployment of a combined 37,000 US and Nato troops and is largely consistent with the strategy and troop request outlined by Gen McChrystal this year. In his 66-page review of the war, submitted in August to the defence secretary, Robert Gates, Gen McChrystal painted a bleak picture and predicted "failure" if more troops were not deployed.

Gen McChrystal's emphasis on accelerating the training of Afghan troops and other efforts, such as the Community Defence Initiative - which calls for training local militias to guard against Taliban insurgents - also have been adopted by the administration. But there are some key differences in the administration's approach, such as the decision to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011. Many Republicans have rejected the advanced timetable, which they say could allow the Taliban to sit out the war until US forces exit the country.

Gen McChrystal, for his part, dismissed those concerns yesterday, saying the time frame may provide new impetus for Afghans to build up the capacity of their own forces. "On the positive," he said, "it is a bit of a forcing function by being very clear to all the players involved that we are going to be looking hard at things." Echoing administration officials, Gen McChrystal stressed that July 2011 is not a deadline, but rather the beginning of what could be a very slow and gradual withdrawal.

"We will decide the pace and scope of [the withdrawal] based upon conditions," he said. "I don't believe that is a deadline at all. I think it's just a natural part of the evolution of what we're doing."

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