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Top U.S. Afghan Commander, Diplomat Show Congress United Front


General Stanley McChrystal testifies as the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, looks on.
WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. commander and top diplomat in Afghanistan have told Congress that they fully support President Barack Obama's new strategy in the war and have been given the resources and "clarity" they need to achieve the mission.

General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO's International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), said the new strategy "reflects a realistic and effective approach."

He said the surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops would help the allies "defeat Al-Qaeda and prevent their return to Afghanistan."

"This means we must reverse the Taliban's current momentum and create the time and space to develop Afghan security and governance capacity,” McChrystal said. “The president's decision rapidly resources our strategy, recognizing that the next 18 months will likely be decisive and ultimately enable success. I fully support the president's decision."

Before Obama on December 1 announced the troop surge -- which will bring the total number of U.S. forces there to nearly 100,000 -- McChrystal had produced a security assessment that said as many as 40,000 troops were needed to achieve U.S. goals.

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, a retired three-star general, testified alongside McChrystal at two committee hearings on December 8. Leaked cables had earlier revealed that Eikenberry opposed an increase in U.S. forces until the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai had solved its deep problems of corruption and weak governance.

But like McChrystal, Eikenberry told Congress that his concerns had been "resolved" by the new White House plan.

In response to a question from Senator Joe Lieberman (Independent-Connecticut), Eikenberry said that he had not, in fact, opposed additional forces being sent to Afghanistan. Eikenberry said General McChrystal’s “security analysis...was comprehensive and it was correct.”

He added that during Obama's three-month strategy review preceding the announcement, he had been asked, like many others, to give the president his best advice and thoughts on the way forward, and had done so.

"I believe that the course that the president has outlined offers our best path to stabilize Afghanistan and to ensure that Al-Qaeda cannot regain a foothold to plan new attacks against us,” Eikenberry said. “I can say without equivocation that I fully support this approach."

Sufficient Resources

In their testimony, both men praised the additional resources that the White House has decided to allocate to the eight-year war. There are currently about 40,000 troops from NATO allies in Afghanistan and, at Obama's urging, NATO allies have pledged several thousand more.

Eikenberry characterized the new strategy as "based on a pragmatic assessment of the security interests of the United States and our belief that our sustainable, representative government" are essential to Afghanistan's success.

McChrystal said the new plan has given allied forces “a greater sense of clarity, capability, commitment, and confidence." But he warned that the "mission in Afghanistan is undeniably difficult" and said "success will incur significant costs."

"Results may come more quickly and we must demonstrate progress toward measurable objectives,” McChrystal said. “But the sober fact is there are no silver bullets. Ultimate success will be the cumulative effect of sustained pressure across multiple lines of operation."

McChrystal listed what he said was one of the necessary conditions for defeating Al-Qaeda once and for all -- the capture or death of Osama bin Laden.

"I believe he is an iconic figure at this point, whose...survival emboldens Al-Qaeda as a franchising organization across the world," he said.

Eikenberry echoed that view, stating that it is "important to the American people -- indeed, the people of the world -- that one day Osama bin Laden is either captured or killed, brought to justice."

But McChrystal also cautioned that killing or capturing the Saudi-born Al-Qaeda leader would not be enough to dismantle the group.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently acknowledged that the United States still does not know where bin Laden is hiding, and has not had good intelligence on his whereabouts for years.

In a report in November, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded that bin Laden had been "within our grasp" in Afghanistan in late 2001. But it said that at the time, calls for U.S. reinforcements had been rejected, allowing the Al-Qaeda leader to "walk unmolested" into Pakistan's unregulated tribal areas.

Exit Strategy

At the same time as he announced the troop surge, Obama said he plans to begin drawing down troop strength in 18 months, by July 2011.

Members of Congress have criticized that announcement, complaining that it gives the enemy the allied battle plan and that it might be premature, depending on conditions on the ground.

McChrystal said the next 18 months will be “crucial." "The most important thing we will have done by the summer of 2011 is convince the majority of the Afghan people that in fact, we are going to win; we and the Afghan government are going to win. And that that is going to be the direction for the future," he said.

But he also acknowledged the realities of the insurgency, calling it "complex and resilient."

McChrystal said the Taliban leadership based in Quetta, Pakistan, “is the prominent threat to the government of Afghanistan as they aspire to once again become the government of Afghanistan. The Haqqani and Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin insurgent groups have more limited geographical reach and objectives, but they are no less lethal. All three groups are supported to some degree by external elements in Iran and Pakistan, have ties with Al-Qaeda, and coexist within narcotics and criminal networks, both fueling and feeding off instability and insecurity in the region."

As reasons for his confidence, he listed the Afghan people's resolve to end the violence, their view of NATO forces not as occupiers but as "a necessary bridge to future stability and security," and what he said is evidence that the Taliban is only able to win support from the population through threats and coercion, not because they offer an appealing vision of governance.

But the general also told Congress that Afghans are understandably fed up with conditions. "While U.S. forces have been at war in Afghanistan for eight years, the Afghans have been at it for more than 30,” McChrystal said. “They are frustrated with international efforts that have failed to meet their expectations, confronting us with a crisis of confidence among Afghans who view the international effort as insufficient and their government as corrupt, or at the very least, inconsequential."

Praise For The Plan

Since Obama announced the new strategy, top administration officials have taken part in an enthusiastic media blitz, appearing on multiple television news shows to explain and praise the plan.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a briefing in Washington with reporters at the Foreign Press Center. In response to a question about Iran's skepticism that the U.S. troop increase in Afghanistan will make a difference, Mullen pointed out that the United States is being helped by 43 countries.

"I am a strong believer that this is the right decision and the right path,” Mullen said. “That others would certainly differ, that wouldn't surprise me. And in fact that Iran would differ...doesn't surprise me much at all. Iran is a border state, they obviously have interest there, and I am sure they are observing very closely what's going on."

Aside from troop strength, a key difference in the current war plan, as opposed to the past eight years, is a more robust civilian presence.

Eikenberry told Congress that by early next year, the United States will have sent nearly 1,000 civilians from a range of U.S. government agencies to help the Afghan people build up their infrastructure, governance capacity, and economy.

That represents a 10-fold increase from last year in the number of U.S. civilians working outside of Kabul, he said.

Nikola Krastev contributed reporting from New York.