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U.S. Commander Says Afghan Strategy Must Change

Young Afghan children look on as U.S. General Stanley McChrystal (left) visits a local bazaar at the Baraki Barak district in Logar Province earlier this month.
KABUL (Reuters) -- The situation in Afghanistan is grave, but victory can be achieved with a change in strategy, the commander of Western forces in the country has said, announcing the end of a long-awaited review.

Officials gave no indication in public as to whether U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, who commands more than 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops, would ask for still more reinforcements to carry out his new strategy.

The review is expected to spell out a completely revised approach to conducting the eight-year-old war, which Barack Obama considers the main foreign-policy priority of his U.S. presidency.

"The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort," McChrystal said in a statement announcing the report was ready.

The report comes at a time when Afghans are still anxiously awaiting the outcome of an August 20 presidential election.

New, partial results released on August 31 showed President Hamid Karzai maintaining a lead over his main rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, but still without the outright majority needed to avoid a second-round runoff.

McChrystal has been working on the review since he took command in June. He sent the classified document to the U.S. military's Central Command (CentCom) responsible for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and to NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Military officials say it contains no firm targets for troop strength, but it could form the basis for a decision within weeks on future deployments -- a politically fraught calculation that could mark a turning point in Obama's presidency.

Southern Results

The latest results, with nearly half of polling stations counted, showed Karzai leading with 45.9 percent against 33.3 percent for Abdullah. Although those results predict a runoff, they are mainly from the north, Abdullah's support base.

Results yet to be tallied from the south -- the heartland of Karzai's fellow ethnic Pashtuns -- could put Karzai over the top for a single-round win, but may be challenged by Abdullah, who says ballot boxes were stuffed on a massive scale.

An independent fraud watchdog, the Election Complaints Commission, is investigating nearly 2,500 allegations of abuse, including 567 it says are serious enough to affect the outcome.

Western officials initially hailed the election as a success because Taliban fighters failed to scupper it, but as fraud charges mount, those assessments have become more cautious.

Southern areas in particular saw turnout hurt by Taliban attacks and threats. In a particularly moving account of election day violence, Lal Mohammad, a 40-year-old farmer, told reporters in a Kabul hospital that he had been ambushed while heading to vote by fighters who cut off his ears and part of his nose.

A top counterinsurgency expert said on August 31 Afghanistan's government must fight corruption and quickly deliver services to Afghans, because Taliban militants are filling gaps and winning support to their cause.

The Taliban was already running courts, hospitals, and even an ombudsman in parallel to the government, making a real difference to local people, said David Kilcullen, a senior adviser to U.S. commander McChrystal.

"A government that is losing to a counterinsurgency isn't being outfought, it is being out-governed. And that's what's happening in Afghanistan," Kilcullen told Australia's National Press Club.

The 103,000 troops under McChrystal's command in Afghanistan include 63,000 Americans, half of whom arrived this year as part of an escalation strategy begun under outgoing President George W. Bush and ramped up under Obama. The Western force is set to rise to 110,000 including 68,000 Americans by year's end.

Since taking command, McChrystal has adjusted the focus of Western forces from hunting down insurgents to trying to protect the Afghan population, borrowing in part from U.S. tactics in Iraq developed under CentCom commander General David Petraeus.

His review is expected to suggest concentrating forces in more heavily populated areas, and also stepping up efforts to train Afghan soldiers and police.

Speculation has swirled about whether McChrystal will conclude he needs still more troops, or whether U.S. commanders and political leaders would give them to him if he does.

The additional U.S. forces that have arrived so far have pushed out into formerly Taliban-held territory. Along with British troops, they have been taking by far the heaviest casualties of the war over the past two months.

Two U.S. service members were killed on Monday in separate bomb attacks in the south of the country. August has been the deadliest month of the war for U.S. troops, and 2009 is already the deadliest year for foreign forces.