WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – The United States will reverse Taliban momentum within a year and accomplish its mission in Afghanistan, but it will be “undeniably difficult” and costly, the top U.S. commander there said on Tuesday.
General Stanley McChrystal, making his first appearance in Congress since his grim August assessment warned the mission would fail without more troops, applauded President Barack Obama’s decision last week to deploy 30,000 additional forces. “I believe we will absolutely be successful,” McChrystal told lawmakers. “By this time next year … it will be clear to us that the insurgency has lost the momentum.” “And by the summer of 2011, it will be clear to the Afghan people that the insurgency will not win, giving them the chance to side with their government.”
Critics of Obama’s Afghan strategy have taken aim at his plan for U.S. forces to begin pulling out of Afghanistan from July 2011, a mixed message that could embolden insurgents to wait out U.S. forces.
Obama is also sending in fewer than the 40,000 troops requested by McChrystal — a lightning-rod issue for many lawmakers, even though part of the gap will be filled by NATO contributions. “Please explain why the president is not under-resourcing his own strategy?” asked Howard McKeon, the senior Republican on the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
McChrystal said he did not anticipate the need for additional forces in Afghanistan but acknowledged the mission was difficult, despite a surge expected to cost $30 billion to $35 billion a year. “The mission in Afghanistan is undeniably difficult, and success will require steadfast commitment and incur significant costs,” McChrystal said.
Appearing with McChrystal was U.S. envoy to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, who in the buildup to the surge sent a memo to Obama expressing concern about sending in more U.S. troops until the Afghan government did more to fight corruption. But in testimony on Tuesday, Eikenberry sought to play down any disagreements and said he “fully” supported the new strategy. The U.S. general called the envoy an “old friend.”
“I would like to clarify that at no point during this review process, Mr Chairman, was I ever opposed to additional troops being sent to Afghanistan,” Eikenberry said. “I am unequivocally in support of this mission and I am exactly aligned with General McChrystal here to my right in moving forward now to vigorously implement the assigned mission.”
A lone protester was removed from the hearing room for holding up a pink sign with the slogan: “Surge, big mistake,” reminiscent of the activists who interrupted hearings on the Iraq war surge during the Bush administration.
One of the key concerns among supporters and opponents of the strategy is rampant corruption in the Afghan government and McChrystal said it was critical to address this issue, which he has previously said fuels the insurgency.
Eikenberry backed McChrystal’s view, calling the Afghan government’s lack of credibility one of the “major impediments our strategy.” “Without institutions that serve the needs of ordinary Afghans and government officials who are accountable and honest, Afghanistan will always be in danger of returning to the conditions that made it a haven for violent extremists,” added Eikenberry. He cited a “rough estimate” that only half of the Afghan revenue collected by the government annually actually made it into the country’s Treasury Department.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose re-election was tainted by widespread fraud in the August vote, pledged in his inauguration speech to appoint capable and honest ministers. His cabinet is expected to be announced in the coming days.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Afghanistan on Tuesday, saying he would press Karzai to appoint “honest” members of the cabinet but playing down the need for a wholesale shake-up of his government.
Obama’s commitment means there will be about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan — two thirds of whom will have arrived since he took office — along with more than 40,000 from allied countries.
Following the U.S. troop announcement, NATO allies have offered as many as 7,000 reinforcements of their own, although it is still not clear how many of the troops are already in Afghanistan. Gates said that number “may go higher than that” after a conference on Afghanistan next month in London.