By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Army Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, President Obama's choice to lead the war in Afghanistan, said yesterday that violence and combat deaths will intensify as more U.S. troops surge into Taliban-held areas, but he vowed to execute a "holistic" strategy in which killing insurgents would be subordinate to safeguarding Afghan civilians.
McChrystal, a former Special Operations commander, pledged that if confirmed he will take extreme measures to avoid Afghan civilian casualties -- a problem that has long tarnished the U.S.-led military campaign -- putting civilians at risk only when necessary to save the lives of coalition troops.
"I expect stiff fighting ahead," McChrystal told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing yesterday. But, he added, "the measure of effectiveness will not be the number of enemy killed, it will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence."
To reduce civilian casualties, McChrystal said, he would review all rules of engagement, limit airstrikes and use more small ground units in search and detention operations.
In his first public testimony before a congressional committee, McChrystal, a longtime Army Ranger who has spent most of the past six years commanding secretive manhunt units in Iraq and Afghanistan, took pains to emphasize the broader counterinsurgency goals of improving security and governance for Afghans.
Still, when asked to describe "success" in Afghanistan, McChrystal said the first component would be "a complete elimination of al-Qaeda" from Pakistan and Afghanistan. That, in turn, would prevent al-Qaeda from operating in either country with the Taliban, which he said would not be "destroyed" but rather made "irrelevant."
Facing some grilling from lawmakers on his background, McChrystal acknowledged failings related to the use of harsh interrogation tactics by service members under his command, as well as his controversial approval of a combat medal for Army Cpl. Pat Tillman, a well-known football player who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2004.
Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) asked whether McChrystal's forces, elite troops who were part of counterterrorism task forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, had employed harsh interrogation methods under a policy described in a 2002 memo by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"That policy included the aggressive acts that I described -- stress positions, use of dogs and nudity. Is that correct?" Levin asked.
"Sir, it did. We did not use all of the things that were outlined there," McChrystal said. "Some of them were used when I took over, sir."
Pressed by Levin, McChrystal said he was uncomfortable with the techniques. "We immediately began to reduce that" after he took charge in October 2003, he said.
Regarding Tillman, McChrystal said he erred in not carefully reviewing the Silver Star citation, which he said was "not well written" and could have left the impression that Tillman was not killed by fratricide. The award "produced confusion at a tragic time, and I'm very sorry for that," he said. "We failed the family. And I was a part of that."
Yesterday's hearing was the first to address such concerns, because the Senate held a closed executive session last spring to confirm McChrystal in his current position as director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff.
The hearing was also the first public opportunity for McChrystal to expound on how he would approach Afghanistan after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates abruptly announced last month that he was firing the current U.S. commander, Gen. David McKiernan, and recommending that McChrystal replace him to put "fresh thinking" on the problem.
"The challenge is considerable" in Afghanistan and was not envisioned by the U.S. military or its NATO coalition allies in previous years, McChrystal said.
He allowed that the 21,000 additional U.S. troops dispatched to Afghanistan this year by Obama may not be enough. Asked whether he would need another 10,000 troops next year, as requested earlier by McKiernan, McChrystal said he did not know. Some 47,000 U.S. troops are in the country now, along with 33,000 non-American NATO forces.
Stressing the role of Afghan forces, he said that the Afghan National Army will have to grow significantly larger than its currently planned strength of 134,000 soldiers. Afghanistan is roughly the size of Texas and has a population estimated at 33.6 million.
McChrystal hinted at major organizational changes in the campaign.
One change would potentially abandon the current division of labor, in which the forces of individual NATO members are responsible for certain parts of Afghanistan. Instead, the effort would be divided according to function, with NATO performing most of the training of Afghan forces. But Adm. James G. Stavridis, who also appeared at the hearing as the nominee to become supreme allied commander of NATO, said the coalition is having difficulty filling the current requirement for teams to train Afghans.
"The really bad news is, looking ahead, we're positioned to have 71 and need as many as 90-plus" teams, Stavridis said. In addition, he said non-U.S. forces are restricted in Afghanistan by 69 caveats that limit what they can do.
Another goal, McChrystal said, would be to promote greater continuity in U.S. personnel by developing a corps of experts in Afghanistan's language and culture who would be assigned to the country for repeated tours.
To improve the complicated command structure in Afghanistan, McChrystal said, he would seek NATO approval to put his deputy, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, in charge of military operations in the five military regions of Afghanistan, allowing McChrystal to focus on higher-level strategy.
Calling the situation in Afghanistan "serious," he warned that without sustained involvement by the United States and other NATO and coalition countries, the nation would return to the state of civil war that plagued it for the past 30 years.
"Success will not be quick or easy, casualties will likely increase, we will make mistakes," McChrystal said. But "with the appropriate resources, time, sacrifices and patience, we can prevail."