General offers assurances on Afghan war
McChrystal, U.S. envoy testify on Hill about new Obama strategy

By Greg Jaffe and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The U.S. general in charge of the Afghanistan war assured lawmakers Tuesday that an additional 30,000 troops, combined with changes in the overall war strategy, would trigger a demonstrable change on the ground before U.S. forces start to come home in 18 months.

"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," Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal said.

Despite such assurances, members of the House and Senate armed services committees used the appearance Tuesday by McChrystal -- as well as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry -- to press for answers on what would happen in July 2011, when the 30,000 forces that President Obama recently committed to sending to Afghanistan are to begin their gradual pullout.

Republicans, in particular, maintained that by setting a firm date to begin withdrawal, the administration could send the wrong signal to the Afghan people, who are wary of throwing their support behind a teetering Kabul government and a U.S. security force that they fear will eventually leave the country.

"What would you say to Afghans, Pakistanis and others in the region who may not feel like hedging their bets or sitting on the fence because they doubt America's commitment and resolve?" Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked.

Republicans and Democrats also probed for signs of rancor between McChrystal, who sent out urgent calls for additional troops, and Eikenberry, who expressed reservations about the timing and size of the escalation in two classified cables to Washington in early November.

Even before he was asked by lawmakers, Eikenberry sought to knock down rumors of tension in the U.S. command team in Kabul. "I want to say from the outset that General McChrystal and I are united in a joint effort where civilian and military personnel work together every day," he said. He also said he fully backed the president's decision to send in more soldiers and Marines to reverse the deteriorating security situation in the country.

Security responsibilities

Meanwhile, some Democrats, including Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), leaned on McChrystal and Eikenberry to speed the development of the Afghan army and police forces so that U.S. troops might be able to reduce their numbers even faster in areas of the country that are more stable.

Current plans call for an Afghan army of about 170,000 by July 2011; at present, there are about 95,000 Afghan soldiers. Military officials say that as few as 52,000 soldiers regularly show up for work, because of poor pay and other reasons. In recent weeks, the military has boosted the troops' pay so that they make as much as or more than Taliban fighters do.

In Kabul, questions about when the Afghan army and police forces would be able to take over primary security responsibilities also dominated a news conference between Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai cautioned that the Afghan government would not be able to bankroll its security forces for at least 15 to 20 years. As a visibly uncomfortable Gates stood next to him, the Afghan president added that with "maximum effort," Afghanistan "hopefully" could take responsibility for security in the entire country within five years.

Both Gates and McChrystal sought to send a clear message to Afghan leaders that the U.S. commitment to fighting the Taliban and rebuilding the country was not open-ended. At the same time, they vowed that the U.S. partnership with the Afghan government and other countries in the region would not be fleeting.

"Our government will not again turn our back on this country or this region," Gates said. "We will fight by your side until the Afghan forces are strong enough to secure the nation on their own."

Issue of corruption

Senior military officials are confident, based on recent operations in southern Afghanistan, that the large influx of U.S. troops over the next year will drive the Taliban out of havens, making it harder for the insurgents to operate. But Eikenberry and McChrystal cautioned that success in Afghanistan would depend on the willingness of the Karzai government to stamp out endemic corruption and of Pakistan to continue fighting insurgents on its side of the border.

Eikenberry was especially blunt about the risks associated with the new strategy. "In spite of everything we do, Afghanistan may struggle to take over the essential task of governance and security on a timely basis," he said.

U.S. officials will be closely scrutinizing Karzai's selections for his new cabinet, which he said he would announce this weekend. He is being squeezed between the United States, which has demanded that he stamp out corruption, and regional strongmen, who seek payback for his reelection.

U.S. officials have said they will divert aid money from ministries run by individuals deemed unqualified for their jobs. But Karzai faces a dilemma, analysts say, because he has promised top posts to former militia commanders who offered him critical support in the run-up to the Aug. 20 election. Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, said he doubts Karzai will have the will to resist selecting ministers based on their perceived power, rather than their merit.

"I don't see how the international community will succeed in pressuring him to change," Mir said. "There is no political will to go after corruption."

Kessler reported from Kabul. Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company