By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 5, 2010; A08
ISTANBUL -- The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, whose gloomy assessment of the war last summer prompted the White House to boost troop levels, said Thursday that conditions are no longer deteriorating and predicted further improvements this year.
"I am not prepared to say that we have turned the corner," Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal told a group of U.S. reporters during a NATO conference here. "I'm not prepared to say we are winning. I am prepared to say we are very much engaged, and I'm confident we're going to see serious progress this year."
Last August, shortly after taking command in Afghanistan, McChrystal took a darker view in a report that was sent to the Pentagon and the White House. He said that "the overall effort" in Afghanistan was "deteriorating," that Taliban forces had momentum on their side and that the U.S.-led military campaign was at risk of failing without a significant increase in troops.
McChrystal repeated his warnings about the "deteriorating" war campaign on Oct. 1 in a speech in London. His harsh assessments helped to persuade President Obama to order the deployment of 30,000 U.S. reinforcements this year. NATO members and other allies have pledged at least 7,000 more troops as well.
"I feel differently now," he said Thursday. "I think we made significant progress in setting conditions in 2009 . . . and that we'll make real progress in 2010."
Asked why he thought the situation had improved, McChrystal said he could not point to specific measurements, but rather a general sense that security was better in some areas and that the mood among Afghan leaders was more optimistic.
For instance, he said, he recently accompanied Afghan President Hamid Karzai on a visit to the city of Nawa, a former Taliban stronghold in the southern province of Helmand. "President Karzai, with no body armor or anything, walked through the bazaar, talked to people, had tea," McChrystal said. "He told me he had not been in a bazaar like that -- he was there about 40 minutes -- that long since he's been in power, or at least for several years."
Other U.S. officials have been reluctant to cite an overall improvement in the war effort.
Testifying before Congress on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said the Taliban-led insurgency "has become increasingly dangerous and destabilizing."
McChrystal joined Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in Istanbul for discussions with NATO allies on Afghanistan and other issues. U.S. officials said that about 4,000 more trainers and mentors are needed to help build the Afghan national army and police force and that they hope NATO allies can make up some of the difference.
NATO members and other allies have pledged to send 9,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan since Obama announced his new war strategy in December and said he would send 30,000 additional U.S. troops.
Since taking office in January 2009, Obama has more than doubled the number of U.S. troops assigned to Afghanistan; about 100,000 are expected to be on the ground by the end of the year, along with 50,000 NATO and other allied soldiers.
The United States and NATO are under pressure to rapidly expand and improve Afghanistan's security forces so they can eventually shoulder the burden of fighting the Taliban-led insurgency. Obama has said he wants to start withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011, if conditions permit. Key NATO members, including the Netherlands, Canada and Germany, have also said they intend to begin pulling out later this year or in 2011.
McChrystal said Thursday that the U.S. military still plans to withdraw at least some forces in July 2011, but he did not say how many or how quickly. "I don't know the rate that that will occur," he said. "But I think that Afghan capacity will have grown to the point where that will be an option without a reduction in the ability to provide security."
Although McChrystal declined to describe 2010 as a make-or-break year in the war, which began in late 2001, other U.S. officials said it would mark a turning point.
"I call 2010 the year of maximum effort," Ivo H. Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, added in a meeting with reporters. "It is a year we are going to do everything we can so down the road we have to do less. . . . The key here is the more we can accomplish in 2010, the more we can transition in 2011 and beyond, the more we can draw down."