Image: General Stanley McChrystal greets Afghan parliament members in Kabul, Afghanistan
Omar Sobhani  /  Reuters
The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal (L), greets Afghan parliament members in Kabul, Thursday.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 12/2/2009 2:07:45 PM ET 2009-12-02T19:07:45

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday that the Afghan government and its international partners should use the coming 18 months to convince the Taliban they can't win and offer militants a way to quit the insurgency "with dignity."

Gen. Stanley McChrystal made the call after President Barack Obama announced he was sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to the war-ravaged country. If conditions are right, Obama said American troops could begin leaving Afghanistan in 18 months.

The Taliban immediately rebuffed Obama's new war plan, saying it will only lead to more American casualties.

In a statement, the Taliban said Obama's plan was "no solution for the problems of Afghanistan" and would give the insurgents an opportunity "to increase their attacks and shake the American economy which is already facing crisis."

A Taliban spokesman told NBC News that the move would give the militants "more targets."

"Obama announced his strategy after months of delay, but he didn't pay attention to the American people who are suffering a major financial crisis," the spokesman added. "Instead, he only listened to the generals at the Pentagon and big businessmen. It also gives us the opportunity to beat the United States financially because more troops mean spending more money."

'You are weak'
The Afghan government welcomed Obama's announcement but cautioned against setting a deadline for starting to withdraw.

Reaction among Afghans and U.S. soldiers was mixed, with many wondering whether the Afghan government can meet the challenges of fighting both corruption and the insurgents and whether the surge means more Afghan civilians will die.

"I am asking America, 'What did you do for the last eight years against your enemies? You have killed Afghans and your enemies have killed Afghans. It seems you are weak and the enemy is strong. Will you defeat the enemy this time?'" said Haji Anwar Khan, a resident of Kandahar in Afghanistan's violent south.

Video: Petraeus's view

In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that failure in Afghanistan would mean a Taliban takeover of the country and "have severe consequences for the United States and the world."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the committee the Obama administration's newly announced surge-and-exit strategy is "the best way to protect our nation now and in the future."

"I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving. But what we have done ... is to signal very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan," she said.

War-ravaged country
In a speech to troops in the southern city of Kandahar, McChrystal said the main thrust of the new strategy will focus on Afghanistan's volatile south, where the Taliban's influence is strongest.

"This (war) will go on for quite awhile, but it will be decided, in my view, in the next one or two years," McChrystal said. "I believe that by this time next year we'll see a level of progress."

McChrystal earlier told reporters the 18-month timetable was enough time to build up Afghan forces and convince the people that they can eventually take care of their own security.

He said the Afghan government and the coalition should also use that period "to convince the Taliban and the people from whom they recruit that they cannot win — that there is not a way for the insurgency to win militarily."

At the same time, he said the U.S. should support the Afghan government in a reintegration program to allow insurgents a way to return to society.

"I think they should be faced with the option to come back if they are willing to come back under the constitution of Afghanistan — that they can come back with dignity," he said. "If you look at the end of most civil wars and insurgencies, I think that everybody needs a chance to come back with dignity and respect and rejoin society. I think that will be important for us to look forward to."

McChrystal said he met Wednesday with President Hamid Karzai for nearly an hour and described the Afghan leader's reaction as "really positive."

"The president was very upbeat, very resolute this morning," he said. "I really believe that everybody's got a focus now that's sharper than it was 24 hours ago."

'It is a war to give people a chance'
Speaking to NBC News' Richard Engel, McChrystal said there were relatively few al-Qaida militants in Afghanistan but declined to give a number.

"This is not a war for profit," the general added. "This is not a war for conquest. This is not a war for glory. It is a war to give people a chance."

Meantime, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, said Obama had made a "very powerful case ... for the importance of the mission in Afghanistan."

He said it was important to remember that Afghanistan was "where the 9/11 attacks were planned."

Petraeus, speaking on 'Morning Joe,' said "our overriding objective, of course, has to do with al-Qaida ... and ensuring that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary or safe haven" for the terrorist group or other extremists.

"We've obviously taken lessons from Iraq and then looked very hard at how we can apply them in Afghanistan," he said.

However, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar said the 18-month timeframe was too short for a complete handoff from international forces.

"That kind of time frame will give us momentum," Atmar said. "We are hoping that there will be clarity in terms of long-term growth needs of the Afghan national security forces and what can be achieved in 18 months."

In neighboring Pakistan, Obama's speech drew a lukewarm reaction. Key al-Qaida leaders including Osama bin Laden are believed to have taken refuge in Pakistan, and Obama's announcement of a tentative withdrawal date could deter Pakistan from cracking down on Taliban fighters using Pakistani territory as a safe haven.

"The Americans would like to keep the pressure on the Pakistan army to chase the militants all over the tribal regions, but Pakistan of course has to see whether it's feasible," said Dr. Riffat Hussain, a professor of Defense Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. "It seems Pakistan prefers the incremental approach."

Widespread opposition in Europe
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he expects the allies to boost the NATO-led force by more than 5,000 soldiers. He said the best way to overcome widespread public opposition to the war in Europe is by demonstrating progress on the battlefield.

Capt. Mark Reel from Norfolk, Va., U.S. military civil affairs officer deployed in Wardak province, west of Kabul, said more troops mean nothing unless they can give local Afghans a sense of perceived security.

"They have to believe they are more secure. You get thousands of troops on some of these bases here, but what are they really doing? The troops just have to get out there (in the field)." The reason the surge worked in Iraq, he said, is because troops were able to get into the field and make Iraqis feel safer.

More than 850 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the Defense Department. Of those, the military reports nearly 660 were killed by hostile action. NATO reported that the latest member of the U.S. forces to die was killed in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday when his patrol was attacked by insurgents.

Davood Moradian, senior adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, welcomed Obama's statement but cautioned against comparing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We are very pleased and support President Obama's analysis that Afghanistan is not Vietnam. But I think Afghanistan is not Iraq. Therefore, we have to be very careful about that," he said.

NBC News' Richard Engel, msnbc.com staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Afghan ambassador: 'We will be ready'

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