WASHINGTON — The U.S. general in charge of the war in Afghanistan says capturing Osama bin Laden is the ultimate key to defeating the al-Qaida terror network.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal told Congress on Tuesday that bin Laden is an "iconic figure" whose very survival eight years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. serves as a recruiting tool for al-Qaida. U.S. intelligence officials believe bin Laden is in hiding in Pakistan, along that country's rugged border with Afghanistan.
McChrystal says finding bin Laden is not the key to winning the war in Afghanistan. But he says he does not think that the United States will defeat the terror network outright until bin Laden is found and brought to justice.
The general also said Tuesdy he did not get as many troops as he wanted and must work under a schedule he did not recommend, but he insisted the Obama administration's revamped strategy is the best way to win.
Comments by Afghanistan's president and the U.S. defense secretary suggested a long, slow effort.
As McChrystal defended President Barack Obama's new surge-and-exit strategy in Washington, the U.S. challenge was underscored in Kabul. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates standing at his side, that it probably will be five years before Afghan forces can take the lead in the fight against Taliban insurgents. Karzai predicted it would be at least 15 years before his government could pay for its own forces.
In congressional committee rooms, McChrystal declared under questioning that "I'm comfortable with the entire plan." But in lengthy sessions before Senate and House panels, the four-star general cautioned against expectations of immediate results and said the strategy must show progress within 18 months, Obama's deadline for beginning to bring U.S. troops home.
"The sober fact is that there are no silver bullets," McChrystal said. "Ultimate success will be the cumulative effect of sustained pressure."
Karzai's comments, following a meeting with Gates, added more uncertainty to the planned exit of American troops. They also lowered expectations of any quick progress by shrunken Afghan security forces, which long have been expected to be equal partners with U.S. forces and troops from 42 other countries stationed in Afghanistan.
In announcing last week his decision to order 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Obama said they would begin coming home in July 2011.
Gates, in remarks to reporters in Kabul, reiterated that the administration expects the U.S. withdrawal to be "a several-year process — whether it's three years or two years or four years remains to be seen."
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Karzai's repetition Tuesday of his earlier warnings of a five-year buildup of the Afghan army and police make it likely that the American pullout could be a slow-motion drawdown that could extend through 2014. He said Afghanistan will need international help to build homegrown security forces well beyond that date.
Video: Will the U.S. be out of Afghanistan in 18 months? Administration officials have said the length and speed of the withdrawal will depend on the results of the military campaign against the Taliban, as well as the success of efforts to build up Afghan forces and strengthen the Kabul government.
In exchanges with lawmakers, both McChrystal and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said the July 2011 date for starting the U.S. withdrawal provides a "forcing function" to pressure the Afghans to get their own forces ready to handle security.
Hinting at a misgiving, McChrystal said the Taliban would make propaganda use of the withdrawal plan, presumably to encourage its fighters and their facilitators to believe the U.S. will is weakening. He added that he believed this could be overcome.
McChrystal said he had not recommended the 18-month deadline for beginning a pullout and had preferred that more fresh forces be sent in.
Friendly, frayed relations
Despite reports that McChrystal and Eikenberry have frayed relations and were at odds over the ambassador's opposition to a major troop surge, the two men took pains to say they are friends.
Both men fielded pointed questions about the viability of the Obama strategy, the reliability of the Afghan government and the wisdom of announcing the July 2011 withdrawal start.
McChrystal, who took over the top command job in Kabul in June, said the nature of the Taliban and the brutal way it ruled before being overthrown in late 2001 are among reasons he thinks the insurgency can be defeated.
"They were not credible in power, and they are not credible now," McChrystal said.
Eikenberry, who previously had privately expressed doubts about sending a large number of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, said he was now "100 percent" behind the strategy, which includes emphasis on a bigger role for U.S. civilian agencies to assist in strengthening the Afghan government and its economy.
Video: Are U.S. tax dollars funding Afghan corruption? Sen. John McCain, senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised the decision to send more troops but said that setting a firm date for beginning to send them home was a mistake.
"We have announced a date divorced from conditions on the ground," McCain said.
Eikenberry, himself a former U.S. commander in Kabul, said the course outlined last week by Obama "offers the best path to stabilize Afghanistan and to ensure al-Qaida and other terrorist groups cannot regain a foothold to plan new attacks against our country or our allies."
McChrystal spoke not of defeating the Taliban but of attempting to "disrupt and degrade" its fighting capacity. "Rolling back the Taliban," he said, "is a prerequisite to the ultimate defeat of al-Qaida."
The House panel's highest-ranking Republican, Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, told McChrystal he was waiting to hear how "the president is not under-resourcing his own strategy," since the general had sketched ways that as many as 80,000 additional U.S. forces could have helped turn the tide.
McChrystal said he did not think he would need to ask for any more troops in a year's time but would not hesitate to recommend more if circumstances changed.
He also told McKeon he did not recommend the July 2011 exit plan but supports it.
"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," McChrystal said. "From that point forward, while we begin to reduce U.S. combat force levels, we will remain partnered with the Afghan security forces in a supporting role to consolidate and solidify their gains."
"Afghans do not regard us as occupiers," he said. "They do not wish for us to remain forever, yet they see our support as a necessary bridge to future security and stability."
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