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General: War in Afghanistan is 'winnable'

The Army general chosen to take over as top commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan told senators Tuesday he believes the war can be won if a proper counterinsurgency campaign is undertaken.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The general whom President Barack Obama picked to turn around the worsening war in Afghanistan told Congress on Tuesday that winning will require spending more U.S. resources and killing fewer Afghan civilians.

Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal warned that failure would probably mean all-out civil war and a firmer foothold for al-Qaida terrorists.

McChrystal said that with a proper counterinsurgency campaign, including a more prominent role for civilian experts, Afghanistan can be stabilized and its Taliban opposition marginalized. Progress must be shown within 18 to 24 months to sustain public support for the war, the general said.

"I believe it is winnable, but I don't think it will be easily winnable," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a hearing that suggested he is likely to win confirmation by the full Senate amid lingering questions about his role in the handling of the 2004 accidental shooting death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman in Afghanistan.

McKiernan's replacement
If confirmed he also would receive a fourth star, capping a rapid rise through the officer ranks.

McChrystal would replace Gen. David McKiernan, who was fired May 11 in an unusual wartime shake up. McKiernan has said that the conflict is "stalemated, at best" in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is strongest and where thousands of additional American troops are headed this summer.

The three-hour hearing highlighted the severity and diversity of problems facing Afghanistan: a resilient insurgency, a lack of effective Afghan governance, official corruption, rampant illicit drug trade, unwillingness by some NATO allies to do more fighting, and a spreading Taliban insurgency inside Pakistan.

"Although I expect stiff fighting ahead, the measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed. It will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence," he said. The most important way to accomplish that, he said, is to further develop the Afghan national army and police, which he said probably will have to grow in numbers beyond current projections.

McChrystal, appearing on the 33rd anniversary of his commissioning into the Army as a second lieutenant in 1976, offered no new details on how he would approach the war, beyond saying that it will require a multinational effort, including contributions from civilian experts, over a period of some years.

He emphasized the importance of avoiding Afghan civilian casualties — a problem that worsened under McKiernan despite broad recognition among U.S. leaders that civilian deaths sap support for the U.S. mission and play into the hands of extremists.

"This is a struggle for the support of the Afghan people. Our willingness to operate in ways that minimize casualties or damage — even when doing so makes our task more difficult — is essential to our credibility," McChrystal said. "I cannot overstate my commitment to the importance of this concept."

As combat intensifies, particularly in southern Afghanistan, U.S. and allied casualties will probably increase, the general said.

Obama has approved the addition of 21,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by October, bringing the American total to about 68,000.

"You might properly ask if that is enough. I don't know," he said. "It may be some time before I do. What I do know is that a military-centric strategy will not succeed." More civilian expertise is required, he said.

McKiernan had requested another 10,000 U.S. troops; McChrystal said he wants to see what is achieved with this year's influx of troops before deciding whether to recommend any further increases.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked McChrystal what would happen in Afghanistan if the war was lost.

"I think that what would happen is it would break down into civil war," the general replied, adding that as factions fought for control of the country, al-Qaida would regain the haven it enjoyed while the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

The general said he intends to review U.S. and allied operating procedures with an eye to minimizing civilian deaths. He also said that if he could obtain more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, it would sharpen the precision of allied attacks, thereby avoiding unwanted casualties.

"I believe the perception caused by civilian casualties is one of the most dangerous things we face in Afghanistan, particularly with the Afghan people," he said. "We've got to recognize that that is a way to lose their faith and lose their support, and that would be strategically decisive against us."

Encouraged by recent progress
Reflecting the difficulties McChrystal will face, the senior American commander for eastern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that violence in his area has increased 25 percent so far this year compared with last year, although the rate of increase has been declining. He said a recent influx of troops and other resources is making a difference.

"We're nowhere near the tipping point yet, and I also will say that progress is fragile," Schloesser said.

McChrystal testified alongside Navy Adm. James Stavridis, the nominee to become the top NATO commander in Europe. NATO provides a substantial share of the total allied forces in Afghanistan. Both Stavridis and McChrystal said they would look for ways to gain more NATO contributions, including training and nonmilitary efforts.

In an exchange with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., McChrystal said mistakes were made in the military's handling of the accidental shooting death of Tillman — a former NFL star — in Afghanistan in April 2004. At the time, McChrystal commanded U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan, including Army Rangers.

An investigation at the time found that McChrystal was "accountable for the inaccurate and misleading assertions" contained in internal military papers recommending that Tillman receive a Silver Star award for valor.

McChrystal told McCain that the award paperwork was "not well written." He added that this "produced confusion at a tragic time. I'm very sorry for that." He added that in retrospect, he would have done things differently, including taking more time to ensure that the award citation was accurate.