KABUL - The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday he's "absolutely supportive" of the 18-month timeline for President Barack Obama's troop surge even though Taliban forces may try to wait out the increased U.S. commitment. He said the U.S. and its partners need to convince the Taliban they cannot win.
The Afghan government welcomed Obama's announcement that he was sending 30,000 more U.S. troops, but cautioned against setting a deadline for Americans to hand over to Afghan security forces and start withdrawing. Obama said if conditions are right, U.S. troops could begin leaving Afghanistan in 18 months.
The Taliban said in a statement that 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."
Shortly after Obama's speech, Gen. Stanley McChrystal told reporters, "I am absolutely supportive of the timeline," and that the time ahead would be used to build up Afghan forces to convince the people of this war-ravaged country that they can eventually take care of their own security.
"In a counterinsurgency, what we're really trying to do is protect the people," he said. McChrystal added that if the Afghan government used the time to increase its capabilities "then it makes it much more difficult for the insurgents returning."
"But to a degree the insurgents can't afford to leave the battlefield while the government of Afghanistan expands its capacity," he said.
McChrystal said NATO and U.S. forces would hand over responsibility for securing the country to the Afghan security forces "as rapidly as conditions allow" but cautioned that success would also depend on improvements in governance and economic development aid.
He said the coalition must "show clear commitment and resolve" and convince the Taliban "that they cannot win -- that there is not a way for the insurgency to win militarily."
"I think the second thing we need to do is to convince them that the reasons that they are participating are not valid," by tackling corruption and improving governance.
McChrystal said he met Wednesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai for nearly one hour at the presidential palace and described the 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."
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.
Poland's government said Wednesday it was likely to send 600 more troops next year, adding to the 2,000 it has already deployed in Afghanistan, pending approval from the Cabinet and president.
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 white-bearded resident of Kandahar in Afghanistan's violent south.
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 date to begin withdrawing U.S. troops 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."
U.S. service members in Wardak province, 22 miles (35 kilometers) west of Kabul, learned of Obama's troop build-up as they watched TV clips of the speech during their breakfast at Forward Operating Base Airborne.
"Really, I'm truly happy," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Phillip M. Hauser, an explosive demolition expert from Salina, Kansas, on his fourth tour of Afghanistan and Iraq. "As soon as the Afghans can do it on their own without our help, we can go home."
Asked if the Afghan security forces were ready, Hauser noted their inexperience, but didn't question their determination.
"They charge in and start pulling the wires" on the explosives, Hauser said. "It's not the safest way to do things, but these guys have the guts."
Sgt. Maj. Andrew Spano of Northboro, Massachusetts, deployed with the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, wondered whether to bank on the beginnings of a U.S. pullout in 18 months.
"What does that really mean?" he asked.
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.
Capt. Mark Reel from Norfolk, Virginia, a civil affairs officer, 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, he said.
Davood Moradian, senior adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, welcomed Obama's statement but cautioned against comparing the two wars.
"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.
Moradian said the plan to start pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan in July 2011 was not a hard deadline. "It has to be a results-oriented mission here," he said. "If we try to pursue a strategy based on an artificial deadline, I don't think that is going to work."
Interior Minister Hanif Atmar lauded Obama's speech but 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."
Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan where a large chunk of the new U.S. forces will be deployed, cited corruption -- which Karzai has pledged to fight -- as the worst problem facing his nation.
"The biggest problem is corruption in the Afghan government, police and military but also in some of the companies coming from the United States, Canada and England and Germany," Hamidi said. "There is corruption and drug dealing by the people who are in power, within the police and the military."
Hamidi said just last month he was told that Taliban were sleeping in the police barracks.
"The police are taking money from both sides -- the government and the Taliban," he said. "When we have this kind of police and military, the Afghan problem won't be solved in 20 years."
He also said that safe havens next door in Pakistan have to be shut down if Afghanistan's insurgency is to be curbed. On Wednesday, a suicide attacker struck Pakistan's naval headquarters in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, which has been hit with a series of bombings in recent months by Islamist militants.
"More American troops will mean more violence," said Pakistani engineering student Ammar Ahmed, 20. "It will worsen the situation both in Afghanistan and Pakistan."