KABUL – The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan worked to sell the new American strategy for the country to Afghan parliamentarians Thursday, promising that international troops will not start leaving until national security forces are ready to take over.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal addressed about 30 parliamentarians in an ornate conference room two days after President Barack Obama announced he was sending 30,000 new U.S. troops in early 2010 to try to turn the tide against Taliban insurgents. Obama said he hoped to start drawing down in 18 months if conditions permit.
"We will not decrease coalition forces without the increase of Afghan national security forces capability," McChrystal, in combat fatigues, told a room full of mostly men in suits — some wearing traditional felt hats and a few in turbans. The general is commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
He said that the 30,000 additional forces should be in place within a year and that by the summer of 2011 "it will be clear that the government of Afghanistan will be the victors," McChrystal said, adding that a U.S. presence in the country would remain.
"It will not be over. It will take time after that. It will take years after that, together, to provide security and continue to secure Afghanistan," he said.
His speech took a slightly different tack than Obama's televised address Wednesday. Obama, speaking mostly to Americans, stressed the exit strategy. McChrystal emphasized to the parliamentarians that the U.S. will stay as long as necessary. He met with the parliamentarians after holding talks with President Hamid Karzai and key ministers on Wednesday.
The Taliban have said more Americans would die under the Obama plan, which would give them an opportunity "to increase their attacks and shake the American economy, which is already facing crisis."
The Taliban statement issued Wednesday said that Obama only set a tentative pullout date for July 2011 to lessen the sensitivities of Afghans about the troop buildup and to decrease the American public's opposition to the war.
Parliamentarians told McChrystal they were worried about a quick departure and about being deserted by international troops so soon, according to those who participated in a closed-door question and answer session with the general.
Daoud Sultanzai, a parliamentarian from Ghazni province, said the lawmakers were worried that the two-year deadline meant that U.S. forces were not committed to the country.
"It is interpreted that the United States and the international community will start leaving Afghanistan," Sultanzai said. McChrystal told the group that the planned to start leaving in 18 months applies to the new troops being sent now, not to the full U.S. force.
The Afghan war has become increasingly hard to sell to Americans as troop deaths increase. 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.
McChrystal said the main thrust of the new strategy will focus on Afghanistan's volatile south, where the Taliban's influence is strongest. The NATO Secretary-General has said he expects the allies also to boost the NATO-led force by more than 5,000 soldiers.
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.
Shortly after Obama's speech, McChrystal told reporters that the U.S. should also support the Afghan government in reintegrating militants.
"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."