BRUSSELS – BRUSSELS (AP) — The top commander in the largely stalemated Afghanistan war acknowledged Thursday that a crucial campaign to secure the region of the country where the Taliban insurgency was born will take longer than planned because local Afghans do not yet welcome the military-run operation.
The operation to secure the Kandahar region will unfold more slowly and last longer than the military had planned, Gen. Stanley McChrystal said. The slower pace of the make-or-break operation reflects the reality that the Taliban is not a hated occupier in Kandahar, and the residents McChrystal is trying to protect do not universally want his help.
"I do think it will happen more slowly than we had originally anticipated," McChrystal said.
McChrystal predicted he can still demonstrate a turnaround in the war by year's end, as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week is necessary to sustain public backing for a war now in its ninth year.
Kandahar is Afghanistan's second-largest city and a key to the success of President Barack Obama's revamped war strategy, which focuses on turning local allegiances against the Taliban and toward the U.S.-backed central government in Kabul.
Kandahar was always the place where that strategy was most starkly challenged, since the Taliban is a daily presence in neighborhoods and carries a significant level of popular support.
A military and civilian campaign to neuter the Taliban began in the Kandahar region this spring, and had been expected to ramp up in June and largely conclude by August. It will now probably stretch far into the fall.
"It will take a number of months for this to play out, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing," McChrystal told reporters on the sidelines of a NATO meeting taking stock of the war.
"I think it's more important that we get it right than we get it fast," he said.
McChrystal said he has underestimated the amount of time needed to get local support, but the overall plan for Kandahar remains the same.
NATO forces, working alongside Afghans, are reaching out to local business and political leaders and holding rap sessions known as shuras. McChrystal said he would attend a shura planned by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the Kandahar region within a few days.
"It's a deliberate process," McChrystal said. "It takes time to convince people."
As recently as this week, military leaders had insisted there was no delay.
McChrystal will update NATO defense ministers on the war, nearly a year to the day after he took over as senior commander.
Gates was pressing NATO allies to provide more military advisers to train Afghan forces. The alliance should comply, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
NATO said it needs another 450 instructors to bring its training mission in Afghanistan to full strength. Some countries have dragged their feet and failed to dispatch as many police and army trainers as they pledged last year, generally blaming logistical issues for the shortfall.
The Afghan army is expected to grow this year to 134,000 troops and the police to about 109,000 members. Plans call for the security forces to reach 300,000 by October 2011. The U.S.-led international force currently numbers about 122,000 troops.
They face an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 insurgents.
The two-day meeting of defense ministers from NATO's 28 member nations — and those from 18 other allied countries contributing troops to the 122,000-strong NATO force in Afghanistan — is intended to pave the way for the alliance's summit next November in Lisbon, Portugal.
Associated Press writer Slobodan Lekic contributed to this report.