We're losing and with US casualties rising sharply and the war costing America 4 billion dollars a month, we've got one year to get results before public support evaporates, says General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the US army in Afghanistan. Interviewed by the Wall Street Journal
The Taliban have gained the upper hand in Afghanistan, says General Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander, warning that US casualties, already running at record levels, will remain high for months to come. McChrystal said the Taliban are moving beyond their traditional strongholds in southern Afghanistan to threaten formerly stable areas in the north and west.
The militants, he says, are mounting sophisticated attacks that combine roadside bombs with ambushes by small teams of heavily armed militants, causing significant numbers of US fatalities. July was the bloodiest month of the war for American and British forces, and 12 more American troops have already been killed in August.
"It's a very aggressive enemy right now. We've got to stop their momentum, stop their initiative. It's hard work."
The Obama administration is in the midst of an Afghan buildup that will push U.S. troop levels here to a record 68,000 by year end. There are roughly an additional 30,000 troops from North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries and other allies.
McChrystal is expected to request as many as 10,000 more troops -- a request many observers say will be a tough sell at the White House, where several senior administration officials have said publicly that they want to hold off on sending more troops until the impact of the initial influx of 21,000 reinforcements can be gauged.
The U.S. war effort in Afghanistan is costing American taxpayers about $4 billion a month.
Just like the Russians
The prospect of more troops rankles some of Gen. McChrystal's advisers, who worry the American military footprint in Afghanistan is already too large. "How many people do you bring in before the Afghans say, 'You're acting like the Russians'?" said one senior military official, referring to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. "That's the big debate going on in the headquarters right now."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said publicly during his campaign for the approaching August 20 elections that he wants to negotiate new agreements giving the Afghan government more control over the conduct of the foreign troops currently in the country.
General McChrystal, however, says too many troops aren't a concern. "I think it's what you do, not how many you are. It's how the force conducts itself."
Regardless of how he resolves the internal debate on troop numbers, McChrystal's coming report won't include any specific requests for more US troops. The shift came amid signs of growing US unease about the direction of the war effort. Initial assessments delivered to General McChrystal last month warned that the Taliban were strengthening their control over Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan.
American forces have been waging a major offensive in the neighbouring southern province of Helmand, the center of Afghanistan's drug trade. Some U.S. military officials believe the Taliban have taken advantage of the American preoccupation with Helmand to infiltrate Kandahar and set up shadow local governments and courts throughout the city.
"Helmand is a sideshow," said the senior military official briefed on the analysis. "Kandahar is the capital of the south [and] that's why they want it."Despite the mounting concern about the Taliban's infiltration of Kandahar, there are clear limits to how soon additional U.S. forces can be sent to the city. Moving forces from neighbouring Helmand is nearly impossible, because those troops have already set up forward bases and recruited help from local tribal leaders, who have been promised American backing. As a result, the additional American troop deployments to Kandahar have only begun in recent days, with the arrival of new reinforcements that will continue into the fall.
One year to prevent public support evaporating
General McChrystal defended the decision to focus first on Helmand. The current operation, one of the largest since the start of the war in 2001, was meant to disrupt the Taliban's lucrative drug operations there, he said.
The armed group reaps tens of millions of dollars annually from the sale of opium from Helmand, and the commander said he wants to have troops on the ground before local farmers start to plant their next batch of poppies in November. The US is working to persuade Helmand's farmers to replace their poppy fields with wheat and fruit.
The roughly 4,000 Marines in Helmand have been charged with putting McChrystal's thinking about counterinsurgency into practice. They are trying to build local relationships by launching small development and reconstruction projects.
General McChrystal said his new strategy had to show clear results within roughly 12 months to prevent public support for the war from evaporating in both the U.S. and Afghanistan. "This is a period where people are really looking to see which way this is going to go," he said. "It's the critical and decisive moment."