Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 8, 2009. He and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, defended President Obama's new war strategy.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 8, 2009. He and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, defended President Obama's new war strategy. Gerald Herbert/AP
The two top U.S. military and civilian officials in Afghanistan presented a united front before Congress on Tuesday as they defended the new war strategy that President Obama unveiled last week
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said there are no "silver bullets" for success there. He said that the deployment of 30,000 additional troops by next summer demonstrates U.S. resolve, even though he had presented scenarios that envisioned up to 80,000 extra troops.
"The president's decision rapidly resources our strategy, recognizing that the next 18 months will likely be decisive and ultimately enable success," he said during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee. "I fully support the president's decision."
The general tried to lay out a measured set of expectations. He declined to commit to eliminating the Taliban, but instead talking about defeating them militarily.
McChrystal explained that distinction by saying, "What we're doing is preventing the Taliban from being an existential threat to the government of Afghanistan and, by extension, the Afghan people."
Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, addressed press reports that during the White House's three-month strategic review, he authored classified assessments opposing any troop increases.
"As a result of this very extensive review, the mission was refined, the ways forward were clarified and the resources now have been committed to allow us to achieve the refined mission," Eikenberry said. "I am unequivocally in support of this mission."
There had been reports of a feud between the two men, but each made a point of calling the other his "friend" during two hearings on Tuesday.
Each was pressed by skeptical members of Congress from both sides of the aisle during a morning session before the House committee and an afternoon session of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
While many Democrats asked whether the extra troops could make enough of a difference given the wide concerns about corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai, Republicans focused on Obama's pledge to start drawing down the number of troops in July 2011.
"Why won't they just wait us out?" asked Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett from Maryland, speaking about the Taliban and other insurgents.
Republican Sen. John McCain was more blunt.
"We have announced a date, divorced from conditions on the ground, when we will start to withdraw our troops," he said. "It doesn't matter whether we call it a 'cliff' or a 'ramp' or anything else. It's still an exit sign, and it sends the wrong signal to our friends and enemies."
McChrystal said that he did not recommend the July 2011 time frame and that he did not see it as a deadline, but it could be a useful "forcing function" to prompt more intense cooperation from the Afghan government. Eighteen months, he added, was enough time for U.S. forces to help change the momentum in Afghanistan.
"What I tell my command now is, by next summer, I expect there to be significant progress that is evident to us inside our force," McChrystal told the committee. "By next December, when I report back to you in detail, I expect that we'll be able to lay real progress out that will be clear to everyone. And by the following summer of July 2011, I think the progress will be unequivocally clear to the Afghan people."
On a visit to Kabul on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that any withdrawal would be a gradual one, based on conditions on the ground. "Whether it's three years or two years or four years remains to be seen," he said.
McChrystal told the panel that he does not envision needing to ask for additional troops, but more broadly, it remains clear that many of the most serious obstacles the U.S. faces are well beyond Washington's control.
One is the capability of Karzai's government. Its limited credibility was further eroded by a vote-rigging controversy during the August presidential election.
"My question to you is, have you seen anything in the last 18 months that would tell us that the Karzai government is doing something about corruption?" asked Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat from California. In her view, she added, the Afghan government has been "completely and totally corrupt."
Both McChrystal and Eikenberry said they have seen some positive signs from Kabul, but that they are still dependent on their Afghan partners, from the local level all the way up to the national level, being able to step up their efforts.
"In spite of everything we do, Afghanistan may struggle to take over the essential task of governance and security on a timely basis," Eikenberry said.
The new U.S. strategy is contingent on being able to rapidly train Afghan security forces, who can then begin assuming primary responsibility for security in parts of Afghanistan starting in July 2011.
McChrystal, in his confidential assessments, has told Washington that Afghan army and police eventually need to number 400,000, well above their current force levels of nearly 190,000.
But Obama declined to commit to any specific goals, saying the U.S. would aim for more realistic year-by-year targets.
Under questioning by McCain, McChrystal said that he expects Afghan security forces to reach a target of about 300,000 by the summer of 2011.
But the U.S. and Afghan governments do have competition when it comes to recruiting. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that the Taliban pays many of its fighters as much as $300 a month, according to McChrystal, while Afghan army and police salaries are much lower. The U.S. military, working with the Afghan government, nearly doubled the pay for Afghan security forces, but McChrystal admitted that the Taliban still pays more.
Another issue is Pakistan, which remains a safe haven for al-Qaida elements, as well as some Taliban fighters. Neither McChrystal nor Eikenberry would discuss the U.S. strategy toward Pakistan in any detail, admitting only that it remains a significant problem.
"The effort we're undertaking in Afghanistan is likely to fall short of our strategic goals unless there is more progress at eliminating the sanctuaries used by the Afghan Taliban and their associates inside of Pakistan," Eikenberry said.
Some of the strongest criticism came from Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine, who said that she sees more U.S. troops dying and more funding being committed without any improvement in the security situation in Afghanistan.
"In my opinion, we've reached a security plateau where no matter how many troops we commit, how many dollars we spend, how many aid workers we send, or elections that we have or re-have in Afghanistan, we cannot significantly improve the security situation," she told McChrystal.
The general admitted that countries have struggled to defeat insurgencies in the past, but said there are encouraging reasons to believe the situation with the Taliban is different.
"This insurgency was a group that was in power, the most prominent part of it the Taliban, and they were not credible in power, and they are not credible as a political entity now," he said. "So they are not the National Liberation Front of Afghanistan coming back to free the country."
But there are reasons to worry about a spike in violence as the additional U.S. forces pour into Afghanistan.
The Taliban is unlikely to stage a traditional frontal offensive against U.S. forces, but McChrystal did warn that other kinds of attacks could rise in the coming months.
"When they mass now in any significant numbers, they are defeated fairly quickly, with significant losses," he said. "I think, however, that they will end up using an increasing number of asymmetric tactics: suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, and coercion of the population at night, and things other than large-scale operations."