WASHINGTON – The general in charge of the war in Afghanistan said Tuesday there are "no silver bullets" for success there but that he expects to know by this time next year whether the troop build up is reversing the Taliban's momentum.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, appearing before the House Armed Services Committee a week after President Barack Obama announced his new surge-and-exit strategy, said he supports the plan. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who had voiced misgivings previously, also endorsed the new approach at the Capitol Hill hearing.
The new battle plan includes an 18-month timeline before the first U.S troops would begin to come home.
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"Results may come more quickly," McChrystal told lawmakers. "But the sober fact is that there are no silver bullets. Ultimate success will be the cumulative effect of sustained pressure."
Eikenberry said the course outlined last week by Obama "offers the best path to stabilize Afghanistan and to ensure al-Qaida and other terrorist groups cannot regain a foothold to plan new attacks against our country or our allies."
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the committee's chairman, said at the outset of the hearing that he differs with statements comparing the Afghan surge with the U.S. surge in Iraq, saying that as a percentage of the total number of forces, the 30,000 or so authorized by Obama last week was a much higher proportion of deployment than when President George W. Bush ordered a surge in Iraq.
"What risk are we accepting in the next 18 months and how can we mitigate it?" he asked. He said he believes that "ultimately, we are protecting the American people" from al-Qaida.
The panel's highest-ranking Republican, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, told McChrystal he was waiting to hear how "the president is not under-resourcing his own strategy," since the general has sketched ways that as many as 80,000 additional U.S. forces could help turn the tide.
Visiting Afghanistan on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated that the administration expects the withdrawal, beginning in July 2011, to be "a several-year process — whether it's three years or two years or four years remains to be seen."
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said his country will need international help to build homegrown security forces well beyond that date. "For a number of years, maybe for another 15 to 20 years, Afghanistan will not be able to sustain a force of that nature and capability with its own resources," Karzai said during a joint news conference with Gates in Kabul.
McChrystal's congressional followed a particularly pointed assessment of the stakes in Afghanistan from his boss, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, on Monday.
"We are not winning, which means we are losing," Mullen told troops who will soon go to Afghanistan as part of the first wave of the surge. As the U.S. and its partners lose ground, insurgents gain new recruits, Mullen said. "That's why we need the 30,000" and the fast deployment calendar that Obama chose, Mullen told troops at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
McChrystal was effectively barred from testifying earlier during Obama's long deliberation, with Gates and others in the administration saying the general should only speak after Obama had made his choice. That angered several Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, but the prohibition stuck.
McChrystal himself angered some of his civilian bosses, including Gates, by describing his preferred strategy before Obama had chosen his. And Eikenberry caused perhaps the largest stir ahead of the announcement by firing off two strongly worded classified messages to Washington, in which he opposed a large troop increase and told Obama that Karzai could not be trusted.
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