Two high-level U.S. officials in Afghanistan who had expressed diverging views on troop surge appeared before Congress today and expressed solidarity with President Obama's decision to send 30,000 additional soldiers to the country.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry testified before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and were peppered with questions about the troop buildup and Obama's timeline for a 2011 start of withdrawal.
McChrystal expressed confidence in the size of the troop deployment and reiterated that progress will be quick.
"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," McChrystal told lawmakers. "And by the following summer of July 2011, I think the progress will be unequivocally clear to the Afghan people. And when it's unequivocally clear to them, that will be a critical, decisive point."
Despite being grilled by lawmakers on whether 30,000 additional troops would be sufficient and why a date was set for a drawdown, McChrystal insisted the U.S. will succeed, saying, "We can and will accomplish this mission."
He said that by next year, he will have a better idea of whether the troop number was enough and the timeline for withdrawal will be met.
"The next 18 months are the critical period in this war because I believe they're critical in the minds of the Afghan people and in the minds of the insurgency," he said.
McChrystal, who had asked the president for additional troops, said he believes 30,000 is the right number of additional U.S. forces needed to turn the Taliban's momentum, but he refused to reveal how many troops he had requested because his request is still classified.
"I asked for forces to be deployed as quickly as they could be deployed," he said. "And as the flow worked out, that was going to be about that in 2010."
When asked repeatedly whether he will seek more troops should the need arise next December, McChrystal would only say that he will provide his best military advice, but that he believes they won't be needed.
"I don't believe that we are going to need more forces in 18 months, but I would provide my best military advice on the conditions at any point, either at the 18 months or not, no matter what -- how painful it might be," he told lawmakers.
As McChrystal and Eikenberry testified before Congress, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made it clear earlier today that his country's security forces will need 15 to 20 years of financial and training assistance.
In a joint press conference with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Karzai said, "Afghanistan is looking forward to taking over the responsibility in terms of paying for its forces and delivering to its forces out of its own resources, but that will not be for another 15 years."
McChrystal and Eikenberry on Capitol Hill
McChrystal, who met with Obama Monday, said he didn't come up with the July 2011 date that Obama said would be the start of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Some senators, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., argue that setting a timeline would only "embolden terrorists" and hurt U.S. allies. Today, McChrystal acknowledged that the insurgency might seize on the date as "information operations and describe it as something it is not," but he argued that it's a positive because it serves as a "forcing friction."
As for the charge that the Taliban will wait on the sidelines in the next 18 months, only to emerge stronger when U.S. forces start withdrawing, McChrystal said even if that were to happen, it will serve as an advantage because it will provide a secure environment and the Taliban will find that society has become more durable and they won't have much support when they re-emerge.
Echoing the comments Gates made in his testimony last week, McChrystal said, "I don't view July 2011 as a deadline. I view that as a point at which time the president has directed we will begin to reduce combat forces. But we will decide the pace and scope of that based upon conditions at that time. So I don't believe that is a deadline at all. I think it's just a natural part of the evolution of what we're doing."
McChrystal was accompanied to Capitol Hill by Eikenberry, who -- as the president was meeting with his war council last month to discuss the future strategy -- warned in a leaked memo against more troops in Afghanistan, citing rampant corruption in Karzai's government.
But today, as expected, Eikenberry downplayed reports of friction between himself and McChrystal, instead saying that they both are "united in a joint effort."
When questioned on the leaked memo, Eikenberry's obviously rehearsed response was that everyone in the review process had been encouraged to provide their assessments.
He clarified that "at no point during this review process... was I ever opposed to additional troops being sent to Afghanistan. So it was not a question of additional troops. It was the question -- as we all had -- about the number of troops; what would be the timelines for those troops; what would be the context that those troops would operate in."
He then stated he was "unequivocally in support of this mission, and I'm exactly aligned with Gen. McChrystal here to my right in moving forward now to vigorously implement the assigned mission."
However, Eikenberry called out Karzai's government and cited its lack of legitimacy with its own people as a major impediment to U.S. strategy in the region.
"One of the major impediments our strategy faces is the Afghan government's lack of credibility with its own people," Eikenberry said. He said Karzai's speech on anti-corruption provided encouragemment, and that "we need to work together to aggressively implement this goal and produce results."
That's why key ministries are being targeted for assistance so they can provide services that people will recognize as having come from the central government, the ambassador said, adding that his staff is concentrating on "what is essential and what is attainable."
Eikenberry also cited U.S. partnership with Pakistan as a concern.
"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," he said.