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McChrystal: 5 Years Before Afghans Control Security

Above: Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal (L) and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry (R) testify during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee December 8, 2009 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told NPR on Wednesday that it is "probably realistic" that the Afghan government could assume primary responsibility for security within five years.

President Obama has called for an 18-month surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with the first of those troops starting to be withdrawn in July 2011. But the U.S. and other countries are expected to have to maintain a large number of combat troops there for several years after that date to help build up security forces under Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

McChrystal was reluctant to get into details about the pace of the U.S. drawdown during testimony on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, but he did discuss a broad time frame during an interview with NPR's Morning Edition that will air Thursday.

"President Karzai, in his inaugural speech, expressed the aspiration that in five years, he would like to have the lead for security of his country — assuming that he'd need some assistance from us, and I think that's probably realistic," McChrystal tells Steve Inskeep.

Obama has said he envisions a long-term strategic partnership between Washington and Kabul that will last long after the bulk of U.S. forces withdraw. McChrystal says there will be a point when Afghanistan no longer needs U.S. combat forces, but that that is still "a number of years" away.

In the shorter term, Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, warned Wednesday that the situation in Afghanistan could get worse before it gets better.

"Violence likely will increase initially, particularly in the spring as the weather improves," he said during a hearing by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Petraeus added that it will take some time before the effects of 30,000 extra U.S. troops will be felt inside the country. The additional deployments will bring total U.S. forces in Afghanistan to about 100,000.

"It will be important, therefore, to withhold judgment on the success or failure of the strategy in Afghanistan until next December, as the president has counseled," Petraeus said.

Along with the extra troops, Obama's new strategy shifts the focus of the U.S. military toward protecting Afghan towns and cities and carving out zones of relative stability.

In explaining the new plans, McChrystal says the U.S. is not trying to control the maximum amount of territory in Afghanistan.

"It's how much of the population in key areas can you protect, because it's the minds of the people that you're really tying to influence here," McChrystal tells NPR. "So what we have got to do is control key areas and population centers so the people of Afghanistan first see an opportunity for a normal, better future, and then they start to experience it."

Indeed, the U.S. military has already begun trying to implement this strategy in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province, in the southern part of the country.

"We were able to go into some areas that had been held for years by the Taliban," says McChrystal, adding that they are just beginning to re-establish Afghan government sway there. "It is still in early stages. As you know, to do counterinsurgency correctly is not something that happens rapidly."

McChrystal concedes that, in some ways, taking territory from the Taliban is the easy part. U.S. forces then need enough manpower to hold onto the land, enough capable Afghan partners to move in and rebuild government institutions, and enough civilian experts to help make the presence durable.

"Clearly, we can go in and clear or take any piece of ground in Afghanistan on any given day we want," the general tells NPR. "But it's really legitimacy with the Afghan people that's the driver here, and it's the ultimate measure of our success."

The Taliban already have started trying to adapt to the new U.S. strategy, in part by appointing a number of shadow governors who purport to represent the real Afghan government.

"On the one hand, it is concerning because the more that they adjust their behavior, theoretically, the more effective they could become," McChrystal says. "But in the long-term, the more they adjust their behavior, the less threatening they are to the government of Afghanistan, as well."

The Taliban have also resorted increasingly to setting roadside bombs, meaning U.S. forces have to engage in laborious operations to repeatedly clear main arteries.

But Afghan civilians make up the greatest number of the casualties from these improvised explosive devices, McChrystal points out.

"It has a coercive, intimidating effect," he says, "but it also has an effect that undermines any support they might get — popular support from the people."

McChrystal carefully avoids using words like "victory." When it comes to defining what victory might look like, however, he does offer a broad description.

"I think what we have to do is get it to the point where the government of Afghanistan can protect its sovereignty," he says. "They don't have to control every square inch."

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