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In Afghanistan, time is running out, Pentagon worries

The next year will be crucial, several top defense officials say. The US must begin to show progress or risk losing public support.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2009

Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, President Obama's nominee to be commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Top defense officials say they have about a year to show the American public that they are winning in Afghanistan. But as the US prepares to apply its new strategy there, those same officials are trying to square the need to demonstrate quick success with a fundamental aspect of counterinsurgency warfare: Results don't come quickly.

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The man President Obama has nominated to lead the American mission in Afghanistan agrees. It will take at least 18 to 24 months before the US can begin making progress: establishing security, developing an economic base, and creating stronger governance, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal told senators at his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

"I believe counterinsurgency takes time," he said.

General McChrystal's nomination to replace the current commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, is a sign of the sense of urgency concerning the mission there. General McKiernan was fired last month after Defense Secretary Robert Gates concluded he was not moving fast enough to stem the Taliban's momentum.

Top administration officials say the next year is crucial. Mr. Gates has said he believes American public support for the war in Afghanistan will evaporate over the next year without some early successes. James Jones, national security adviser, said in Washington last week that "we should know within a year" if the new US strategy is successful.

"The clock is ticking, and this war is going south," says a senior military official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media on such a sensitive matter. "We have to turn it around quickly."

While Mr. Obama's popularity ratings are high, only about half of Americans support his plan to expand the mission in Afghanistan, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll taken last month. At the same time, about 42 percent of Americans think it was a mistake for the US to invade Afghanistan, according to a Gallup poll taken in March. That marked a 12 percent increase compared with earlier this year.

American opinion on the war may complicate Obama's ability to commit to Afghanistan in the way that is necessary for a counterinsurgency, which can take years. This may reinforce the need to demonstrate successes early on.

"Although defeating an insurgency takes a long time – some 10 years on average – it is possible to demonstrate local progress on a shorter timeline, even one constrained by congressional election calendars," says John Nagl, a retired Army officer who is now president of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.

Mr. Nagl, a noted counterinsurgency expert, says the US must do a better job of conveying to Afghans and Americans the importance of the mission and the depth of the threat posed by Al Qaeda's operations in the region.

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