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Afghanistan war: Gen. McCrystal impatient with Marjah campaign

In this critical phase of the Afghanistan war, Gen. Stanley McCrystal says NATO and Afghan efforts to secure Marjah are moving too slowly. 'By day there is government. By night it's the Taliban,' says one Afghan tribal leader.

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Nearly three months to the day after making that prediction, Carter was sparring with McChrystal over whether they'd sent too few troops to seize Marjah.

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"I think that we've done well, but I think that the pace of security has been slower," McChrystal said in one meeting. "I'm thinking that, had we put more force in there, we could have locked that place down better."

"I don't agree with you about putting more forces in there," Carter argued, reflecting the inherent tension between defeating the Taliban and winning over civilians. "This is about convincing people."

"You're going to feel that way," McChrystal cut in with a deadpan joke. "It's your plan."

"I am, sir," Carter replied. "You would have to put about five brigades in to achieve the effect you're talking about and, even then, I bet the Taliban would get through, because it's in the minds of people."

Like other commanders throughout the day, Carter pleaded for patience.

"I think what's going to make the difference, whether we marketed it right or not at the beginning, is time," he said. "And it's about persuading people."

McChrystal appeared unpersuaded.

"I think we have let too much move along without overwhelming-enough security," McChrystal said, "and I think we are paying the price for it."

On the flight back to Kabul, McChrystal said he'd intentionally asked provocative questions about troop levels to light a fire under the team and to convey a renewed sense of urgency.

13 month countdown

McChrystal now has 13 months to produce some elusive, irreversible momentum before Obama plans to start bringing US forces home — and the president expects to stay on schedule.

"I am confident that we're going to be able to reduce our troop strength in Afghanistan starting in July 2011, and I am in constant discussions with General McChrystal, as well as Ambassador (Karl) Eikenberry, about the execution of that time frame," Obama said earlier this month during a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The tension between political and military timetables was apparent again Sunday, when the foreign minister in Britain's new, Conservative-led government criticized withdrawal deadlines as counterproductive.

"I don't think setting a deadline helps anybody," Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC during a visit to Afghanistan. "I think so much of what we're doing in Afghanistan, setting targets for people then to jump through hoops towards, doesn't help them in their work."

If there's concern in global capitals, said NATO's Sedwill, a former British ambassador in Kabul, it's as much a product of inflated expectations as of unmet promises.

"If there are politicians anywhere in the alliance who are making a judgment that we shouldn't have gone for the surge unless we could have been confident by the end of 2010 it would all look completely different, then we shouldn't have gone for the surge, because that was never practical," he told McClatchy.

(Jonathan S. Landay in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this article.)  

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IN PICTURES: Fighting continues in Afghanistan