The top two US officials in Afghanistan said Tuesday they both strongly support President Obama's new strategy including the decision to send as many as 33,000 more troops there. Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Amb. Karl Eikenberry presented a united front at Capitol Hill despite the fact that Ambassador Eikenberry in recent weeks had cautioned against deploying more troops to a country rife with corruption.
"I believe the course the president outlined does offer the best path to stabilize Afghanistan and ensure Al Qaeda cannot regain a foothold to plan new attacks against us," said Eikenberry Tuesday at the House hearing. "I can say without equivocation that I fully support this approach."
Eikenberry and McChrystal, the top military officer in Afghanistan, appeared on Capitol Hill Tuesday for the first time since Mr. Obama announced his plans to deepen US involvement in Afghanistan with as many as 33,000 additional troops, with the aim of beginning to draw down by mid 2011.
But the onus was mainly on Eikenberry to explain his position after the leaking of two diplomatic cables sent by him to the White House during the three-month deliberation on war strategy, in which he expressed deep concern about sending additional troops to Afghanistan. Eikenberry reportedly wanted to see more progress on reducing corruption from President Hamid Karzai's government.
The cables were at odds with his military counterpart, McChrystal, who was seeking tens of thousands of additional troops. But on Tuesday, Eikenberry said the new strategy has given the mission a narrower focus that is achievable, and that there was now no light between the two men's positions on the mission.
"I am exactly aligned with General McChrystal here to my right in moving forward now to vigorously implement the assigned mission," Eikenberry said.
McChrystal was was reported to have asked for as many as 40,000 American troops, but said Tuesday he supports Obama's deployment of 30,000 troops – and as many as 3,000 support troops on top of that. He also said he was OK with the president's setting a deadline of July 2011 for beginning to remove troops. That component of Obama's strategy has endured sustained criticism from many lawmakers on the right, repeated Tuesday at the House hearing, who say it undermines the message of US commitment in the region.
Administration officials softened that timeline in recent days, emphasizing that July 2011 would only mark the beginning of withdrawal and would be based on conditions on the ground.
"I don't believe that is a deadline at all," McChrystal told lawmakers. "I think it's just a natural part of the evolution of what we're doing."
By next summer, McChrystal said, he expects to have made "significant progress" that will be evident to American forces in Afghanistan. By the following December – when the administration is on the hook to provide a comprehensive assessment of progress – McChrystal said he'll be able to lay "real progress out that will be clear to everyone." And by July 2011, he said, that progress will have taken hold and be evident to the Afghan people.
"And when it's unequivocally clear to them, that will be a critical, decisive point," he said.
Both McChrystal and Eikenberry indicated that the hardest part of their job – beyond creating stability and building the Afghan national security forces – is helping the Afghan government to govern with greater credibility. That issue was raised several times by lawmakers Tuesday.
"The challenges are daunting for government accountability," Eikenberry said. "It's perhaps our most difficult task given what our starting point was back in 2001."
McChrystal expressed confidence in the abilities of US troops. In his opening statement, interrupted by a sole protestor who was removed from the hearing room, McChrystal recalled asking one of his soldiers where he was on 9/11. His answer? Getting his braces removed. McChrystal used the anecdote to illustrate how long the US has been on the ground in Afghanistan. But the force is mature and effective and capable of achieving US objectives in the region, McChrystal said.
"This is not a force of rookies or dilettantes," he said.
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