McChrystal upbeat on revamped Afghan strategy

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama’s pledge of 30,000 troops for Afghanistan provides the manpower for a revamped strategy to protect civilians, ramp up training of local forces and turn the war’s tide, his commander said on Wednesday.

Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy listen to remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama in West Point, New York, December 1, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

In a move which could help Obama sell the escalation at home, General Stanley McChrystal also endorsed his timeline to begin withdrawing the extra troops in mid-2011, which has drawn criticism from Republicans in the United States.

Paraphrasing Winston Churchill in a rousing speech by videophone to his commanders throughout the country, McChrystal called Obama’s pledge of reinforcements “the end of the beginning” of the eight-year-old war.

He told his commanders the additional forces would at last give them the troops they need to speed up the training of Afghan security forces and protect towns and villages.

Training Afghan troops was now their “main effort,” he said. He later said it would take at least four years to reach his projected target of more than doubling the size of the Afghan security forces to 400,000.

“At the end of the day, the success of this operation will be determined in the minds of the Afghan people,” he said.

“It’s not the number of people you kill; it’s the number of people you convince. It’s the number of people that don’t get killed. It’s the number of houses that are not destroyed. It’s the number of children that do get to go to school. And as we increase our force numbers, we also increase our force capability because we understand that better.”

Asked later if Obama’s pledge of troops was enough, he told reporters: “We’re going to have exactly what we need.”

The 30,000 troops announced by Obama and the 5,000-7,000 expected from other NATO allies fall a few thousand shy of the 40,000 McChrystal is believed to have recommended in a classified request three months ago.

Asked if he backed Obama’s announcement that the troops would begin withdrawing in 18 months -- a schedule criticized by U.S. Republicans as encouraging insurgents to wait out the clock -- McChrystal said: “I am absolutely supportive of the timeline.”

“The 18-month timeline ... is not absolute. It’s not an 18 months: everybody leaves. The president has expressed on numerous occasions a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan, and that includes all manners of assistance,” McChrystal said.

“The concept is: as Afghan national security force capacity rises, then the expected requirement for coalition military forces, maneuver forces, goes down.”

If the Taliban simply “melt away” for the 18 months, that would provide a window for the Afghan government to demonstrate its effectiveness and turn the tide, he said.

“The insurgent cannot afford to leave the battlefield while the government of Afghanistan expands its capability, expands its legitimacy, expands its control.”

Marking a major shift in U.S. strategy, McChrystal said the “vast majority” of the new combat troops would be fielded in partnership with Afghan units, a counter-insurgency mentoring tactic he said had not been fully possible in the past because the Afghan army and police were too small.

The new force would also include classroom trainers as well as support troops, he said. He declined to say where they would be deployed, but said they would focus on areas where the threat to the population was greatest.

He said he still believes the Afghan security forces would need to more than double in size to 400,000, a goal which he outlined in his assessment of the war in August. There had been talk in recent weeks in Washington that the 400,000 target was too ambitious and would have to be scaled back.

Editing by Nick Macfie