WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. commander in Afghanistan and the top diplomat closed ranks on Tuesday around President Barack Obama’s orders to send in 30,000 more troops, saying the strategy would halt Taliban momentum within a year.
Testifying before Congress, General Stanley McChrystal quashed speculation he still wanted more troops for the stalled, eight-year-old war or that there were divisions with the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, a man he called “an old friend” with whom he shared dinner often.
The ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, was previously described by U.S. officials as reluctant to endorse more troops for Afghanistan but, sitting alongside McChrystal at two hearings, he told lawmakers he fully backed the new war strategy.
The show of unity followed a three-month White House review of war strategy that exposed divisions in the Obama administration amid concerns about rising costs and casualties of the increasingly unpopular conflict.
“I believe we will absolutely be successful,” McChrystal told lawmakers. “By this time next year ... it will be clear to us that the insurgency has lost the momentum.”
“And by the summer of 2011, it will be clear to the Afghan people that the insurgency will not win, giving them the chance to side with their government.”
Republican Senator John McCain, a surge supporter who lost the presidential race to Obama last year, said he hoped McChrystal and Eikenberry had put any differences behind them.
“We’ve all read the reports of differences between you gentlemen. I know you are both professionals and I trust that any tensions that you may have had are now passed,” McCain said.
The military commander said of reported tensions: “We work together literally every day — we have dinner together. That is an absolute misperception.”
McChrystal, making his first appearance before lawmakers since his grim August assessment warned the mission would fail without more troops, said success was achievable but would not be easy, even with a surge seen costing $30 billion to $35 billion a year.
“The mission in Afghanistan is undeniably difficult, and success will require steadfast commitment and incur significant costs,” McChrystal said.
Obama is sending in fewer than the 40,000 troops requested by McChrystal — a lightning-rod issue for many lawmakers, even though part of the gap will be filled by NATO contributions.
“Please explain why the president is not under-resourcing his own strategy?” asked Howard McKeon, the senior Republican on the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
McChrystal said he did not anticipate the need for additional forces and estimated that, with NATO contributions, the total number of surge troops would reach 37,000.
Critics of Obama’s Afghan strategy have taken aim at his plan for U.S. forces to begin pulling out of Afghanistan from July 2011, a mixed message they say could embolden insurgents to wait out U.S. forces, who are leaving anyway.
McChrystal was pressed by lawmakers on this and, while conceding some enemies would likely use the 2011 timeline to their benefit, he argued the deadline also served as an impetus for both allies and the Afghan government to make progress.
A lone protester was removed from the morning hearing room for holding up a pink sign with the slogan: “Surge, big mistake,” reminiscent of the activists who interrupted hearings on the Iraq war surge during the Bush administration.
During McChrystal’s afternoon testimony, a woman shouted: “Stop, stop, stop sending my friends to die in unjust wars!”
Obama opposed the Iraq war but his latest commitment means there will be about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, two-thirds of whom will have arrived since he took office.
In the buildup to the surge, U.S. officials said Eikenberry sent a memo to Obama voicing concern about sending in more U.S. troops until the Afghan government did more to end corruption.
“I would like to clarify that at no point during this review process, Mr. Chairman, was I ever opposed to additional troops being sent to Afghanistan,” Eikenberry said.
“I am unequivocally in support of this mission and I am exactly aligned with General McChrystal here to my right.”
Asked by McCain at the Senate hearing whether his concerns about the surge were resolved, Eikenberry said: “100 percent.”
One of the key concerns among supporters and opponents of the strategy is rampant corruption in the Afghan government that McChrystal has warned fuels the insurgency.
Eikenberry called the Afghan government’s lack of credibility an impediment for U.S. strategy, citing a “rough estimate” that only half the Afghan revenue collected by the authorities annually made it into the country’s Treasury.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose re-election was tainted by widespread fraud in the August vote, pledged in his inauguration speech to appoint capable ministers on merit. His cabinet is expected to be announced in coming days.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Afghanistan on Tuesday, saying he would press Karzai to appoint “honest” members of the cabinet but playing down the need for a wholesale shake-up of his government.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington and Adam Entous in Kabul; Editing by Howard Goller and Eric Beech