KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and its allies must change strategy and boost cooperation to turn around the war in Afghanistan, the top U.S. and NATO commander there said on Monday, wrapping up a much-anticipated review.
U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal said the situation was “serious” but the 8-year-old war could still be won. He gave no indication if he would ask for more troops but is widely expected to do so in the coming weeks.
With U.S. and NATO casualties at record levels in Afghanistan and doubts growing about the war in the United States and other NATO nations, McChrystal is under pressure to reverse Western fortunes within months.
“The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort,” McChrystal said in a statement announcing his report was done.
The confidential report comes as Afghans anxiously awaited the outcome of their August 20 presidential election.
New, partial results released on Monday showed President Hamid Karzai maintaining a lead over his main rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, but still without the outright majority needed to avoid a runoff.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said any recommendation for more forces would have to address his concerns that the foreign military presence in Afghanistan could become too large and be seen by Afghans as a hostile occupying force.
“Clearly, I want to address those issues and we will have to look at the availability of forces, we’ll have to look at costs. There are a lot of different things that we’ll have to look at,” he told reporters.
“While there’s a lot of gloom and doom going around ... I think we have some assets in place and some developments that hold promise,” Gates said on a visit to a Lockheed Martin factory building F-35 fighter jets in Fort Worth, Texas.
McChrystal has 103,000 troops under his command, including 63,000 Americans, half of whom arrived this year as part of an escalation strategy begun under President George W. Bush and ramped up under his successor, Barack Obama. The Western force is set to rise to 110,000, including 68,000 Americans by year’s end.
A further increase could be politically difficult for Obama, with members of his Democratic Party increasingly uneasy about the war and congressional elections due next year.
The White House sought on Monday to pin the blame for the grave state of the war in Afghanistan on the Bush administration, which made Iraq its top military priority.
“This was underresourced, underfunded, undermanned and ignored for years,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
“The president is focused on ensuring that we meet measurable benchmarks. ... It’s going to take some doing.”
Monday’s Afghan election results, with nearly half of polling stations counted, showed Karzai leading with 45.9 percent against 33.3 percent for Abdullah.
Although those results predict a runoff, they are mainly from the north, Abdullah’s support base.
Results yet to be tallied from the south — the heartland of Karzai’s fellow ethnic Pashtuns — could put Karzai over the top for a single-round win, but may be challenged by Abdullah, who says ballot boxes were stuffed on a massive scale.
An independent fraud watchdog, the Election Complaints Commission, is investigating nearly 2,500 allegations of abuse, including 567 it says are serious enough to affect the outcome.
Western officials initially hailed the election as a success because Taliban fighters failed to scuttle it, but those assessments have become more cautious as fraud charges mount.
Southern areas in particular saw turnout hurt by Taliban attacks and threats. In a moving account of election day violence, Lal Mohammad, a 40 year-old farmer, told reporters in a Kabul hospital that he had been ambushed while heading to vote by fighters who cut off his ears and part of his nose.
McChrystal has been working on his review since he took command in June. He sent the classified document to the U.S. military’s Central Command responsible for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and to NATO chiefs.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai confirmed the report did not include a request for more resources but added, “We know we will need to provide more trainers and equipment for the Afghan security forces.”
He said there was already a shortfall of 10 training teams for Afghan security forces and the need would grow as moves were made to further expand the Afghan army and police.
A top counterinsurgency expert said on Monday Afghanistan’s government must fight corruption and quickly deliver services to Afghans because Taliban militants were filling gaps and winning support.
“A government that is losing to a counter-insurgency isn’t being outfought, it is being out-governed. And that’s what’s happening in Afghanistan,” David Kilcullen, a senior adviser to McChrystal, told Australia’s National Press Club.
CBS News on Monday quoted a U.S. military officer in Afghanistan as saying one of the suspected bombers held in an attack last week that killed a U.S. soldier and wounded a CBS journalist might be linked to the Afghan government.
The suspect was found with a cell phone that contained a number to the Defense Ministry in Kabul, which then sent a letter saying the wrong man had been arrested, according to the CBS report.
“We think he was tied to the Ministry of Defense,” Lieutenant Colonel Tom Gukeisen told the broadcaster. “Someone in that office began to put political pressure.”
Two U.S. service members were killed on Monday in separate bomb attacks in the south of the country. August has been the deadliest month of the war for U.S. troops, and 2009 is already the deadliest year for foreign forces.
Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin, Jonathon Burch, Maria Golovnina, Ed Stoddard, Patricia Zengerle and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Paul Simao