KABUL/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Afghan war will be lost unless more troops are sent to pursue a radically revised strategy, the top U.S. and NATO commander said in a confidential assessment that offers stark choices for President Barack Obama.
In the assessment, sent to Washington last month and leaked on Monday, Army General Stanley McChrystal said failure to reverse “insurgent momentum” in the near term risked an outcome where “defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”
Obama continued to hold off on troop decisions, saying he would be asking tough questions of his national security team.
“We’re not going to make any decisions on further troop deployments until we know what exactly is our strategy,” he said in an interview on the “Late Show with David Letterman” television show, which was taped in New York on Monday.
Opinion polls show Americans and their European NATO allies turning against the nearly 8-year-old war.
A request for more troops faces resistance from within Obama’s Democratic Party, which controls Congress, but refusing to give McChrystal what he wants would open Obama to criticism from Republicans who say he should act quickly.
Democratic Senator Jim Webb said of the assessment, “We have reached a turning point in Afghanistan as to whether we are going to formally adopt nation-building as a policy.”
House of Representatives Republican leader John Boehner said he was troubled by reports Obama was delaying action on a troop decision.
“It’s time for the president to clarify where he stands on the strategy he has articulated, because the longer we wait the more we put our troops at risk,” said Boehner.
A copy of the 66-page assessment was obtained by The Washington Post and published on its website with some parts removed at the request of the government for security reasons.
“Resources will not win this war, but under-resourcing could lose it,” McChrystal wrote.
“Failure to provide adequate resources also risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs and ultimately, a critical loss of political support. Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure.”
McChrystal, who commands more than 100,000 Western troops, two-thirds of them American, has drafted a separate request spelling out how many more he needs but has not sent it to the Pentagon, which says it is considering how he should submit it.
McChrystal’s spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Tadd Sholtis, said while McChrystal did not believe he could defeat Afghanistan’s insurgency without more troops, he could carry out a mission with different goals if Obama ordered it.
“The assessment is based on his understanding of the mission as it was presented to him. If there’s a change in strategy, then the resources piece changes,” he said. He said McChrystal had no intention of resigning if Obama denies his request.
In his assessment, McChrystal painted a grim picture of the war so far, saying “the overall situation is deteriorating” and calling for a “revolutionary” shift putting more emphasis on protecting Afghans than on killing insurgents.
“Our objective must be the population,” he wrote. “The objective is the will of the people, our conventional warfare culture is part of the problem. The Afghans must ultimately defeat the insurgency.”
In a methodical critique of the war’s conduct over the past eight years, he said NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, troops often lacked basic understanding of Afghan society. He also strongly criticized the Afghan government as having lost the faith of the country’s people.
“The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF’s own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government,” McChrystal said.
Among the failures: Afghan prisons had been allowed to become sanctuaries where al Qaeda and Taliban fighters recruit more followers and plan attacks.
Even the West’s multibillion-dollar development aid programs came in for blunt criticism: “Too often these projects enrich power brokers, corrupt officials.”
In the weeks since the assessment was written, Afghanistan has held a disputed election, which makes it more difficult to persuade Western countries to send additional troops.
European allies, whose governments support the war often over public opposition at home, have begun openly wavering.
Britain has suffered its worst combat casualties in a generation, German troops called in an air strike that killed scores of people, and six Italian soldiers were killed last week by a bomb, all events that sapped European support.
Thousands of Italians packed the streets of Rome on Monday for a state funeral for the soldiers, amid mounting calls for Italy to pull its troops out.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the military alliance would stay “as long as it takes to finish our job” and it was premature to present any timetable for withdrawal.
“I think that a fair presentation of his (McChrystal’s) assessment is that failure is a possibility but that success is achievable,” he told Al Jazeera International. “I fully agree with him, we have to do more but not just more of the same.” (Additional reporting by JoAnne Allen, Andrew Gray in Washington and Deepa Babington in Rome; Editing by Simon Denyer and Peter Cooney)