U.S. commander: Afghan strategy must change
The United States and its allies must change strategy and boost cooperation to turn around the war in Afghanistan, the commander of Western forces in the country said on Monday after completing a much-anticipated review, Reuters reported.
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 as to whether 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," he said in a statement announcing his confidential report was ready.
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 George W. Bush and ramped up under President Barack Obama. The Western force is set to rise to 110,000 including 68,000 Americans by year's end.
Any further increase could be politically difficult for Obama, with members of his own Democratic party increasingly uneasy about the war and mid-term Congressional elections due next year.
The general's report comes as Afghans are still anxiously awaiting the outcome of their own election -- an August 20 presidential poll.
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 second-round run-off.
The 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 run-off, 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 scupper it, but as fraud charges mount, those assessments have become more cautious.
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 the 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.
A top counter-insurgency expert said on Monday Afghanistan's government must fight corruption and quickly deliver services to Afghans because Taliban militants are filling gaps and winning support.
The Taliban were already running courts, hospitals and even an ombudsman in parallel to the government, making a real difference to local people, said David Kilcullen, a senior adviser to McChrystal.
"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," he told Australia's National Press Club.
The additional U.S. forces that have arrived so far have pushed out into formerly Taliban-held territory in the south. Along with British troops, they have taken by far the heaviest casualties of the war over the past two months.
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.