By Peter Graff
KABUL (Reuters) – The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan reassured top officials on Thursday that Washington was not planning an early exit, part of a charm offensive to sell President Barack Obama’s new strategy on three continents.
Obama announced on Tuesday that he is sending 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan, but also said they would begin to come home by mid-2011.
The new strategy has raised worries at home and in Afghanistan, both among those who oppose sending more troops and those who oppose setting a date for them to start leaving.
Since his speech, the president’s national security team has been mobilized to defend the new strategy to a skeptical U.S. Congress, his commander in Kabul has been explaining it to wary Afghans, and diplomats have pressed for help from NATO allies.
The top U.S. commander, General Stanley McChrystal, met 12 Afghan cabinet ministers and deputy ministers before appearing before lawmakers in the Afghan parliament.
The focus of Obama’s new strategy was “to provide an opportunity for the Afghan people to build enough capacity to provide security themselves,” he told parliamentarians.
Within 18 months some of the extra troops would no longer be needed, he said. “I believe that by summer of 2011 it will be clear that the government of Afghanistan is winning.”
Parliamentarians said Obama’s speech had raised fears Afghanistan would be abandoned, but they were reassured by hearing from McChrystal that the U.S. commitment was long-term.
“Mr. Obama’s speech indicated that by July 2011 the troop withdrawal would begin, and to some circles in Afghanistan and some parts of the world, of course it’s interpreted that the United States and the international community would start leaving Afghanistan,” said parliament member Daud Sultanzoi.
“The general explained that … once the Afghan military has increased, then that additional increase will taper off and the gradual withdrawal of those troops will begin.”
McChrystal and U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry were due later to fly to Brussels, headquarters of NATO, where allies are under pressure to add to Obama’s pledge of more troops.
Obama’s commitment means there will be nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan — two thirds of whom will have arrived since he took office — along with about 40,000 from allies.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Wednesday he expected allies to provide at least 5,000 troops, although privately U.S. officials say that target is ambitious.
Italy’s defense minister said in an interview published on Thursday that the country would send 1,000 more troops and Britain announced last week it was sending 500. However, Canada and the Netherlands have already announced plans to withdraw about 5,000 troops between them in the next two years.
The new U.S. troops will give Western forces extra combat firepower at a time when they are facing an insurgency that has never been stronger, but McChrystal has said that the “main effort” will be on training Afghans.
He wants to see the Afghan army and police forces more than double to 400,000 total, a goal which he says will take at least four years to achieve.
In a major shift in strategy, most of the new U.S. troops will be fielded alongside Afghan units, a tactic NATO so far has implemented only partially because the Afghan forces are too small and some units are reluctant to deploy in combat areas.
Commanders who met McChrystal on a visit to Kandahar in the south of the country said Afghan troops were what they need most.
Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, the commander of 10,000 U.S. Marines in Helmand province, told Reuters he had just 2,000 Afghan troops and needed far more.
“I get asked all the time, ‘How many Afghans do you want?’ I want one to one. Every time one of our squads is going out, I want an Afghan squad with it,” he said.
Some of the new troops will be classroom trainers, but most of them will be deployed with the Afghan units they are assigned to mentor, teaching while in the thick of combat.
“The biggest hurdle is trying to develop them while they’re in a fight everyday. The way our army trains back in the States, no one’s shooting at us so we can focus on training and developing our units,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Jenior of the 82nd Airborne Division.
“Here we’ve got to try do that while they’re being shot at by the Taliban everyday.”