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US general calls for new strategy against Taliban

August 31, 2009 10:52:25 AM PDT
The commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan called Monday for a new strategy against the Taliban in an assessment of the 8-year-old conflict, saying the situation is serious but victory was achievable. NATO officials disclosed that Gen. Stanley McChrystal is expected to separately request more forces to fight an increasingly deadly insurgency.

Explosions killed two more U.S. troops, raising the record death toll in August to 47 - the deadliest month of the eight-year war for American forces.

Boosting the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is a hot-button issue that could ignite furious debate in Washington on the U.S. military's future in an increasingly unpopular war. Some Democratic senators have increased calls for a timeline to draw down troops.

McChrystal sent his strategic review of the Afghan war to the Pentagon and NATO headquarters Monday. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ordered the 60-day review to size up the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan as Taliban attacks rise and U.S. deaths spiral upward.

"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 Monday.

A NATO statement said McChrystal's assessment seeks to implement President Barack Obama's strategy "to reduce the capability and will" of insurgents and extremists, including al-Qaida, and support the growth and development of Afghan security forces and Afghan governance.

McChrystal did not ask for more troops but is expected to do so in a separate request in a couple weeks, two NATO officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

The U.S. already has some 62,000 troops in Afghanistan - a record number - and will have 68,000 by the end of the year. In total there are more than 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops in the country. There were roughly 250,000 international forces in Iraq at the height of that war.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said McChrystal's assessment would not include specific recommendations for additional troops or funding. "They'll be addressed in the future," Whitman said.

McChrystal's recommendations were being sent up through U.S. Central Command commanders, including Gen. David Petraeus, who would add their comments to it. Whitman would not say whether Gates had seen it yet, but said the report would not be made public, calling it a "confidential military assessment for the chain of command."

In Brussels, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the report would also be assessed by NATO's political and military leadership. He stressed the report was an assessment by the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, "not a change of strategy."

McChrystal's report recommends focusing the U.S. and NATO counterinsurgency efforts on the Afghan population and less on militants, one of the NATO officials in Afghanistan said.

Last week McChrystal said troops "must change the way that we think, act and operate" in newly released counterinsurgency guidance. McChrystal hopes to instill a new approach in troops to make the safety of villagers the top priority.

McChrystal said the supply of fighters in the Afghan insurgency is "essentially endless," the reason violence continues to rise. He called on troops to think of how they would expect a foreign army to operate in their home countries, "among your families and your children, and act accordingly," to try to win over the Afghan population.

The deaths of two U.S. forces Monday in the south - the country's most violent region - underscored the escalating violence.

Thousands of U.S. forces moved into the Afghan south this summer after Obama ordered 21,000 more troops to the country this year, forces who helped protect the Aug. 20 presidential election. McChrystal, who took over command in Afghanistan on June 15, delayed the release of the review so it would not interfere with the vote.

New vote tallies released Monday showed President Hamid Karzai with a strong lead over top challenger Abdullah Abdullah. Karzai had 45.8 percent of votes counted, while Abdullah had 33.2 percent. Ballots have been counted from almost half of the country's voting stations, meaning results could still change dramatically. Karzai will need 50 percent of the vote to avoid a two-man runoff.

The commission charged with investigating fraud said it registered 640 major complaints, all of which have to be investigated before final results are released. On Sunday, the commission said it had 691 major fraud complaints, but officials said Monday that number was incorrect. Results are not expected to be finalized until mid- or late September, after officials work through the allegations.

The hundreds of allegations of fraud and voter intimidation threaten to mar the election. Voters who cast ballots faced retaliatory attacks from militants who told Afghans not to vote.

In an example of the extreme threats that voters faced, an Afghan man said Monday that Taliban militants cut off his nose and both ears as he tried to vote.

"I was on my way to a polling station when Taliban stopped me and searched me. They found my voter registration card," Lal Mohammad said from a hospital bed in Kabul. He said they cut off his nose and ears before beating him unconscious with a weapon.

"I regret that I went to vote," Mohammad said, crying and trying to hide his disfigured face. "What is the benefit of voting to me?"

The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan hinges on increasing the number of Afghan soldiers and police so U.S. forces can one day withdraw. Some 134,000 Afghan troops are to be trained by late 2011, but U.S. officials say that number will need to be greatly increased, an expansion that will be paid for by U.S. funds.

Afghanistan has long been seen as the "good" war by many in the United States, especially in comparison with U.S. efforts in Iraq, where U.S. troops are now drawing down. But some Democratic senators are beginning to question whether U.S. goals in Afghanistan are achievable, and when U.S. troops will be brought home.

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Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt and Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Lara Jakes in Washington contributed to this report.


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