Friday, February 5, 2010

McChrystal says stage set for ‘real progress’ in Afghanistan effort

In Istanbul the senior commander of American and allied forces in Afghanistan offered a guarded but unexpectedly upbeat assessment of the war effort yesterday, saying that while the situation remained dangerous it was no longer deteriorating, and that the stage was set for “real progress.’’

The commander, General Stanley A. McChrystal, noted that last summer he believed security in Afghanistan was at risk of significant decline, but that he felt differently now. “I am not prepared to say that we have turned the corner,’’ he cautioned. “So I’m saying that the situation is serious but I think we have made significant progress in setting the conditions in 2009, and beginning some progress, and that we’ll make real progress in 2010.’’

Meanwhile, a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives near a hotel in southern Afghanistan yesterday, killing at least six people and wounding nearly two dozen, officials said.

The blast in Kandahar happened as NATO and Afghan forces prepare for a joint offensive against Taliban militants in the neighboring province of Helmand in a major bid to break their stranglehold on the south.

McChrystal’s assessment of the war effort came as NATO officials gathered here for a session in which Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was expected to press allies for contributions of several thousand additional trainers to expand and improve the Afghan Army and police forces.

Although US officials have expressed broad satisfaction with the number of combat troops entering the fight - the bulk, of course, coming from the additional American troops ordered to Afghanistan by President Obama - the mission to teach Afghan security forces and then deploy alongside them remains about 4,000 personnel short.

McChrystal said the highly anticipated offensive to begin soon in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province would be a significant example of the improved partnership between foreign and Afghan security forces. Helmand is a focus of insurgent activity and the narcotics trade, and is viewed as a center of gravity in the allied counterinsurgency strategy because of its fertile river valley and significant population centers.

He said the decision to discuss the operation openly was a way of telling the people of Afghanistan of their government’s efforts to expand security where they live - and to tell the insurgents and narcotics traffickers “that it’s about to change.’’

Meanwhile, NATO acknowledged yesterday that it lacked almost half the trainers it had promised to help build up the army and police in Afghanistan.

Training is a key strategy of the Obama administration in helping Afghan authorities take eventual responsibility for their own security and thereby allow forces under US and NATO command to withdraw.

The failure to send all the trainers promised in October underscores the difficulty the US-led military coalition faces in trying to get Europe to live up to its commitments, even though Europe favors a greater emphasis on training and development aid.

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