McKiernan: “Tough Year” in Afghanistan

The United States will have to remain “heavily engaged” in Afghanistan for the next three to four years, the senior U.S. commander said Wednesday, suggesting that the insurgency may not be contained until the end of President Barack Obama’s first term.

The day after Obama ordered 17,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan said the reinforcements will be sent to southern Afghanistan, where the fight against Taliban insurgents is “at best stalemated.”

Even with the additional forces, “I have to tell you that 2009 is going to be a tough year,” McKiernan said.

McKiernan’s dire assessment of conditions in Afghanistan is similar to those given by Obama and other senior administration officials. But he was more explicit in describing the task as a long-term problem that will require higher force levels indefinitely.

“This is not a temporary force uplift,” McKiernan said of the troop increase announced Tuesday, adding that it meets only about two-thirds of the additional forces he needs.

"What this allows us to do is change the dynamics of the security situation, predominantly in southern Afghanistan, where we are at best stalemated," McKiernan said.

But there are still shortages of certain kinds of equipment, including unmanned surveillance aircraft, and of troops for specialized missions like training the Afghan Army, which is scheduled to double in size, to 134,000 troops, in coming years.

The administration has said it will not decide on additional forces until after it completes a review of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. McKiernan wants another 4,000-soldier Army brigade, which he plans to use to help train the Afghan Army.

But the extra troops now on their way will be sufficient to handle the expected increase in fighting through mid-summer, he added.

He also may ask for another brigade in 2010, McKiernan said.

In addition to extra combat forces, McKiernan pressed for more help from civilian agencies, both within the U.S. government and from other countries. He noted that military power alone would not defeat the Taliban.

He acknowledged that it was possible to send too many troops to Afghanistan, which has a long history of resisting foreign occupiers. “There’s a point where you have too many foreign forces,” he said.

The additional Marine and Army units will conduct counterinsurgency operations in southern Afghanistan but also work to train local police as part of an effort to build a government presence that has been largely absent from large parts of Helmand, Kandahar and other southern provinces.

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