Friday, February 5, 2010
By Toby Harnden in Washington
The American commander who warned in September of "failure" in Afghanistan has said that the situation there is no longer deteriorating and President Barack Obama's troop surge has set the stage for "real progress" in 2010.
Speaking in Istanbul before the anticipated offensive against the Taliban-held town of Marja in southern Helmand, Gen Stanley McChrystal gave a strikingly upbeat assessment of the situation in the country he said last year was in danger of slipping into Islamist hands.
"I still will tell you that I believe the situation in Afghanistan is serious," said Gen McChrystal, commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan.
"I do not say now that I think it's deteriorating. I said that last summer and I believe that that was correct. I feel differently now.
The Marja offensive is widely viewed as the first major test of Gen McChrystal's counter-insurgency doctrine.
But the Nato commander linked the Marja operation to the twin American and British-led Operations Khanjar and Panther's Claw, which were launched last June just after he took over in Kabul following the firing of his predecessor Gen David McKiernan.
"What we're doing in the Helmand River valley writ large, we really started last summer increasing security in a number of areas," said Gen McChrystal. "You saw where the Marines went in. And British forces, Danish forces, Estonian forces went in.
"And they started to create a series of bubble security zones – pretty classic counter-insurgency. But they were not contiguous, not connected.
So what we're doing is, we're expanding that, increasing the areas that will be under government of Afghanistan control."
Gen McChrystal conceded that it was "unconventional" to announce the Marja offensive beforehand because it gave the Taliban the opportunity to flee, bury bombs and fortify. The aim, however, was to send a message to insurgents that "it's about to change" and to Afghans that the writ of their government was about to be extended.