McChrystal Faces a Tough Road Ahead in Afghanistan

The new commander headed to the war zone just after his confirmation.

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On Capitol Hill last week, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the special operations veteran confirmed Wednesday to take over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, predicted tough months ahead there, bluntly warning Congress to expect more casualties and more mistakes as new U.S. troops arrive this summer. "There is no simple answer," he said at his confirmation hearings. "It's the environment we have today and the place from which we must navigate a way forward."

Just what that way forward will be was the topic of the day. McChrystal boarded a plane on the heels of his confirmation to join Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Brussels. There, he met with NATO partners before traveling on to Afghanistan, where he will begin a 60-day review of the military's way forward for the region. The results of that review will offer a window into the dilemmas that will face the Obama administration as it crafts its new strategy for the increasingly violent country, where attacks and roadside bombings reached record levels last week . McChrystal will be tasked with implementing that strategy at a time when violence throughout the country continues to rise considerably and stands 25 percent over June of last year.

These figures are up in part as a result of a surge of U.S. troops. There are now more U.S. soldiers available to "take the fight to the enemy," as Pentagon officials like to say. But it's also clear that insurgent attacks on U.S. troops and Afghan government security forces are also on the rise. Senior U.S. military officials say that these attacks tend to succeed at times when Afghan civilians, angry at the Afghan government or U.S. forces, look the other way. McChrystal said that civilian sentiment is one of his chief concerns. "How you operate, the impact of civilian casualties, collateral damage, cultural insensitivity," he noted, "often determine success or failure."

And as conditions in many parts of the country have continued to backslide, sustaining any gains made by a fresh influx of U.S. troops is a chief concern among Pentagon officials. One way to do that will be to develop Afghan security forces, McChrystal said. The current goal is to grow the Afghan National Army to 134,000 troops; there are some 86,000 Afghan soldiers now. But senior military officials believe that, given the size of the country and the level of violence, the Afghan Army will need to be twice that size—somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 to 250,000. McChrystal concurred with this assessment, calling the development of Afghan security forces "our highest priority task."

But there remains a critical shortage of trainers to mentor them. It is unclear, too, whether McChrystal will ultimately need an additional 10,000 U.S. troops, a long-standing request by outgoing commander Gen. David McKiernan. On this point, McChrystal said, "I don't know. It may be some time before I do." But he said that he was convinced he would get more troops if he needed them. "I believe that if I have a requirement, I can look [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike] Mullen in the eye and tell him, 'That's what I need.' "

Given stepped-up resources, the question on the minds of many on Capitol Hill remained whether it is a winnable war. McChrystal responded that it was, with a caveat that hints at tough times to come for U.S. forces. "I believe it is winnable," he said, "but I don't think it will be easily winnable." To win at all, the Pentagon must first find a new way forward.