WASHINGTON — The Army general chosen to take over as top commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan told senators Tuesday he believes the war can be won if a proper counterinsurgency campaign is undertaken.
"I believe it is winnable, but I don't think it will be easily winnable," Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
He predicted that U.S. and allied casualties will increase as more American troops take on the insurgents in southern Afghanistan this summer. It will be important to make measurable progress within 18 to 24 months, he added.
"A classic counterinsurgency strategy, well resourced, is going to be required," McChrystal said.
If confirmed, McChrystal would replace Gen. David McKiernan, who was fired May 11 in an unusual wartime shake up. McChrystal's background is in the secretive world of special operations, including a lengthy stint in Iraq leading the military's hunt for high-value terrorist targets. He currently is director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.
McKiernan has described the war effort in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is most active, as stalemated at best. He requested tens of thousands more U.S. troops, most of which have been approved by the White House.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked McChrystal what would happen in Afghanistan if the war was lost.
"I think that what would happen is it would break down into civil war," the general replied, adding that as factions fought for control of the country, al-Qaida would regain the haven it enjoyed while the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
And McChrystal said it would make it "very, very difficult, if not impossible" for neighboring Pakistan to defeat the insurgency it faces.
In other exchanges with panel members, McChrystal stressed the importance of minimizing Afghan civilian casualties as allied forces apply counterinsurgency tactics designed to gain the confidence and support of the local population.
"How we conduct operations is vital to success. This is a critical point. It may be THE critical point," McChrystal stressed. "This is a struggle for the support of the Afghan people. Our willingness to operate in ways that minimize casualties or damage _ even when doing so makes our task more difficult _ is essential to our credibility. I cannot overstate my commitment to the importance of this concept."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., asked McChrystal how he could hold down civilian casualties while ramping up offensive military operations.
The general said that, if confirmed, he would thoroughly review U.S. and allied operating procedures with an eye to minimizing civilian deaths. He also said that if he could obtain more intelligence and surveillance aircraft, it would sharpen the precision of allied attacks, thereby avoiding unwanted casualties.
"I believe the perception caused by civilian casualties is one of the most dangerous things we face in Afghanistan, particularly with the Afghan people," he said. "We've got to recognize that that is a way to lose their faith and lose their support, and that would be strategically decisive against us."
McChrystal also said he was encouraged by recent progress by the Pakistani army against Taliban insurgents. The revamped U.S. war strategy that President Barack Obama announced in March treats the Pakistani and Afghan insurgencies as a common threat, although U.S. ground forces are not fighting inside Pakistan.
McChrystal testified alongside Navy Adm. James Stavridis, the nominee to become the top NATO commander in Europe. NATO provides a substantial share of the total allied forces in Afghanistan. Both Stavridis and McChrystal said they would look for ways to gain more NATO contributions, including training and nonmilitary efforts; both also agreed that Afghan security forces need to grow beyond the current target of 134,000.
In an exchange with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., McChrystal said mistakes were made in the military's handling of the accidental shooting death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman _ a former NFL star _ in Afghanistan in April 2004. At the time, McChrystal commanded U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan, including Rangers.
An investigation at the time found that McChrystal was "accountable for the inaccurate and misleading assertions" contained in internal military papers recommending that Tillman receive a Silver Star award for valor.
McChrystal told McCain that the award paperwork was "not well written." He added that this "produced confusion at a tragic time. I'm very sorry for that." He added that in retrospect, he would have done things differently, including taking more time to ensure that the award citation was accurate.