KABUL — The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday that NATO and U.S. forces will hand over responsibility for securing the country to its own security forces "as rapidly as conditions allow" – welcome news for war-weary American troops trying to hold back insurgents.
"The more the merrier, but it depends on what the mission will be," said Spc. Stephen Ayala from San Antonio, Texas, with the 425th Field Artillery battalion. "If they come to train the Afghans, that's good for us. If they are going to do some damage, so much the better. But for us, we just want to go home."
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in a statement issued in Kabul just before President Barack Obama formally announced he was sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to the war, said his main focus will be to develop the capacity of the police and army in Afghanistan, where the president said the security situation had deteriorated.
"We will work toward improved security for Afghanistan and the transfer of responsibility to Afghan security forces as rapidly as conditions allow," McChrystal said.
"In the meantime, our Afghan partners need the support of coalition forces while we grow and develop the capacity of the Afghan army and police. That will be the main focus of our campaign in the months ahead."
Ayala and other U.S. service members deployed 22 miles (35 kilometers) west of Kabul in Wardak province learned of Obama's decision to send more troops while watching clips of the president's speech broadcast during their breakfast of sausage, eggs, hash browns, fruit and cereal at Forward Operating Base Airborne.
Cpl. Joshua McClellan, from Fostoria, Ohio, is on his third tour in Afghanistan.
"We're just interested in whether Obama was going to say whether he would extend us a while over here," McClellan said. "A lot of us are ready to push out and get back home."
Obama said that increasing the capacity of Afghan security forces will allow international forces to start transferring out of Afghanistan in July 2011 – depending on conditions on the ground.
Spc. Ty Hooks, a combat engineer from Vidalia, Ga., cheered any accelerated training for the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.
"That's a good thing," Hooks said. "Maybe the ANA and ANP can stand up and do their jobs."
In his speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, Obama said that while the U.S. and international community will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan, "It will be clear to the Afghan government – and more importantly, to the Afghan people – that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country."
Both Obama and McChrystal cautioned that success in Afghanistan will be achieved only through efforts that match military and security force training with governance and economic development aid that can sustain long-term stability.
"The concerted commitment of the international community will prevail in bringing real change to Afghanistan – a secure and stable environment that allows for effective governance, improved economic opportunity and the freedom of every Afghan to choose how they live," McChrystal said.
Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who has questioned the wisdom of adding U.S. forces when the Afghan political situation is unstable and uncertain, said in a statement that he strongly supported Obama's announcement. He said it would "provide clarity and focus" to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. "My team and I will energetically implement this strategy in closest possible partnership" with the Afghan people, the Afghan government, the international community and the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, he said.
Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the new head of a U.S.-NATO command responsible for training and developing Afghan soldiers and police, said Tuesday that although the groundwork is being laid to expand the Afghan National Army beyond the current target of 134,000 troops by Oct. 31, 2010, no fixed higher target has been set.
Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, operational commander of Afghanistan's defense ministry, said that won't be enough and that he eventually wants at least 240,000 troops. He noted that during the 1970s, the Afghan army targeted 250,000 troops and never fell below 200,000.
"Then, everywhere was peace. There was no fighting," he said. "Today, with Taliban militants and international terrorists, we even need more troops than during the king's time."
Obama emphasized that the challenge in Afghanistan is linked to developments in Pakistan, where many Taliban and al-Qaida militants fled after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
"We are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country," said Obama. "But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan."
Many intelligence officials believe Taliban leader Mullah Omar is based in the Pakistani border city of Quetta, where he has spearheaded attacks against Western forces in Afghanistan. The U.S. has repeatedly called on Pakistan to target Omar, but many believe the government has been hesitant to cut ties with militants it helped nurture in past decades who could serve as useful proxies if Washington fails in Afghanistan and withdraws.
But rising violence within Pakistan has shifted public opinion away from extremists and has motivated the military to wage offensives against those militants targeting the Pakistani state. Obama promised a sustained military and civilian partnership with Pakistan if it extended its effort to target those militants threatening Western troops in Afghanistan as well.
"We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear," said Obama.
While acknowledging Afghan President Hamid Karzai as the legitimately elected leader, he noted fraud in the recent presidential election. The Obama administration has said Karzai's pledge to tackle corruption is a step forward, but say they will hold him to his pledge to reform the ineffectual government.
Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Obama's Afghanistan plan needs to protect civilians by ending the impunity and warlordism that have fueled insurgents.
"There is no magic number of U.S. troops that will bring security to Afghanistan," Reid said. "If the U.S. wants Afghans to have a government they can believe in, there needs to be effective mechanisms for bringing human rights abusers to justice."
Associated Press Writers Deb Riechmann, Sebastian Abbott and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Denis Gray in Wardak province, Darlene Superville and Steven Hurst in West Point, N.Y., and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.