One day after an attack in Afghanistan killed eight American soldiers, President Obama’s national security adviser downplayed both the importance of U.S. troop levels and the possibility of a Taliban return to power.
National security adviser James L. Jones suggested that Gen. McChrystal’s call for more troops must be tempered by diplomatic considerations as the president weighs how to deal with the 8-year-old war.
“Well, I think the end is much more complex than just about adding ‘X’ number of troops. Afghanistan is a country that’s quite large and that swallows up a lot of people,” the retired Marine general said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“It would be, I think, unfortunate if we let the discussion just be about troop strength. There is a minimum level that you have to have, but there’s, unfortunately, no ceiling to it,” he reiterated in a separate appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
He also said political progress was essential and criticized the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai as making insufficient progress.
“The key in Afghanistan, as we said back in March, is to have a triad of things happen simultaneously. Security is obviously one reason, one important thing to take care of, but the other two are economic development and good governance in the rule of law, and on that score, we have a lot more work to do and a Karzai government is going to have to pitch in and do much better than they have,” he said on CNN.
“But underlying that is, of course, the effort to build up the Afghan national security force, the police and the army, and that will be an important part of whatever we decide to do,” Mr. Jones said.
But supporters of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal renewed his call for increased forces. The types of attacks that happened late Saturday night likely would intensify without an increased troop presence in Afghanistan, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“Well, the one thing I can tell you for sure, without reinforcing our troops, you’re going to hear more of what happened today. General McChrystal said without reinforcements we cannot change the momentum that the Taliban has achieved, and the insurgency cannot be defeated in a year if something doesn’t change,” Mr. Graham said.
The attack on a U.S. outpost and a nearby Afghan government site in a remote region of Afghanistan on Saturday was the deadliest in a year. Insurgents armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades were repelled by NATO forces using fighter jets and helicopter gunships, but not before killing eight Americans and four Afghans and capturing at least 20 Afghan security troops, the Associated Press reported.
Not since nine U.S. soldiers died in a July 2008 Taliban raid in the same province had more Americans been killed in a single battle.
Mohammad Farooq, the province’s deputy police chief, told Reuters that there was no contact with an entire 90-strong police force in the Kamdesh district of Nuristan province, where the attacks occurred. He told the British news agency that the attack involved hundreds of insurgents, including foreign nationals based in Pakistan.
NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay told the Associated Press that the assailants included a mix of “tribal militias,” Taliban and fighters loyal to Sirajudin Haqqani, an al Qaeda-linked militant based in sanctuaries in the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghanistan border.
“This was a complex attack in a difficult area,” U.S. Col. Randy George, the area commander, said in a statement. “Both the U.S. and Afghan soldiers fought bravely together.”
Details of the outcome remained in dispute Sunday, with Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid saying his group’s forces had overrun both outposts. U.S. military spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias said U.S. troops were holding the posts Sunday.
The 13-hour battle Saturday took place in the heavily mountainous area near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but news of it did not reach the outside world until Sunday. U.S. forces already had decided to abandon the area, a plan that NATO officials said Sunday would not change.
Gen. McChrystal has recommended sending tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan, relocating soldiers from remote outposts in areas such as Kamdesh to concentrate on urban areas, and expediting the training of Afghan forces. The recommendations were issued in response to President Obama’s request for a long-term strategy for handing over the country to the Afghan government.
“A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a shortsighted strategy,” Gen. McChrystal said Friday in a speech to London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. He also said that the joint Taliban/al Qaeda insurgency is gaining ground and more forces are needed.
On Sunday’s CNN appearance, Mr. Jones rebuked Gen. McChrystal for the London speech and his public campaigning on the need for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, saying that it is “better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.”
He also cautiously downplayed reports in The Washington Times and elsewhere that Gen. McChrystal might resign if the president refused him the troops he says he needs.
“General McChrystal is in it for the long haul. He has said so publicly and privately,” Mr. Jones said. “I don’t think this is an issue.”
Despite the bloody and overt attack Saturday, Mr. Jones said there is no immediate risk of a Taliban government coming back to power in Afghanistan and openly hosting Osama bin Laden, as happened before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“I don’t foresee the return of the Taliban. Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling,” Mr. Jones told CNN. “The al Qaeda presence is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.”
Mr. Obama has hedged on how he would handle Gen. McChrystal’s request for more troops recently, balancing the military request against his base of liberal supporters who have called for a troop pullout. Senior advisers are set to meet twice this week on the issue, Mr. Jones told CBS.
“The president is committed to doing what is essential to keep America safe. And obviously we have made important and substantial investments in Afghanistan. We are not talk - nobody’s talking about walking away from Afghanistan,” Susan E. Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
But Republican lawmakers used the weekend news shows to push the president to heed Gen. McChrystal’s request and warned of an emboldened Taliban and al Qaeda.
“The Taliban are a big consideration here,” Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said on CNN. “I think almost everybody agrees, if we were to pull out, the Taliban would take over again in Afghanistan. And that’s biggest threat of allowing al Qaeda, then, to have a base from which it could operate.”
Britain’s top military official spoke similarly on Sunday, saying that the Taliban war is key to stopping al Qaeda worldwide.
“If al Qaeda and the Taliban believe they have defeated us, what next? Would they stop at Afghanistan?” Gen. David Richards said in an interview with London’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper. “Pakistan is clearly a tempting target not least because of the fact that it is a nuclear-weaponed state, and that is a terrifying prospect.”
Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat and House Armed Services Committee chairman, predicted on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that his chamber would vote to provide more troops and that he already had been pressing the White House on the matter.
“I sent a letter to the president a number of days ago … basically, ‘give the general what he needs.’ You see you have to have security in Afghanistan,” he said. “I think the House would support” the general’s request, “there’s no question.”
However, his Senate counterpart disagreed, both on whether Congress would support any request from Gen. McChrystal and on the wisdom of committing more U.S. forces, indicative of the increasing split among Democrats on the Afghanistan war.
“I would not commit to more combat troops at this time,” said Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “There’s a lot of other things that need to be done to show resolve. What we need a surge of is Afghan troops.”