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US Officials Pressed on Afghan Government Capabilities, Efforts Against al-Qaida

Concluding a week of testimony before U.S. congressional committees, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry stressed the importance of reversing Taliban advances and capturing or killing Osama bin Laden in the broader war against al-Qaida. They were also pressed by lawmakers about the duration and cost of the U.S. commitment and the capabilities of of Afghanistan's government.

In testimony to the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, General McChrystal described rolling back Taliban gains as a pre-requisite for the ultimate defeat of al-Qaida. Referring to what he called greater clarity provided by President Obama's intense review of Afghanistan policy and his decision to increases U.S. forces by 30,000, General McChrystal voiced confidence that U.S., Afghan and international forces will have made gains within a year.

"By this time next year, new security gains will be illuminated by specific indicators and it will be clear to us that the insurgency has lost the momentum," said General McChrystal. "And by the summer of 2011 it will be clear to the Afghan people that the insurgency will not win giving them the chance to side with their government."

But General McChrystal also pointed to what he called the sober fact that there are no silver bullets [solutions] in Afghanistan, as lawmakers sought more specifics about the short and long-term goals of the U.S. mission.

Republican Gus Bilirakis referred to General McChrystal's response to a question from Senator John McCain in a hearing this week about efforts to capture or kill Osama bin-Laden.

BILIRAKIS: "Did you mean that there would be a U.S. presence in the theater until Bin Laden is captured, and can your plan ever fully succeed unless Bin Laden is captured?"

: "I believe that al-Qaida can be defeated overall but I believe it is an ideology and he is an iconic leader so I think to complete the destruction of that organization, it does mean that he needs to be brought to justice. It will be another of the steps, however I don't believe that simply getting him ends that organization either, I think it is one step in it."

Testimony by General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry also focused on what they and other officials have made clear will be a need for long-term assistance to Afghanistan's government.

In Oslo, Norway on Thursday, where he was accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama stressed that even after the scheduled U.S. mission shift in 2011, Afghanistan's government and military will continue to require aid.

Democratic Representative Howard Berman, who chairs the House panel, said the importance of long-term civilian aid efforts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is often lost in the debate over the military mission.

"The president's military strategy in Afghanistan can only succeed if it is accompanied by a robust civilian surge designed to improve governance, strengthen the rule of law and promote economic development in both Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Howard Berman.

Noting that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan had been under-resourced for years, Ambassador Eikenberry said the civilian aspect is being buttressed by development funds and additional personnel, increasing from about 300 at the start of 2009 to about 1,000 by the end of next month.

However, Eikenberry was pressed by Democrat David Scott about whether the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has become one of nation-building.

SCOTT: "Are we in nation-building in Afghanistan?"

EIKENBERRY: "I think that we have established our clear goals that are narrow that have to do with establishing sufficient security,"

SCOTT: "But I am asking you, yes or no, are we in nation-building in Afghanistan?"

EIKENBERRY: "No I would not characterize what we are doing, we are providing assistance to the state of Afghanistan, no I would not characterize it as open-ended nation-building, clearly not."

Ambassador Eikenberry said it's likely that Afghanistan will struggle to assume the essential tasks of governance and security on a timely basis, while in Pakistan strategic goals may not be achieved without more progress in eliminating sanctuaries used by the Afghan Taliban and their associates.

While describing himself as confident in the resolve of the Afghan people, General McChrystal called the mission undeniably difficult, with significant costs and had this blunt assessment of the capability of the Kabul government to support its own security forces.

"In the near term, it is clear that Afghanistan will not have the funds to pay for security forces of the size that they need," he said. "As their economy grows that would be the hope, but in the foreseeable future that does not appear possible."

Thursday's hearing was the eighth Congress has held on Afghanistan since President Obama announced his new strategy.

The president, administration officials and military commanders have stressed that while the 2011 date for beginning a U.S. draw down is firm, its pace will be conditions-based.