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New Commander Pledges to Protect Afghan Civilians in 'Winnable' War

The U.S. Army general nominated to be commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan says the conflict is "winnable," but foreign forces need to be careful about how they go about defeating the Taliban.

Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal told the Senate Armed Services Committee the mission he has been given is difficult, but not impossible.

"Sir, I believe it is winnable, but I don't think it will be easily winnable," said General McChrystal.

McChrystal said U.S. and allied casualties will likely increase in the coming months, as more American forces flow in and attack Taliban strongholds, particularly in southern Afghanistan. But he said he hopes to see progress toward stability within 18 to 24 months.

The general, whose background is mainly in special operations combat, says the military needs to be careful about how it fights in a situation where the key to victory is not necessarily defeating the Taliban and related groups on the battlefield. Rather, he says, success involves the more complex task of convincing the Afghan people to support their own government.

"The measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed, it will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence," he said.

And General McChrystal says that cannot be done unless U.S., Afghan, NATO and other coalition forces re-double their efforts to avoid causing civilian casualties. Several recent incidents have strained U.S.-Afghan relations and turned many Afghans against the government and the coalition.

"If confirmed, I would emphasize that how we conduct operations is vital to success," said McChrystal. "This is a critical point. It may be the critical point. 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."

McChrystal called for "precision and discipline" in air strikes and ground operations, and said if confirmed by the senate he will review all rules of engagement and tactical directives in Afghanistan to ensure civilians are not put in danger unless that is absolutely necessary to protect U.S., Afghan or allied forces. He said if Afghan civilians lose faith in the good intentions of the U.S. and Afghan governments, it would be, in his words, "strategically decisive against us."

General McChrystal's comments reflected President Barack Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is based on counterinsurgency theory that says the main tasks must be protecting the people and increasing support for the government. Fighting insurgents is only done in support of those goals.

In a surprise move last month, (Mr.) Obama nominated McChrystal to replace General David McKiernan, who has been in command in Afghanistan for the past year. Announcing the move, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he wanted "fresh eyes" and "new leadership" to implement the new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that the president announced in April.

During Tuesday's hearing, General McChrystal also tried to deflect concerns expressed by some senators about alleged detainee abuse in Iraq by special operations forces under his command.

"I do not and never have condoned mistreatment of detainees, and never will," he said. "When we found cases where we thought there was an allegation of mistreatment, we investigated every one, and we punished if, in fact, it was substantiated. And that was from the beginning."

But the general acknowledged his troops used some harsh interrogation techniques in 2003, when they were allowed by the Defense Department. He says he reduced the use of those techniques as soon as he took command.

McChrystal also responded to concerns about his handling of the so-called friendly fire death of a famous American football player who joined the Army and was accidentally killed in Iraq by U.S. forces in 2004. The general said he made mistakes in the case of Corporal Pat Tillman, and that the Army failed to treat his family properly by providing all the information as soon as possible. But McChrystal says the failure was caused by mistakes, not by any effort to cover up the friendly fire incident.

At the hearing, General McChrystal and the officer nominated to be commander of all NATO forces worldwide, Admiral James Stavridis, both endorsed a sharp increase in the size of the Afghan police and army, so that one day they can secure the country without foreign help. Admiral Stavridis also called for more funding from NATO countries, and more help in the effort to train the new Afghan forces.