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The man who was the top U.S. military officer at the beginning of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars says the United States needs to recommit itself to a broad, troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, or it will risk sparking regional instability and a rise of global extremism. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin spoke to the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired General Richard Myers.
General Myers spent four years as the top U.S. military officer, starting just weeks after the September 11 attacks in 2001, through the early successes in Afghanistan and Iraq and the beginning of the Iraqi insurgency, and ending in late 2005, just before the major outbreak of violence in Iraq and well before the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan during the last two years.
It was a different era. But General Myers spent many hours in the White House Situation Room, working with Bush administration officials on strategy for the two conflicts, just as current top officers are working with President Barack Obama and his team now on how to move forward in Afghanistan.
"My experience has been that the president would be eager to hear from lots of different voices in this argument so that he can build conviction on what the United States ought to do," he said.
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General Myers acknowledges that process has been made more difficult by the uncertain outcome of the Afghan presidential election, and allegations of widespread fraud by supporters of President Hamid Karzai. And he also says the dire assessment of the security situation by General Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has presented senior officials with an issue they did not expect.
"The field commander has said 'I need a lot more troops.' And I think it's more than most people, at least in their calculus in the back of their minds, imprecise as that probably was, it was a larger number than they were prepared for," he said.
But General Myers says the approach the commander has laid out is probably right.
"This threat from violent extremism, not just in Afghanistan, not just in Pakistan, but globally, is a real existential threat to freedom-loving countries. And so Pakistan and Afghanistan today, that's where we need to work. So I think we need to devote the resources to try to be successful," Myers added.
The general says the U.S. and allied effort also needs to have a significant political and economic component, and that a strong, credible government must emerge from the current election process. But he says a significant number of foreign troops will be needed to help establish and then maintain security in Afghanistan, possibly for decades.
The retired Air Force officer says the United States and its allies need to make that kind of decades-long commitment.
"I think there'll be a message if the United States decides not to commit in a robust way to Afghanistan. There'll be an equal and opposite reaction in the violent extremist community. And they'll say, 'Aha, the West has folded here when the going got just a little bit tough," he said.
General Myers says a strong commitment is also important for the Afghan people, who he says have demonstrated they want democracy by voting in very dangerous conditions. But he says they could turn back toward the Taliban and other extremist groups if they believe the West is planning to abandon them.
"They've shown that they want a choice in their lives. And I don't think the international community, not just the United States but the international community, can turn their backs on them," said Myers.
For that reason, and because the Taliban is continuing its resurgence, General Myers says President Obama should take enough time to get the strategy right, but not too much time.