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September 21st, 2009
11:44 AM ET

US general: Deliver troops or lose Afghanistan

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan says we have twelve months to get more boots on the ground or the U.S. risks “failure” in the war-torn nation. President Obama told CNN’s John King, any decision on Afghanistan won't be driven by "the politics of the moment" and that the goal remains getting al Qaeda.

Bob Woodward is a veteran journalist for the Washington Post, the first to get General Stanley McChrystal’s report, and he broke the story. Woodward spoke to John Roberts in an exclusive interview on CNN's "American Morning" Monday. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Bob Woodward says it will take years to put more troops in Afghanistan."]

John Roberts: I want to pull a quote from the report that you have posted on "The Washington Post" Web site, in which General McChrystal said, "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months), while Afghan security capacity matures, risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." That's a pretty dire and striking statement.

Bob Woodward: It really says: 12 months, I need more troops, I need to have really have a full counterinsurgency strategy, which is protect the people, go out into the villages, set up the kinds of security stations in contact with the population that was done in Iraq by General Petraeus. If I don't get that, likely failure, defeating them is impossible.

This is a striking thing for a general to say to the secretary of defense and the commander-in-chief. It really takes his finger and puts it in their eye. Deliver or this won't work. And he says, "If they don't endorse this full counterinsurgency strategy, don't even give me the troops, because it won't work."

Roberts: And he paints the consequences in very stark terms as well, saying that Afghanistan, or at least parts of it, could again become a base for terrorism, the way it was pre-9/11.

Woodward: It suggests that, of course, this is the debate going on in the White House, do you need – we already have or are on the way to having 68,000 of our troops in Afghanistan. That is a giant land army plus all kinds of air and intelligence capacity. Is that enough to keep al Qaeda, which is now in Pakistan, from moving in to Afghanistan? A lot of people would say it is.

The president's instructions in March, when he released his strategy, said do counterinsurgency, protect the population. You get into this – you edge into the area of nation building, doing something more than just preventing al Qaeda from resurfacing there.

The president is very much hinting, well, what's the mission? What exactly do we want to do here? There's an intense debate going on among his advisers. What's the alternative? The alternative is we don't have to fix this nation. We don't have to protect the population. There is this insurgency going on, led by the Taliban, but they do not want to attack the United States and al Qaeda, which does, is not in this country.

Roberts: Right. But al Qaeda could definitely move back into the country, though, if it becomes a failed state. But the president, as you pointed out, is skeptical about this idea of putting more troops on the ground and he's also sailing into a headwind with members of his own party. We had Senator Russ Feingold on last week who said that he wants a flexible timetable for withdrawal as opposed to putting more troops in and he told us flat-out that he would not support the president's call for more troops if he asked for them.

Woodward: That's true. And the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Carl Levin, has said the solution here is to train more Afghan forces, security forces, police and army. Actually, the numbers that Levin has released a couple of weeks ago are the ones proposed in this confidential assessment by General McChrystal himself.

The problem is, you can't do that overnight. In fact, it will take years and essentially, what General McChrystal is doing is saying, let's develop a bridging strategy, use more U.S. troops until we can get the Afghan army and police force up to speed, up to numbers where they can actually do this themselves. Now, that's two, three years away, at least.

Roberts: Right. And he's also very critical of the Afghan government, saying it's rife with corruption, that many Afghans don't trust the government; that you really have to reform the governing process there in Afghanistan. Is that something that is possible in the near-term? Can you get that done in 12 months?

Woodward: You probably can't. And the question now becomes, in this election where President Karzai apparently has won reelection, but there are really documented allegations of massive voter fraud, if he takes office again, is this perceived to be a legitimate government? And one of the histories in counterinsurgencies going way back is it's very difficult if not impossible to win over the people if you don't have a government that's respected and considered legitimate. So, this is another giant obstacle in this war.

Filed under: Afghanistan • Politics
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