WASHINGTON —There are as many as 27,000 Taliban operating in Afghanistan but the top American commander there says he believes they can be defeated under the new strategy.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, told Senate lawmakers Tuesday that while the Taliban is comprised of disparate parts, one prominent group, the Quetta Shura, or “Afghan Taliban,” is the biggest threat.
McChrystal said he thinks these Taliban can be beaten under President Obama’s new strategy, or at least pushed back to a point where they can no longer threaten the Afghan government.
“We can defeat the Taliban,” McChrystal told Senate lawmakers Tuesday. “I think that is absolutely achievable … as we reverse the momentum, we will weaken the resolve of many members of the Taliban.”
McChrystal appeared alongside his civilian counterpart in Afghanistan, US Amb. Karl Eikenberry, to sell the new strategy to skeptical members of Congress. Lawmakers’ concerns focused on the July 2011 time line set by the president to begin draw down, the ability of the Afghan government to become an effective partner, and the ability of the Afghan security forces to take over the fight.
If the Taliban is allowed to flourish in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda could find a haven there again and establish new bases from which to attack the US and other western nations, McChrystal said.
In addition to the Quetta Shura, two other groups under the Taliban umbrella, the Haqqani and the Hezb-i-Islami, pose a threat but have more limited ambitions, McChrystal said.
All three groups are supported by external elements in both Iran and Pakistan, have ties to Al Qaeda, and rely on narcotics and other criminal networks to operate, McChrystal added. Though Al Qaeda has been pushed out of Afghanistan and currently operates in Pakistan, its connection to the Afghan Taliban and other groups is what animates US strategic interests in Afghanistan, American officials say.
The aim of Obama’s new strategy is to weaken the Taliban to the point where it cannot topple the Afghan government. That goal appears to be narrower from the complete eradication of the Taliban that might have been sought under a more conventional nation-building strategy.
The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is not a “popular” insurgency drawing popular support from the Afghan population, McChrystal emphasized at the Senate hearing Tuesday afternoon, but one that gathers its strength from coercion.
In time, McChrystal said he will seek to reconcile with Taliban members who can be persuaded to support the Afghan government. But it must be Afghan-led, he said. The US has created a new “cell” to help the Afghan government do this, he added.
“We think it’s critical to offer fighters, maybe not the most senior leaders of the Taliban, but fighters, the ability to leave the battlefield,” he said during the Senate hearing. They should return from that battlefield, he said, with “respect and honor, and not feel like criminals.”