In a New Year's Day interview, the commander of NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan offered an optimistic message about the chances for military success prior to a planned drawdown of US combat forces beginning in July 2011.

"I believe that over the next year to 18 months that we’re going to be able to decisively change the perception of momentum and gains by the insurgents," General Stanley McChrystal told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes by phone from Kabul.

McChrystal defined victory as a situation where "the insurgency is not an existential threat to the government or the people” of Afghanistan" and asserted that allied forces "are not winning yet, but we are going to win."

He also rejected the Taliban's recent claims to control of 80% of the country, saying, "They have presence in a number of areas, and in some areas, they have a significant amount of control. ... But they are trying to give the impression to everybody that there’s this inexorable wave that’s coming, and that’s not what I see at all."

Despite McChrystal's expressions of optimism about being able to turn things around, a skeptical observer might take his carefully-hedged remarks as an admission that coalition forces are currently on the defensive, while the Taliban has the momentum and poses a threat to the very existence of the Afghan government.

McChrystal also dismissed recent reports of Afghan anger over civilian deaths, insisting that "we are not viewed as occupiers now." He contrasted the actions of coalition forces with those of the Soviet military in the 1980s, saying that in purely military terms the Soviets "did a lot of things well" but "they killed more than a million Afghans in the process, and they created an environment in which the antibodies of the society literally surged against them."

At least NATO forces don't have to deal with surging antibodies.

McChrystal acknowledged that since his original plan to expand the Afghan army and police force to 400,000 members by July 2011 was rejected by the Obama administration as unrealistic, there is no longer a definite target.

"We don’t have a number now," he told Stars and Stripes. "So, what we’re doing is we’re growing as fast as we practically can, at least over the next two years, and we’ll keep looking at it, and [adjust] as we go."