Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Gen. James Conway challenged President Obama's commitment to begin withdrawing soldiers from Afghanistan in July, 2011, saying his deadline gives the Taliban "sustenance" and encourages them to simply outlast the Americans.

"In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance," he said, according to published reports. "In fact, we’ve intercepted communications that say, 'Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.'"

Conway added that Taliban foot soldiers would likely suffer a blow to morale after July 2011 passes with no dramatic departure of American forces, "and come the fall we're still there hammering them like we have been."

The general, just back from a visit to Afghanistan, said government army and police forces in key southern provinces will not be ready to take over from foreign troops for at least "a few years," and that he had told his Marines to brace for a long fight.

Echoing other US military leaders, Conway suggested a major troop withdrawal remained a long way off, despite Obama's timeline.

"I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us," he added.

Conway said some Afghan units "somewhere" might be able to assume the lead for security in 2011 but not in the south, the birthplace of the Taliban.

"And I think there's a mindset that needs to accompany that on the part of our Marines, that it may be a while," he said.

He acknowledged that public support for the US mission was declining but warned of the risks of any early withdrawal.

"I sense our country is increasingly growing tired of the war," he said.

Conway appealed for patience, citing a fellow commander's assessment that "we can either lose fast or win slow."

The last units of a surge of 30,000 reinforcements only arrived in Afghanistan this month, he said, with the US force now at nearly 100,000.

He also took time to comment on the planned repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the military's policy which requires gay and lesbian soldiers to keep their sexuality a secret or face expulsion.

“I can tell you that an overwhelming majority would like not to be roomed with a person who is openly homosexual," he said.

But, Conway's take was not overly resistant to the repeal, with the general adding: “We will follow the law, whatever the law prescribes."

With AFP.