President Barack Obama's July 2011 date to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan has given a morale boost to Taliban insurgents, who believe they can wait out NATO forces, the top U.S. Marine said on Tuesday.
But retiring General James Conway said he believed Marines would not be in a position to withdraw from the fight in southern Afghanistan for years, even though he acknowledged that Americans were growing "tired" of the 9-year-old war.
Conway's unusually blunt assessment is likely to fan criticism of Obama's war strategy ahead of U.S. congressional elections in November, as public opinion of the conflict sours further and casualties rise.
"In some ways, we think right now it is probably giving our enemy sustenance," Conway, the Marine Corps' commandant, said of the July 2011 deadline.
"In fact we've intercepted communications that say, 'Hey, you know, we only need to hold out for so long.'"
Supporters of Obama's July 2011 date to start withdrawing forces from Afghanistan, conditions permitting, say it conveys a needed sense of urgency to Kabul. Afghans must quickly ramp up the size of their security forces for a gradual handover.
But critics say the strategy backfired, sending a signal to the Taliban that the United States was preparing to wind down the war while setting unrealistic expectations among Americans about the pace of progress in Afghanistan.
Conway, quoting one of his own commanders, told reporters: "We can either lose fast or win slow."
The timetable for withdrawal is certain to come under close scrutiny in a White House strategy review in December, which Obama called for last year when he announced the July 2011 deadline and 30,000 additional forces.
"We know the president was talking to several audiences at the same time when he made his comments on July 2011," Conway told reporters at the Pentagon.
"Though I certainly believe that some American units somewhere in Afghanistan will turn over responsibilities to Afghanistan security forces in 2011, I do not think they will be Marines."
U.S. SUPPORT EBBING
Violence across Afghanistan has reached record levels despite the presence of almost 150,000 U.S. and NATO troops. U.S. and NATO forces have also stepped up operations after the Taliban insurgency spread out of the South and East into once relatively peaceful areas of the North and West.
Conway's comments were the latest in a series of acknowledgments by top U.S. military officials of the challenges in Afghanistan, which appear to minimize the likelihood of any substantial change in the conflict by next July.
One of those challenges is training Afghan troops to take over from U.S. forces as they withdraw.
U.S. Lieutenant General William Caldwell said on Monday the training of Afghan forces still faced big hurdles and that it will take until late October 2011 to build up Afghanistan's police and military before they can take the lead in more than just isolated pockets of the country.
Conway said he believed the Taliban were in for a surprise once they realize next July that U.S. forces were remaining, and in large numbers. That would damage the "enemy psyche."
"If Marines will be there after 2011, after the middle of 2011, what's the enemy going to say then? You know, what's he going to say to his foot troops?" Conway asked.
"I think it could be very good for us in that context, in terms of the enemy psyche and what he has been posturing now for the better part of a year."
One of the biggest challenges facing the U.S. military is winning American support for the war, Conway said.
"I sense our country is increasingly growing tired of the war," Conway said.
He pointed to opinion polls showing unfavorable views of the war in Britain and the United States.
"I think we, the military leadership, have to do a better job of talking about the last chapter of this book if we simply try to walk away," Conway said.
"I don't think that we have done a strong enough job in convincing the American people that there are good and just reasons why we have to destroy the al Qaeda and the associated Taliban in Afghanistan."
The Afghan Taliban issued a statement on Tuesday rejecting some recently claims of progress in the war. The Taliban said attacks were increasing around the capital as well as in their heartland in the South.
"Stop sacrificing your sons and daughters for a war which is unwinnable," spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said in a statement e-mailed to media by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the title used by the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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