WASHNGTON — Days after his boss said that there was no new intelligence on the whereabouts of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told Congress Tuesday that killing or capturing bin Laden is critical to defeating the terrorist organization.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top Afghanistan commander, said, however, that he could not promise that his new military strategy would lead to bin Laden's capture because when the al Qaida leader moves outside of Afghanistan, chasing after him "is outside my mandate."
McChrystal's comments underscored a key contradiction in President Barack Obama's new Afghanistan strategy: While it dedicates thousands of additional troops to combating the Taliban in Afghanistan, it adds few resources aimed at the policy's stated goal: "disrupting, dismantling and defeating" al Qaida.
"I believe he is an iconic figure at this point whose survival emboldens al Qaida as a franchise organization across the world," McChrystal told the Senate Armed Services committee. "I don't think we can defeat him until he is captured or killed."
In the last week top administration officials have offered conflicting statements about what the United States knows about bin Laden's whereabouts. While McChrystal suggested Tuesday that bin Laden is in neighboring Pakistan, retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, Obama's national security advisor, said Sunday that bin Laden sometimes crosses the Afghan-Pakistan border.
And over the weekend, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told ABC's "This Week" that the United States had not had strong intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts for years.
Bin Laden has eluded U.S. capture since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, most notably at the battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in late 2001. The special operations task force assigned exclusively to find bin Laden was disbanded by 2005.
"If, as we suspect, he is in North Waziristan, it is an area that the Pakistani government has not had a presence in, in quite some time," Gates told ABC.
McChrystal and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. envoy in Afghanistan, appeared before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on Tuesday to answer questions about the Obama administration's new Afghanistan strategy, which calls for the deployment of between 30,000-35,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next summer. Most of those troops are to be assigned to southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban controls large swaths of the county.
Besides improving security, those forces are expected to train Afghan security forces to take over. McChrystal said that he expects the Afghan security forces — police and army — to expand to 300,000 by July 2011 — when Obama said U.S. troops would begin to withdraw. The total currently is about 188,000, with 96,000 of those belonging to the army.
McChrystal said he had not recommended July 2011 as the date to start the withdrawal. But he said that that date provides the United States enough time to weaken the Taliban's hold and build up the Afghan security forces. He did not say what the United States would do if U.S. forces hadn't made that kind of progress by then.
Eikenberry, who had expressed doubts about the strategy during the administration's three-month deliberation, said Tuesday he supported the strategy.
Military officials believe a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will provide safe haven to al Qaida and its leadership. McChrystal estimated that between 24,000-27,000 full-time Taliban fighters operate in Afghanistan.
In the past, officials have said that killing bin Laden is not critical to defeating al Qaida, saying that they believe al Qaida's leadership is decentralized and that stabilizing the countries where they operate is a more attainable goal.
On Tuesday, however, McChrystal said that the goals are interlinked. "Rolling back the Taliban is a prerequisite to the ultimate defeat of al Qaida," he said.
There are currently 69,000 U.S. troops and 41,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan. The first of the surge troops are slated to arrive by Christmas.
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