Afghanistan will need U.S. help for 15 to 20 years, Karzai says

Afghanistan’s security forces will need U.S. support for another 15 to 20 years, President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday in the latest in a series of indications that U.S. involvement there is likely to last far into the future.

Also Tuesday, the top U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, told lawmakers in Washington that the U.S. needed to signal a long-term commitment in Afghanistan in order to reverse the momentum of the Taliban-led insurgency, a commitment that he said must continue even after combat forces begin to draw down in 2011.

Questions about the timing of U.S. troop reductions and a hand-over of control to Afghan forces loomed over both McChrystal’s testimony in Washington and a trip to Kabul by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Karzai, appearing beside Gates at a news conference in the Afghan capital, said it would take five years for his forces to assume responsibility for security throughout the country. He said it would be 15 to 20 years before Afghan forces could operate without heavy U.S. financial and technical help.

Gates did not take issue with Karzai’s timeline, but he said he hoped that the Afghan military could be ready sooner. Gates emphasized that a U.S. withdrawal would begin in 2011, as outlined by President Obama in his order last week to deploy an additional 30,000 troops. But Gates said the drawdown would be a process lasting several years as Afghan forces took responsibility.

“Whether it’s three years or two years or four years I think remains to be seen,” Gates said. “As President Obama has made very clear, this is not an open-ended commitment on the part of the United States.”

McChrystal, appearing before the Senate and House armed services committees, reinforced Obama’s message of limits to U.S. involvement, but he also stressed the need for a long-term commitment to Afghanistan.

“That we will not abandon them over time is very, very important,” McChrystal told the Senate panel. “It gives them consistency in our commitment to them and some assurance for the future.”

McChrystal voiced confidence that the added troops, which will bring the U.S. force to about 100,000 next year, would produce recognizable gains by 2011, an important step to win over Afghans and erode any support enjoyed by insurgents.

“The most important thing we will have done by the summer of 2011 is convince the majority of the Afghan people that, in fact, we are going to win,” McChrystal said.

McChrystal appeared with Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and a former military commander there. Lawmakers questioned both men for signs of disagreement with the White House or with each other. McChrystal had recommended that 40,000 extra U.S. troops be deployed but has endorsed Obama’s plan to send 30,000. Eikenberry had opposed additional troops without steps to ensure that the Karzai government would improve its government services and security forces.

However, both said they had embraced the Obama strategy, and they presented a united front to lawmakers.

The U.S. buildup is projected to cost $30 billion a year, and expectations of long-term American involvement in Afghanistan are based in part on the cost of battling the country’s militants. Afghanistan’s economy is small and weak, and its government has only a limited ability to collect taxes and tariffs. Without a larger, stronger economy, it has few options for paying for an army and police force robust enough to counter a viable insurgency.

“There is a realism on our part that it will be some time before Afghanistan is able to sustain its security forces entirely on its own,” Gates said in Kabul. “And whether that’s 15 or 20 years, we’ll hope for accelerated economic development.”

Eikenberry told senators that support for the Afghan forces would be far less expensive than keeping American combat units in the country.

“This will be a burden on the government of Afghanistan; they will need assistance,” Eikenberry said. “It is clearly in our own long-term economic interest to help the Afghans stand up their police and army forces. That is a pretty good trade-off if we do not need to send more U.S. soldiers and Marines.”

Some lawmakers cited widespread corruption in the Afghan government as a possible impediment to the new U.S. approach. Sen. Paul G. Kirk Jr. (D-Mass.) said Karzai was the “weak link” in the president’s strategy.

Eikenberry said he was encouraged by Karzai’s recent commitment to fighting corruption but acknowledged that the issue would “remain a challenge.”

In Kabul, Karzai said he had assembled about 40% of his Cabinet and would present the complete list by next week.

He said he would choose a Cabinet that could be “appreciated and supported by the international community,” a potential sign that he intends to exclude the most notorious warlords who have occupied key positions.

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.