WASHINGTON, June 19, 2009 – The next 18 months will be crucial in Afghanistan, the new commander of NATO and U.S. forces there said today. “I think that the next 18 months are probably a period in which this effort will be decided,” Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal told Tom Bowman in a National Public Radio interview. “I don’t think it will be over. But I think that not only the American people, I think the Afghan people are looking and deciding which way this will go.”

McChrystal took command of coalition and U.S. efforts in Afghanistan on June 15. His job is to carry out the new strategy for the region.

The general said the conflict should not be viewed solely as a military struggle. It is not a question of whether the United States is winning, he said, but whether the Afghan people are winning. The Afghan government is the ultimate deciding factor, and while the government is not winning the war on extremists, “I don’t say they’re losing,” McChrystal said.

“That’s an old axiom in counterinsurgency: If you’re not winning, you’re losing,” he said. “And the danger there is that that is true. So we see it as very, very important, probably over about the next 12 to 24 months, that we absolutely get a trend where we are clearly winning.”

McChrystal has spent much of his career in special operations, hunting down and killing or capturing terrorists. “What I learned is that much of the terrorism we fought years ago was very small groups that were finite. They were fanatical, and they could be attacked that way,” he said. “Nowadays, we have to fight the cause of terrorism, because terror is a tactic. You win by taking away from the enemy the one thing the insurgent absolutely has to have, and that’s access to the population.”

Hunting terrorists still has a place in the war in Afghanistan, McChrystal said, but the overall effort requires a mix of aggression and rebuilding. “I very much lean toward the importance of the building side,” he said.

The population needs to be safe so they can build an economy, build good governance and develop an infrastructure, the general explained. That gives the people something they want to continue and something they want to protect, so “the insurgent, then, becomes a troublemaker,” he said.

“The opposite could be perceived, even with good intentions,” he continued. “If we are just hunting Taliban, we can be perceived as coming into areas and being someone who upsets the neighborhood. But we do need to be able to keep a pressure on the enemy as we push them away. So there’s always a balance.”

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