Adviser downplays threat of renewed al-Qaida haven

WASHINGTON – A top U.S. commander’s public plea for more troops in Afghanistan prompted a mild rebuke Sunday from the White House national security adviser, as the administration heads into a second week of intensive negotiations over its evolving Afghan strategy.

Retired Gen. James Jones said that decisions on how best to stabilize Afghanistan and beat back the insurgency must extend beyond troop levels to development and governance. And the request by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for up to 40,000 more troops is just one of three key elements advisers must consider as they meet this week to plot the way ahead.

He added that it is “better for military advice to come up through the chain of command,” rather than off a public stage, referring to McChrystal’s speech in London last week making a case for more troops. But Jones also beat back suggestions that the open campaign could jeopardize the general’s job.

McChrystal “is in it for the long haul,” Jones said. “I don’t think this is an issue.”

Jones comments came amid growing government fissures over whether to send thousands of additional forces to the fight, and just hours after militant forces overwhelmed U.S. troops at two outposts near the Pakistan border, killing eight Americans.

Obama’s senior advisers are set to meet twice this week to debate the Afghan strategy, juggling political pressure from the left to scale back combat troops with arguments from military leaders, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that additional forces are needed to secure the country and enable government and economic development advancements.

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Jones said that Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling to the Taliban, and he downplayed fears that the insurgency could set up a renewed sanctuary for al-Qaida. McChrystal has said that insurgents are gaining ground and the U.S. is in danger of failing unless more forces are sent to the fight.

“I don’t foresee the return of the Taliban. Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling,” Jones said. “The al-Qaida presence is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.”

He said Obama has received McChrystal’s request for additional troops, and the force numbers will be part of a larger discussion that will include efforts to beef up the size and training of the Afghan army and police, along with economic development and governance improvements in Afghanistan.

“It would be, I think, unfortunate if we let the discussion just be about troop strength. There is a minimum level that you have to have, but there’s, unfortunately, no ceiling to it,” Jones said.

Obama is considering a range of ideas for changing course in Afghanistan, including scaling back, staying put and sending more troops to fight the insurgency.

U.S. officials also are waiting for the results of the Afghan elections, as disturbing reports of fraud grow. Peter Galbraith, who was dismissed last week as the deputy special envoy in Afghanistan, argued in a Washington Post opinion piece Sunday that the international community must correct problems that allowed the fraudulent voting, including replacing election staff.

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Galbraith, who was fired in wake of a dispute with his boss over how to deal with fraud charges in the Aug. 20 balloting, has charged that as much as 30 percent of President Hamid Karzai’s votes were fraudulent.

Arguments on the U.S. strategy and troop requirements were escalating among lawmakers.

“I would not commit to more combat troops at this time,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. “There’s a lot of other things that need to be done to show resolve. What we need a surge of is Afghan troops.”

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., countered that if commanders want more troops, they should get them.

“The Taliban are a big consideration here,” Kyl said. “I think almost everybody agrees, if we were to pull out, the Taliban would take over again in Afghanistan. And that’s biggest threat of allowing al-Qaida, then, to have a base from which it could operate.”

House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., agreed, saying he believes the House would vote to provide more troops, especially when a Taliban resurgence could enable al-Qaida’s return.

Administration officials have tried, instead, to focus some of the debate on Pakistan, noting that Islamabad has stepped up its campaign against militants along the border. Those efforts, said Jones, could provide a key shift in the war.

“We hope that will lead to a campaign against all insurgents on that side of the border, and if that happens, that’s a strategic shift that will spill over into Afghanistan,” he said.

On the Afghan side, Jones said the Karzai government must achieve progress on economic development and must show it can govern without corruption and follow the rule of law.

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Jones and Kyl spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Jones also appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” as did Skelton and Levin.

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