Gen. McChystal: The U.S. can’t defeat al-Qaeda unless we capture bin Laden

Bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, has eluded U.S. and coalition forces since 2001.

McChrystal said that bin Laden is an “iconic figure” whose survival “emboldens” the terrorist group as a “franchising organization across the globe” and serves as a recruiting tool.

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McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday afternoon to lend their full support for President Barack Obama’s new war plan.

“It does remain important to the American people — indeed, the people of the world — that one day Osama bin Laden is either captured or killed,” Eikenberry said.

McChrystal’s and Eikenberry’s statements came in response to a question by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Obama’s one-time presidential rival.  McCain asked how important it is that the United States find and bring bin Laden to justice.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this weekend that the United States does not know where bin Laden is hiding and has not had any good intelligence on his whereabouts in “years.”

“We don’t know for a fact where Osama bin Laden is. If we did, we’d go get him,” Gates said on ABC’s “This Week.”

McChrystal said during the hearing that if bin Laden is within the Afghan borders, he would go after him.

Meanwhile, National Security Adviser James Jones said Sunday that the U.S. can estimate the location of bin Laden and go after him.  Jones said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the “best estimation” of the al Qaeda leader’s whereabouts is the rugged, lawless region of North Waziristan: “sometimes on the Pakistani side of the border, sometimes on the Afghan side of the border.”

“We’re going to have to get after that to make sure that this very, very important symbol of what al Qaeda stands for is either, once again, on the run or captured or killed,” Jones said.

“Well, we don’t know for a fact where Osama bin Laden is. If we did, we’d go get him,” Gates said Sunday, when pressed by host George Stephanopoulos about Pakistan’s claim that bin Laden is likely not within its borders.

Gates added that bin Laden could be in North Waziristan, but the Pakistani government has been shut out from the region for too long to know for certain.

The House’s senior defense appropriator, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), said last week that he does not believe Afghanistan poses a national security threat to the United States. But he has requested a classified briefing from the intelligence community. CIA Director Leon Panetta is scheduled to brief the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee behind closed doors Wednesday.

The president “made a pretty good case if you believe the dangers to national security,” Murtha said at a media roundtable last week.

Meanwhile, McChrystal and Eikenberry presented a united front on Tuesday and set aside their reported differences to give a ringing endorsement for Obama’s new war plan.

Eikenberry, according to reports of classified diplomatic cables he sent to Washington, opposed any significant troop increase until the Afghan government demonstrated its seriousness in tackling governance, corruption and development problems.

Last week Obama announced that he would increase the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan by 30,000 and that by July 2011, U.S. forces will begin withdrawing from the country as Afghan security forces take over the mission.

“Gen. McChrystal and I are united in a joint effort in which civilian and military personnel work together every day, often literally side by side with our Afghan partners and allies,” Eikenberry said in his opening statement.

McChrystal gave a strong endorsement for Obama’s plan, despite lingering skepticism among both Democrats and Republicans.

“I believe we will absolutely be successful,” McChrystal told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

Eikenberry was more cautious, saying that “success is not guaranteed, but it is possible.”

“The president’s decision rapidly resources our strategy, recognizes that the next 18 months will likely be decisive and, ultimately, enables success,” McChrystal said.

McChrystal pleaded with lawmakers for continued commitment and support for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. He stressed that the next 18 months are critical and said he did not expect to ask for additional forces at the end of next year or thereafter.

McChrystal said, however, that he would undertake constant assessments of the situation in Afghanistan.

“I will have the responsibility to give my best military advice,” McChrystal stressed. “By the summer of 2011, it will be clear to the Afghan people that the insurgency will not win, giving them the chance to side with their government. From that point forward, while we begin to reduce U.S. combat force levels, we will remain partnered with the Afghan security forces in a supporting role to consolidate and solidify their gains.”

McChrystal said he did not make any recommendations to the president with respect to the July 2011 timeline. At the same time, McChrystal stressed that he does not view July 2011 as a “deadline.” The July 2011 timetable has drawn the most attention on Capitol Hill.

“I do not believe that is a deadline at all,” he said, adding that the pace and scope of any U.S. drawdown will be decided based on conditions on the ground at the time.

“This means we must reverse the Taliban’s current momentum and create the time and space to develop Afghan security and governance capacity,” McChrystal added.

U.S. and international forces face a “complex and resilient insurgency,” McChrystal said. “The Quetta Shura Taliban, or Afghan Taliban, is the prominent threat to the government of Afghanistan, as they aspire to once again become the government of Afghanistan,” McChrystal explained.

The Haqqani and Hezb‐e Islami Gulbuddin insurgent groups have more limited geographical reach and objectives, “but they are no less lethal,” McChrystal explained to the panel.

“All three groups are supported to some degree by external elements in Iran and Pakistan, have ties with al Qaeda and coexist within narcotics and criminal networks, both fueling and feeding off instability and insecurity in the region,” McChrystal said.

McChrystal said that Afghans are “frustrated” with international efforts that have failed to meet their expectations. That has created a “crisis of confidence” among Afghans, who view the international effort “as insufficient” and their government as “corrupt or, at the very least, inconsequential.”

But the Afghans do not regard the U.S. forces as occupiers, according to the general.

“They do not wish for us to remain forever, yet they see our support as a necessary bridge to future security and stability,” McChrystal said.