WASHINGTON — Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling to the Taliban, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser said today as he downplayed fears that the insurgency could set up a renewed sanctuary for al-Qaida.
Retired Gen. James Jones’ comments came hours after militant forces overwhelmed U.S. troops at two outposts near the Pakistan border, killing eight Americans, and amid growing government fissures over whether to send thousands of additional forces to the fight.
Obama’s senior advisers are set to meet twice this week to debate the administration’s evolving Afghan strategy, juggling political pressure from the left to scale back combat troops with an urgent call from military commanders to add forces to secure the country and enable government and economic development advancements.
Those fractures were evident as Jones delivered a mild rebuke to Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for making public the call for more forces, saying that it is “better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.” But he 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 tried to dial back fears stoked last week by McChrystal, who said in a London speech that more U.S. troops are needed because insurgents are gaining ground. The U.S., McChrystal said, 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 today that the international community must correct problems that allowed the fraudulent voting, including replacing election staff.
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 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.
Jones and Kyl spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Jones also appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” as did Skelton and Levin.