U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan “are not winning yet, but we are going to win,” Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, told Stars and Stripes in an interview Friday.

But the general said it was not possible to say how long it will take to achieve victory, which he defined as a situation where “the insurgency is not an existential threat to the government or the people” of Afghanistan. He added that protecting civilians remains the goal of the allied counterinsurgency strategy.

“There’s no way to put an exact timeline on it, because as I’ve said, the Afghan people will decide [what victory is],” McChrystal said, speaking by phone from Kabul. “[But] I believe that over the next year to 18 months that we’re going to be able to decisively change the perception of momentum and gains by the insurgents.”

President Barack Obama announced Dec. 1 that he was sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in an effort to reverse gains made by Taliban insurgents, and with the goal of training Afghan security forces and turning over to them the lead in the counterinsurgency fight. There were 68,000 U.S. troops already in the country. Obama said he also plans to start withdrawing at least some U.S. combat forces in July 2011.

The centerpiece of the strategy, outlined by McChrystal when he took command of the 44-nation coalition last summer, is to focus on protecting significant population centers. McChrystal said Friday that these areas would include not only significant cities, but also prime agricultural centers that “have a significant percentage of the population.”

In southern Afghanistan, which is almost uniformly Pashtun and where the Taliban are most resilient, McChrystal said the focus would be on an area stretching from the Helmand River valley, where more than 10,000 U.S. Marines are deployed, along with British and other forces, east to the Taliban’s former spiritual capital of Kandahar, and down to Spin Boldak, an important trading town and crossing point on the border with Pakistan.

“That’s an economic zone that has about 80 to 85 percent of the population of those two provinces, Helmand and Kandahar provinces,” he said. “If you can get a security bubble around that sort of horseshoe-shaped area, then suddenly you protect an awful lot of the population, and you also have an area in which economic and political activity can occur.”

McChrystal’s original plan called for building up the Afghan army and police to 400,000 by the time U.S. troops start to draw down in 18 months, but that figure was shot down by the Obama administration as too ambitious, according to a recent story in The Washington Post. McChrystal acknowledged there had been “modifications” to the original plan and added that coalition officials no longer had a definite target size in mind.

“We don’t have a number now,” he said. “So, what we’re doing is we’re growing as fast as we practically can, at least over the next two years, and we’ll keep looking at it, and [adjust] as we go.”

McChrystal said that the coalition has significantly increased the use of special operations forces in targeting key Taliban figures.

“The use of special operations forces: coalition, U.S. and Afghan — and they’re all used together — has been really effective, and we have increased the use of all those forces in very precise targeting,” he said. “So, we’re able to put a lot of pressure on those networks.”

He dismissed recent claims by the Afghan Taliban that they control 80 percent of the country.

“They have presence in a number of areas, and in some areas, they have a significant amount of control,” he said. “In other areas, they have presence, but not much real control. But they are trying to give the impression to everybody that there’s this inexorable wave that’s coming, and that’s not what I see at all.”

With the buildup of U.S. forces, and with NATO countries promising to add at least 7,000 troops, comparisons with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which began 30 years ago, are inevitable. McChrystal said that while the Soviets were quickly regarded as occupiers by most Afghans, U.S. and other coalition forces are not.

“I’m the first to tell people that tactically, militarily, [the Soviets] did a lot of things well. But they killed more than a million Afghans in the process, and they created an environment in which the antibodies of the society literally surged against them,” McChrystal said. “What we are working on is that we’re really focusing on getting counterinsurgency, protecting the people, in the minds of the Afghan people. We are not viewed as occupiers now.”

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