WASHINGTON - Questioned by skeptical lawmakers, the U.S. general running the war in Afghanistan said yesterday that he did not get as many troops as he wanted and must work under a schedule he did not recommend, but he insisted the Obama administration's revamped strategy was the best way to win.

Comments by Afghanistan's president and the U.S. defense secretary suggested a long, slow effort.

As Gen. Stanley McChrystal defended President Obama's new surge-and-exit strategy in Washington, the U.S. challenge was underscored in Kabul. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said - with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates standing at his side - that it probably would be five years before Afghan forces could take the lead in the fight against Taliban insurgents. And Karzai predicted that it would be at least 15 years before his government could pay for its own forces.

On Capitol Hill, McChrystal declared under questioning by congressional committees, "I'm comfortable with the entire plan." But in lengthy sessions before Senate and House panels, the four-star general cautioned against expectations of immediate results and said the strategy must show progress within 18 months, Obama's deadline for beginning to bring U.S. troops home.

"The sober fact is that there are no silver bullets," McChrystal said. "Ultimate success will be the cumulative effect of sustained pressure."

Karzai's comments, following a meeting with Gates, added more uncertainty to the planned exit of American troops. And they lowered expectations of any quick progress by shrunken Afghan security forces, which have long been expected to be equal partners with U.S. forces and troops from 42 other countries stationed in Afghanistan.

In announcing last week his decision to order 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Obama said they would begin coming home in July 2011.

But Gates, in remarks to reporters in Kabul, reiterated that the administration expected the U.S. withdrawal to be "a several-year process - whether it's three years or two years or four years remains to be seen."

Karzai's repetition yesterday of his earlier warnings of a five-year buildup of the Afghan army and police make it likely that the American pullout could be a slow-motion drawdown that could extend through 2014. And he said his country would need international help to build homegrown security forces well beyond that date.

Administration officials have said the length and speed of the withdrawal will depend on the results of the military campaign against the Taliban, as well as the success of efforts to build up Afghan forces and strengthen the Kabul government.

In exchanges with lawmakers, both McChrystal and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said the July 2011 date for starting the U.S. withdrawal provided a "forcing function" to pressure the Afghans to get their own forces ready to handle security.

Hinting at a misgiving, McChrystal said the Taliban would make propaganda use of the withdrawal plan, presumably to encourage its fighters and their facilitators to believe the United States' will is weakening. He added that he believed this could be overcome.

McChrystal said he had not recommended the 18-month deadline for beginning a pullout and had preferred that more fresh forces be sent in.

Eikenberry, who previously had privately expressed doubts about sending a large number of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, said he was now "100 percent" behind the strategy.

John McCain, senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised the decision to send more troops but said that setting a date for beginning to bring them home was a mistake.

"We have announced a date divorced from conditions on the ground," McCain said.

Bombing Kills 12 in Pakistan

An insurgent driving a truck laden with up to a ton of explosives targeted an office of Pakistan's premier military intelligence agency yesterday, the latest assault in an extremist rampage that has left 500 people dead since early October.

Yesterday's attack, which killed 12 people, was aimed at the office of Inter-Services Intelligence in the city of Multan, in the south of Punjab province.

The small truck drove up to a checkpoint manned by police and the army just before noon, about 50 yards from the ISI building.

When challenged, a man climbed out of the cab and launched a rocket-propelled grenade toward the security guards, according to Mohammad Ali Gardezi, a senior local official. Police returned fire.

"Because of the police firing, the truck couldn't reach its target," Gardezi said.

The significance of the attack in Multan is partly due to its location in southern Punjab, an area that previously had suffered little violence in the insurgent offensive.

The insurgent assaults have coincided with the military's offensive against the base of the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan, in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt on the border with Afghanistan.

- McClatchy Newspapers

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