Washington: Taliban insurgents have been given hope they can prevail in the war as a result of President Barack Obama`s July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan , the top US Marine said.
But General James Conway said the insurgents will be disappointed when they find that no major withdrawal is on the horizon among US forces deployed in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan.
"In some ways, we think right now it`s probably giving our enemy sustenance," Conway said of the July 2011 target date.
"We think that he may be saying to himself -- in fact we`ve intercepted communications that say, `Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.`"
Conway`s frank assessment is sure to fuel debate over Obama`s war strategy and the July 2011 date, providing ammunition for Republican lawmakers who have blasted the deadline as showing a lack of resolve in the nearly nine-year-old war.
Obama`s fellow Democrats in Congress and White House officials defend the deadline as a way of pushing Afghan leaders to act quickly to take charge of their security.
The US president faces growing public opposition to the war and calls from the left-wing of his own party for a quick troop pullout.
Conway said Taliban foot soldiers would likely suffer a blow to morale after July 2011 passes with no dramatic departure of American forces, "and come the fall we`re still there hammering them like we have been."
The general, just back from a visit to Afghanistan, said government army and police forces in key southern provinces will not be ready to take over from foreign troops for at least "a few years," and that he had told his Marines to brace for a long fight.
"I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us," Conway told reporters, referring to Marines deployed in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.
Conway said some Afghan units "somewhere" might be able to assume the lead for security in 2011 but not in the south, the birthplace of the Taliban.
"And I think there`s a mindset that needs to accompany that on the part of our Marines, that it may be a while," he said.
He acknowledged that public support for the US mission was declining but warned of the risks of any early withdrawal.
"I sense our country is increasingly growing tired of the war," he said.
Conway appealed for patience, citing a fellow commander`s assessment that "we can either lose fast or win slow."
The last units of a surge of 30,000 reinforcements only arrived in Afghanistan this month, he said, with the US force now at nearly 100,000.
"We have the momentum. We have the initiative, but that`s different from declaring that security conditions are changed dramatically in Helmand," he said.
The general said the administration needed to do a better job of explaining the mission to Americans and the importance of preventing al Qaeda from regaining a foothold.
He also said the Kabul government`s efforts to promote reconciliation with the insurgents could be a "game-changer" that would dramatically alter the conflict.
Conway spoke a day after the US general in charge of training Afghan forces played down prospects for a major transfer of security duties to the Afghans for at least another year.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has suggested any troop reduction after mid-2011 would be modest, but he has also held out the possibility of Afghan troops taking over security in some districts by the end of the year.
The White House said Tuesday that Obama still planned a review of the Afghan war in December, shaping strategy for the next year.