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McChrystal's Afghan 'listening tour'

McChrystal, right, meets an Afghan governor in Helmand, June 2009
Gen McChrystal has wrapped up his "listening tour" of Afghanistan

New US commander General Stanley McChrystal is travelling around Afghanistan preparing a new strategy. The BBC's Martin Patience went with him to the west of the country.

In a traditional reception room the size of a tennis court, Gen McChrystal listened intently to an Afghan governor.

The official told the commander that he had only taken his job after being led to believe by the Afghan government that the security situation was good - but it turned out it was not.

Gen McChrystal then joked that US President Barack Obama had "done exactly same thing to me" - provoking laughs from the assembled audience.

It was a rare moment of humour from the commander known for his seriousness.

McChrystal is the man of the moment - a general tasked with changing the course of the war in Afghanistan.

He replaced Gen David McKiernan who was unceremoniously sacked in May.

Time may not be running out, but after eight years of US troops fighting here, it is certainly dragging on.

And Gen McChrystal's job is to sort what the American envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, has described as a "mess".

Turning the tide

Just two weeks into his mission, Gen McChrystal has embarked on what he calls a "listening tour" to assess the situation across Afghanistan.

Italian soldiers in Herat province June 2009
The general faces troop shortages, among several other challenges

The BBC accompanied him on the final leg of his tour to western Afghanistan.

By the beginning of August, he will need to present a detailed plan to the US president to turn the tide of this conflict.

It may include a request for more American troops, officials say.

The success of that plan will not be measured by any decisive military campaign - that does not happen in a counter-insurgency operation - but by the buzzword of "momentum".

This campaign is all about perceptions, as military officials will tell you - and the perception at home and abroad is that it is badly adrift.

If he can get more Afghans to believe that Americans are gaining the upper hand against the Taliban-led insurgency, then that will be a measure of real progress, say military officials.

And you do that by putting Afghans at the heart of the mission, said one McChrystal aide.

You need to give Afghans something to lose, he said, so that they choose the Afghan government over the insurgents - something that has not happened in many parts of the country.

That is the idea - but it will not be easy.

Western front

There is a strengthening insurgency, particularly in the south and west of the country - and a weak and ineffective Afghan government.

Gen McChrystal Testifies At Senate Confirmation Hearing June 2009

And as Gen McChrystal heard, the problems are piling up in western Afghanistan, which had been relatively problem-free in the past.

Italian commanders in Herat province told him that the security situation was worsening and requested more troops.

An Afghan governor asked the general to immediately carry out an operation in a Taliban-controlled district.

Officers from the Afghan national army asked for new weapons.

Gen McChrystal said that the "situation (in the west) was serious enough that we focus on some areas that haven't been focused on before."

He spoke of the need to root out Taliban from areas they control, before they started spreading.

There is a real sense of urgency now.

As Gen McChrystal knows, his decisions in the next 12 months could well decide the outcome of this conflict.



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