After his request in August for 30,000 or more soldiers to bolster the US military effort in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal might have thought his letter to President Barack Obama had been lost in the post. As each week passed and the death toll of American troops continued to climb at the hands of the Taliban, the commander of US forces in the country sat waiting patiently for an answer. To many critics, the apparent procrastination was a sign of Obama's weakness and perhaps lack of confidence in the man he had only recently appointed to carry through his vision of ending the eight-year-old war. But when the approval for the surge in troops finally came from the White House last week, McChrystal was quick to recognise two things: that the decision came only after an intense and lengthy debate during which the general's position was given a full and proper hearing; and that the Obama administration was right to be insisting that, despite the massive extra military resources now being sent to Afghanistan, this is not a conflict that will be won by firepower alone. It is a position he embraces. 'It's not the number of people you kill,' McChrystal told his regional commanders in a video address after Obama announced his decision. 'It's the number of people you convince. It's the number of people that don't get killed. It's the number of houses that aren't destroyed. 'It is now a coalition effort, and it is our main effort. Developing the capability of Afghan national security forces is the most important thing we do in the future. 'We have a level of commitment that we have not had before, and that will change everything. [We have] a clear military mission and the resources to accomplish it.' The surge represents a victory for the respected four-star general who, although claiming that a refusal from Washington would not be a resigning issue, nevertheless had staked his reputation on it. His predecessor, General David McKiernan, was ousted abruptly in May after less than a year in charge of American forces and the US-led Nato coalition in Afghanistan, highlighting the fragility of arguably the most toxic appointment in the military. McChrystal, 55, represents to some observers not necessarily the man charged with ensuring the success of Obama's policies in Afghanistan, but the success of his own painstakingly crafted plan. In a 66-page report to the president, intended to be a private document but which was subsequently leaked to The Washington Post, the straight-talking general said the existing strategy was flawed and that the US was more at risk of being defeated by its own actions than by the Taliban. The report contained many suggestions of ways to rectify a situation in Afghanistan that was, in his words, deteriorating fast. Not all military analysts, however, accept that it is a one-man show playing in the theatre in Afghanistan. 'There's no doubt that he had significant input and was the centrepiece of the strategy in review,' said William Nash, a retired army major general who commanded US troops in Bosnia, Iraq and Kosovo, and a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. 'But the deliberations that the president put the national security team through means that it's a whole-of-government effort, which increases the opportunity for success. 'There's a big job ahead, but it's more than just McChrystal. He is first among equals in a large team that understands the intensive nature of integrating military and social forces.' McChrystal's Afghanistan mission is the pinnacle of a colourful and often controversial army career that began in 1976 when he graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point as a second lieutenant. His four brothers and father also enjoyed successful military careers. Two years after graduation, he trained as a special forces operative, beginning an affiliation with the shadowy world of covert operations that was later to cause dissent at his confirmation hearing in Congress when president George W. Bush nominated him as director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in February last year. Until then, little was known outside of military circles about a man who had for the previous five years been head of the Joint Special Operations Command, the most secretive wing of the US military responsible for the interrogation of terrorist suspects and other so-called black ops at the murkier end of its remit. Under his command, his forces were praised for hunting down and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, in June 2006. But there were low points, too, notably when McChrystal was criticised for helping to fabricate an account of the 2004 death of soldier Pat Tillman, a former professional American football player who was killed by friendly fire; and again when 34 servicemen and women under his command were disciplined for torturing and abusing enemy detainees during a 2004 scandal centred on the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. His track record, or what little is known of it, has not hampered the career path of a self-driven man renowned for his intensity. Yet it has attracted critics, among them Daniel Ellsberg, a veteran analyst of America's military and political affairs who believes that McChrystal's tactics make the war unwinnable. 'What he mainly was doing was managing death squads throughout Iraq, and I'm sure that's what he has in mind now,' he said in a recent interview. 'In the short run that can be effective, except that it creates so many people who hate you, who are determined to wreak revenge and to expel these murderers and torturers from their homeland. It does not mean that you'll be driven out militarily, it means that the idea of beating the resistance is simply beyond hope.' Despite his covert background, however, McChrystal appears determined that his forces should maintain a softer public face in Afghanistan crucial to convincing the country's citizens that the US is not a hostile occupying power but a partner on the path to strong and sustainable self-government. To reinforce it, he gave a dressing down to one commander whose convoy raced through Kabul at about 100km/h with heavy ordnance on display and the US flag flying high. Nash, who has met McChrystal on several occasions and values his intensity and professional acumen above all other attributes, believes he is well placed to achieve Obama's declared 18-month target for beginning to pull US forces out of Afghanistan. But he would need to forge strong diplomatic partnerships to do it, especially among Nato allies, and work closely with the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, another former army man. 'One of the things he has to learn is how to be a coalition leader,' Nash said. 'He's a smart fellow and knows that part of it is learning the scope of his responsibilities. In today's instant gratification society, it's important to remember that [former president Dwight] Eisenhower got to meddle around in North Africa and Sicily before he became a great coalition commander. 'The real mark of his success will be the Afghanistan security forces, and secondly the integration of a whole government approach so the economy and government develop in parallel with his security efforts.'