By ROBERT BURNS
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 11, 2007; 6:07 PM
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military's top officer acknowledged on Tuesday that for all the importance of preventing Afghanistan from again harboring al-Qaida terrorists, Washington's first priority is Iraq.
"In Afghanistan, we do what we can," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "In Iraq, we do what we must."
His statement, delivered with emphasis in a prepared opening statement to the House Armed Services Committee, prompted some Democrats to say it showed what they have argued for years: that the Bush administration has become so bogged down in Iraq that it cannot make more effort in Afghanistan.
"I find it troubling that our ongoing commitment in Iraq prevents us from dedicating resources in Afghanistan beyond what is necessary to prevent setbacks, as opposed to what is required to realize success," Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the committee, said after the hearing.
Mullen, testifying with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the effort to stabilize Afghanistan, said that war is "by design and necessity, an economy-of-force operation. There is no getting around that. Our main focus, militarily, in the region and in the world right now is rightly and firmly in Iraq."
The United States has about 166,000 troops in Iraq and about 25,000 in Afghanistan. Neither conflict shows signs of ending any time soon, although U.S. troop levels in Iraq are beginning to decline.
Asked by committee members about the long-futile effort to find Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks, Mullen and Gates both said the hunt was a high priority. But they would not offer any specifics about what U.S. forces are doing to track him down.
Mullen also said that in recent months there has been less cross-border infiltration of al-Qaida and Taliban forces from Pakistan into eastern and southern Afghanistan. Gates made a similar point and attributed the improved situation to the Pakistani government taking the problem more seriously.
Earlier this year Gates and other officials had said al-Qaida and Taliban fighters were finding refuge and operating training camps on the Pakistan side of the border, then slipping into Afghanistan.
Gates noted that the United States would not send conventional military forces into Pakistan to deal with the problem of sanctuaries, but he added, "That's the area we do need to be concerned about al-Qaida training and reconstituting itself."
The first option for dealing with that, Gates said, is encouraging the Pakistani government to act more aggressively on its own and, secondly, for U.S. forces to work together with the Pakistani military.
"And then we need to be able to act unilaterally, if we have to, to make sure they (al-Qaida) don't come back at us again," Gates added, seemingly referring to the possibility of U.S. military action inside Pakistan, an option that the Pakistani government has publicly stated will never be allowed.
Gates acknowledged, during questioning by committee members, that opinion polls show resurgent support for the radical Taliban, who were overthrown in the U.S. invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Admittedly, it's gotten worse," Gates said, adding that this appeared to be due to inadequate provision of basic government services and corruption among local Afghan police. He said it does not reflect a lack of U.S. military commitment.
Gates, who visited Afghanistan last week, said the security and other gains in Afghanistan are fragile.
"There needs to be more effective coordination of assistance to the government of Afghanistan," Gates told the committee. "A strong civilian representative is needed to coordinate all nations and key international organizations on the ground. We and others have worked with the Karzai government to identify a suitable candidate. I'm hopeful this exhaustive search will be completed soon."
Gates mentioned no names, but a senior defense official said before the hearing that the candidate proposed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in recent weeks is British diplomat Paddy Ashdown, who was Bosnia-Herzegovina's international administrator for more than three years.
The defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities, said Karzai has embraced the concept of having a European in the coordinating role but has not announced his endorsement of any individual.
Gates addressed the issue in more detail in a written statement submitted in advance of his presentation.
"Even with devotion of U.S. resources that I've mentioned, there has not been sufficient follow-on reconstruction, development or security by other allies, and this has put at risk areas that have been cleared of insurgents," his prepared statement said.
Gates is scheduled to travel to Scotland on Thursday for two days of talks with defense and diplomatic representatives of NATO member countries who have combat troops in southern Afghanistan, where the insurgent violence has been especially high this year. Gates is pressing the allies to provide more troops, additional helicopters and about 3,500 trainers, mainly for the Afghan police.
Gates said he has proposed to NATO that it develop a "strategic concept" paper, assessing how the situation in Afghanistan should proceed over the next three to five years. He hoped that the paper could be ready for consideration by NATO government leaders at a summit in Romania next spring.