Top Military Officer Urges Major Change in Afghanistan Strategy

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008

The nation's top military officer issued a blunt assessment yesterday of the war in Afghanistan and called for an overhaul in U.S. strategy there, warning that thousands more U.S. troops as well as greater U.S. military involvement across the border in Pakistan's tribal areas are needed to battle an intensifying insurgency.

"I am not convinced that we're winning it in Afghanistan," Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday. But, he added, "I'm convinced we can."

On the day after President Bush announced he will cut troops in Iraq and bolster them in Afghanistan between now and early 2009, Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also signaled that they would give increasing priority to the Afghan war and the expanding insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan.

"The war on terror started in this region. It must end there," Gates told the committee.

Violence has mounted for more than two years in Afghanistan from an increasingly sophisticated and brazen insurgency, one fueled by havens in Pakistan. As a result, the war is exacting a worsening toll on coalition forces, with the number of U.S. troop deaths projected to surpass last year's high of 117. So far this year, 109 troops have died. U.S. and NATO troops remain hampered by manpower shortages, a lack of helicopters and a disjointed chain of command.

"Frankly, we are running out of time," Mullen said, adding that not sending U.S. reinforcements to Afghanistan is "too great a risk to ignore."

He said the new influx of U.S. forces into Afghanistan that Bush announced Tuesday -- an Army brigade and Marine battalion with a total of about 4,500 troops -- does not meet the demands of commanders there, but is "a good start."

Already, total U.S. forces in Afghanistan have grown from 21,000 troops in 2006 to nearly 31,000 today. Many NATO countries restrict their troops' combat roles; others have set an end date for their involvement in the war, with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying yesterday that all of his country's troops will withdraw in 2011, according to the Associated Press.

At a time when Bush has characterized Afghanistan as an increasingly critical front in the battle against terrorism, and when Army Gen. David H. Petraeus is set to take the helm of the region in his new post as head of U.S. Central Command, Mullen announced that he is commissioning a "more comprehensive" strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He indicated that a key element of the strategy would be to secure a greater role for the U.S. military in helping Pakistan to crack down on insurgents in cross-border tribal areas, a role Mullen said he has "pressed hard" for Pakistani military leaders to allow.

Afghanistan and Pakistan "are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them," Mullen said. "Until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming," he said, noting how insurgents have recently launched "infantry-like attacks" on U.S. military positions.

Mullen did not detail how the U.S. military could better help Pakistan battle insurgents in tribal areas, although he reiterated that the United States will remain involved in training Pakistan's Frontier Corps.

The U.S. military in recent months has intensified its unilateral attacks on insurgent havens in Pakistan, using artillery, missiles from unmanned drones and other munitions, as well as, according to Pakistani officials, U.S. military air assault by helicopter into the tribal area of South Waziristan.

But Pakistani officials have bristled at the U.S.-led actions, and Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, chief of the Pakistani army, said yesterday that his country will oppose further incursion of U.S. troops. In a statement issued hours after Mullen's testimony, Kayani referred to a recent cross-border raid led by U.S. commandos in South Waziristan, saying coalition forces are barred from operating inside Pakistan. "There is no question of any agreement or understanding with the Coalition Forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border," he said.

Yet even if the Pentagon could achieve a better coordinated regional strategy, Mullen stressed that military forces can do only so much to pacify the area. "No amount of troops in no amount of time can ever achieve all the objectives we seek," he said, adding later: "We can't kill our way to victory."

Greater efforts by U.S. civilian agencies and the international community are essential, he said. For example, he criticized the shortage of civilian personnel in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, saying that without more experts in agriculture, education, commerce and jurisprudence, the PRTs "will remain but empty shells."

Gates also underscored that civilian efforts "must be on the same page" as those of the military. "I am still not satisfied with the level of coordination and collaboration" between military and civilian partners on reconstruction and strengthening the Afghan government, he said.

Despite their focus on Afghanistan, both Gates and Mullen said that the situation in Iraq remains uncertain and could require more forces in the future. "I worry that the great progress" by U.S. and Iraqi forces could override caution and lead to an excessively rapid drawdown, said Gates, noting that U.S. commanders in Iraq remain concerned about "many challenges and potential for reversals."

In sum, he said, "we should expect to be involved in Iraq for years to come, although in changing and increasingly limited ways."

Still, both leaders made it clear that they intend to change the Pentagon's formulation -- first voiced by Mullen in testimony last December -- that "in Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must." Yesterday, in contrast, Gates said he thinks it will be possible in comings months "to do militarily what we must in both countries."

"They are both a priority right now," Mullen concurred.

Correspondent Candace Rondeaux in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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