Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen Says Situation in Afghanistan Is 'Deteriorating'

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 2009

The situation in Afghanistan is "serious and deteriorating," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said Sunday, as the Obama administration awaits an assessment by the new U.S. commander there and a possible request for more troops.

Mullen also expressed concern over recent opinion polls indicating that for the first time a majority of Americans do not think the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting. President Obama has described the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the central front against international terrorism and has pledged to give it all necessary resources.

With violence again on the rise in Iraq, Obama faces pressure from the public and within the Democratic Party to provide a fuller explanation of his Afghanistan strategy. Support for more troops has been strongest within Republican ranks.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who just returned from Afghanistan, said the commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is under "great pressures" from "people around" Obama to reduce his estimate of troop needs.

Mullen and retired Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, acknowledged widespread allegations of fraud in last week's Afghan elections. But they described the elections as an important step toward what Eikenberry called a "renewal of trust" by the Afghan people in their government.

Eikenberry and Mullen spoke on CNN's "State of the Union" and NBC's "Meet the Press." McCain appeared on ABC's "This Week."

With Afghan President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah both claiming victory, "we're not really going to know for several more weeks exactly where do we stand in this process," Eikenberry said. Official results are not due until Sept. 17; a mid-October runoff will be required if no candidate won more than half the vote.

In Iraq, where bombings last week killed at least 100 people, "the key is whether this is an indicator of future sectarian violence," Mullen said. "And certainly, many of us believe that one way that this can come unwound is through sectarian violence."

Future deployments to Afghanistan, where the U.S. troop presence is expected to reach 68,000 by the end of the year -- including 21,000 that Obama authorized this year -- depend in part on the rate of withdrawal from Iraq. Remaining troops in Iraq total 130,000 and a sharp decrease, to 50,000 or less, is due after Iraqi elections in January. Under an agreement with the Iraqi government, U.S. troops are to have departed by the end of 2011.

Since the bombings, senior military officials said, the Iraqi government has requested stepped-up U.S. intelligence, including increased overhead imaging. Many of those resources have been transferred to Afghanistan under orders of Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is in charge of both war theaters as head of the U.S. Central Command.

Overhead surveillance platforms, including aerial drones, are split between the two theaters, with 70 percent located in Afghanistan and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, said one official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss intelligence on the record.

McChrystal took command in Afghanistan in June and was scheduled to deliver an assessment to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates within 60 days. Mullen said the report is now due in the next two weeks.

"We're not at a point yet where he's made any decisions about asking for additional troops," Mullen said, adding that McChrystal's orders are to separately "assess where you are, and then tell us what you need."

"My recommendation to the president will be based on getting the resource strategy matched absolutely correct," Mullen said. "And so we'll see where that goes once the assessment is in here. And I've had this conversation with the president, who understands that whatever the mission is, it needs to be resourced correctly."

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