By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
The nation's top military officer told Congress on Tuesday that the U.S. war in Afghanistan "probably needs more forces" and sought to reassure lawmakers skeptical of sending additional troops that commanders were devising new tactics that would lead to victory over a resurgent Taliban.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that 2,000 to 4,000 additional military trainers from the United States and its NATO partners will be needed to "jump-start" the expansion of Afghan security forces and strongly suggested that more U.S. combat troops will be required to provide security in the short term. "A properly resourced counterinsurgency probably needs more forces," Mullen said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Mullen spoke amid a growing political debate over Afghanistan as President Obama weighs a recently completed assessment of the war by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander there. Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, argued strenuously Tuesday against the deployment of any more U.S. combat forces, while Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the ranking Republican, said a delay in sending more combat forces would "repeat the nearly catastrophic mistakes" that occurred in Iraq before the Bush administration increased troop levels.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates remains undecided on whether more troops are needed. Morrell played down the possibility of disagreement between the Pentagon's civilian leadership and the uniformed forces, saying that Gates "clearly has a great deal of respect for Admiral Mullen," who was seeking Senate confirmation for a second term as chairman, after Gates's recommendation to Obama. But Gates, Morrell said, "is still more in the evolution process in his thinking than having arrived at a decision as to whether or not, yes, significant numbers of additional forces are needed."
Gates and Mullen are participating in high-level administration discussions of the way forward in Afghanistan, based on recommendations from McChrystal for how to implement the strategy Obama announced in March. Since then, the number of Taliban attacks and U.S. casualties have risen to their highest rates in the eight-year-old war.
With public anxiety rising, many Democratic lawmakers are awaiting a decision by the president, and a White House strategy to sell it.
"I want to hear from the president, and not just on combat troops," Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) said in an interview. "Combat troops is like the public option" in health care, he said, quoting a conversation with Levin this month when they traveled together to Afghanistan. "Everybody can understand combat troops."
For most Americans, Kaufman said, eight years "is an eternity, and now they come in asking for another batch of troops? What's that all about? . . . This is a crescendo growing. At some point in the not-too-distant future, [Obama] has got to do this. The clock is ticking."
Lawmakers have asked to have McChrystal testify before Congress, but Morrell said Gates does not think it would be the right time.
Obama has ordered an additional 17,000 U.S. combat troops and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan this year, which will bring the total number of American service members in the country to 68,000 by the end of the year.
Mullen told the Senate panel he did not know what ratio of combat to training forces would be needed. He estimated that NATO contributions would not be large and that it will take two to three years to produce a sufficient number of Afghan soldiers and police.
Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, said the distinction between trainers and combat forces is sometimes blurry. "As we learned in Iraq, our best training is done not in some sterile environment behind the wire, but rather out amongst the population, operating shoulder to shoulder with our . . . Iraqi or Afghan counterparts. And that often leads to combat situations."
Gates "believes that we have to provide more counter-IED capabilities to our forces in Afghanistan as soon as possible," Morrell said, using the abbreviation for improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb. "By that, I mean route clearance teams, explosive ordnance disposal teams, medevac teams, intelligence assets, not to mention the hardware that's required."
Mullen emphasized that the key elements of Obama's strategy are being put into place, citing a new program to offer incentives to persuade low- and mid-level Taliban fighters to abandon the insurgency. The goal would be to win over rank-and-file Taliban fighters and then target the leaders with more lethal means, officials said.
"There's a very big opportunity here to reduce violence by reaching out to some of the lower-level guys, to give them an opportunity to see a life that's better than fighting for the Taliban," said a senior official at the NATO command in Kabul who discussed the program on the condition of anonymity. "What's really important is to get a feel for where the Afghans are" on reintegration, the official said.
No decisions have been made on what the incentives would be, although the official said they could include cash and jobs.
The major challenge is to develop a program the Afghan government accepts and implements from the start -- in contrast to Iraq, where the United States paid former fighters and then struggled to persuade the Iraqi government to integrate them into its security forces and other jobs, the senior official said. "It has to be owned and driven by them."
Retired British Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb, who worked on the reconciliation of fighters in Iraq, is in Afghanistan heading the initiative for McChrystal, Mullen said, although he stressed that the planning is still in the early phases. "We're not very far down that road," he said.
Mullen said he and other senior military leaders -- including McChrystal; Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command; and the chiefs of military services -- believe that executing Obama's strategy in Afghanistan will require not just killing insurgents but succeeding in a wide-ranging campaign to provide security, government services and economic rebuilding for the Afghan population.
"The president has given us a clear mission: disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven again. You can't do that from offshore, and you can't do that by just killing the bad guys. You have to be there, where the people are when they need you there, and until they can provide for their own security. This is General McChrystal's view, and it is my view -- and that of General Petraeus and the Joint Chiefs," Mullen said in his opening remarks.
McChrystal is "alarmed by the insurgency" in Afghanistan, Mullen said, and "needs to retake the initiative from the insurgents, who have grabbed it over the last three years." Mullen said he spoke with McChrystal on Monday. "Quite honestly, he found conditions on the ground tougher than he had thought," Mullen said.
Warned by lawmakers that U.S. public support for the war was waning, Mullen said he understood that urgent action was needed. "I worry a great deal that the clock is moving very rapidly," he said.
"Do you understand you've got one more shot back home? Do you understand that?" asked Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.)
"Yes, sir," Mullen replied.
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Rajiv Chandrasekaran contributed to this report.