July 3, 2008 – The nation’s top military officer said yesterday that more U.S. troops are needed in Afghanistan to tamp down an increasingly violent insurgency, but that the Pentagon does not have sufficient forces to send because they are committed to the war in Iraq.
Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said insurgent Taliban and extremist forces in Afghanistan have become “a very complex problem,” one that is tied to the extensive drug trade, a faltering economy and the porous border with Pakistan. Violence in Afghanistan has increased markedly over recent weeks, with June the deadliest month for U.S. troops since the war began in 2001.
“I don’t have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq,” Mullen told reporters at the Pentagon. “Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there.”
Mullen has raised similar concerns over the past several months, but his comments yesterday were more pointed and came amid rising concern at the Pentagon over the situation in Afghanistan, where insurgents have regrouped in the south and east.
Mullen and President Bush also addressed the possibility of a conflict with Iran in separate appearances yesterday, with both saying they favor diplomacy over the use of military force. Asked directly about the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran, Bush, in an appearance in the White House Rose Garden, said: “I have made it very clear to all parties that the first option ought to be solve this problem diplomatically.” But he refused to rule out the use of force in the standoff over Iran’s effort to develop nuclear weapons.
Bush also promised to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by the end of the year. He acknowledged the increasing violence there, saying that “we’re going to increase troops by 2009,” but did not offer details.
Mullen said military commanders are looking at the prospects for sending additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009, but only if conditions in Iraq continue to improve over the coming months, which would allow some forces to be withdrawn and reallocated. The war in Iraq has occupied as many as 20 military brigades during the troop buildup over the past year, reducing violence there substantially but convincing many officers and experts that a quick drawdown in Iraq would jeopardize gains.
Recent bleak assessments about the Taliban and a dramatic increase in the number of attacks in Afghanistan have left military commanders with nowhere to turn as they seek more troops. The Army and Marine Corps have been stretched thin by numerous deployments to both war zones, and the administration has been unable to persuade allies to send more troops.
“The Taliban and their supporters have, without question, grown more effective and more aggressive in recent weeks, as the casualty figures clearly demonstrate,” Mullen said. “. . . We all need to be patient. As we have seen in Iraq, counterinsurgency warfare takes time and it takes a certain level of commitment.”
In April, Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States was not doing all it should in Afghanistan and that more troops were needed. At a meeting in Fort Lewis, Wash., two weeks ago, Mullen said that he needed at least three more brigades in Afghanistan but that troop constraints were preventing such a move. “We are in a very delicate time,” he said.
Members of Congress and critics of the Iraq war have argued for years that Iraq has diverted resources from the fight in Afghanistan. Mullen’s comments underscore the effect of keeping roughly 145,000 troops in Iraq. Unlike the critics, however, Mullen sees both wars as vital to creating a stable region and wants to wait for sustained progress in Iraq before trying to shift resources.
About 60,000 troops from 40 nations are in Afghanistan, 32,000 of them from the United States.
“We need to make deeper cuts in Iraq to be able to do Afghanistan at greater strength, but it makes me nervous to accelerate the drawdown in Iraq,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution. “It’s dangerous to throw away what you’ve been able to succeed in doing in one place in the hope that you might help a mission where you’re having relative failure elsewhere.”
James Jay Carafano, a military expert at the Heritage Foundation, said it is clear that the war in Afghanistan needs more troops. He argued that the only sensible strategy is to hold the line there until brigades can be moved out of Iraq.
“If you want to deal with Afghanistan, you have to deal with Iraq first,” he said. Carafano said he thinks the next president could reduce forces in Iraq significantly by 2011, allowing a “responsible force” to be in Afghanistan by that time.
Addressing a potential conflict with Iran, Mullen said he strongly favors diplomacy over military action to deter Tehran from seeking nuclear weapons. Mullen visited Israeli officials last week but declined to provide details on his discussions with them.
“Clearly there is a very broad concern about the overall stability level in the Middle East,” Mullen said. For the military, “opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us,” he added. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have capacity or reserve, but that would really be very challenging, and also the consequences of that sometimes are very difficult to predict.”
Mullen said he opposes a military strike on Iran by either the United States or Israel.
“My strong preference here is to handle all of this diplomatically with the other powers of governments, ours and many others, as opposed to any kind of strike occurring,” Mullen said. “This is a very unstable part of the world, and I don’t need it to be more unstable.”