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Top US Commander Signals Troop Increase in Afghanistan
Admiral Mike Mullen urges patience as poll indicates declining public support in the US for the Afghanistan war
The top US commander today signalled for the first time that Washington will almost certainly deploy more troops to Afghanistan later this year.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the joint chiefs of staff, told the Senate armed services committee: "A properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces."
He did not specify how many more troops he thought would be needed. Estimates have ranged from 10,000 to 45,000.
His comments come against the background of a fierce debate within the Obama administration about whether to send any more troops. Polls indicate sharply declining support in the US for the war in Afghanistan. A CNN poll yesterday showed 58% opposed to the war and 39% in favour.
Mullen today urged patience. "We can get there. We can accomplish the mission we've been assigned," he said. "But we will need resources matched to the strategy, civilian expertise matched to military capabilities, and the continued support of the American people."
He said that lessons learned in Iraq could be applied to Afghanistan, in particular the need to provide security for civilians, but this required more troops and resources.
Rounding on critics who argue the war in Afghanistan could be fought without a US presence on the ground but by the use of aircraft and drones to attack al-Qaida and Taliban militants, Mullen said the objective was to remove the threat posed to the US by al-Qaida and the Taliban. "We cannot do that from offshore. You cannot do that by just killing the bad guys. You have to be there."
Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate committee, is among those opposed to sending more combat troops. He told the hearing that the imperative was the building up of the Afghan army and police and resources should be directed towards that. Levin said: "I believe these steps should be urgently implemented before we consider a further increase in US ground combat troops, beyond what is already planned to be deployed by the end of the year."
Obama has almost doubled the number of US troops in Afghanistan since becoming president in January. The number of US troops stood at 32,000 when he took over and has since risen to 62,000. That deployment will be completed by the end of the year, bringing the number of US troops up to 68,000.
Some in the Obama administration have suggested waiting until the deployment is completed before deciding on more troops. But the US commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, is already privately advocating further deployments.
The defence secretary, Robert Gates, was initially opposed to further deployments and worried that if the US increased its presence, there would be a greater risk of the US being more widely regarded as an occupier.
Obama's troop increase this year has been matched by Nato allies, but there is resistance on the part of Europeans to sending more troops.