Afghanistan — Gates, Mullen Cite Progress in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON, June 24, 2010 — Although it has come more slow­ly than expect­ed, progress is, nonethe­less, being made in Afghanistan, the top Defense Depart­ment civil­ian and mil­i­tary offi­cials said today.

“I do not believe we are bogged down,” Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said of U.S. oper­a­tions in Afghanistan. “I believe we are mak­ing some progress. It is slow­er and hard­er than we antic­i­pat­ed. I think we are mov­ing for­ward.”

Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took ques­tions from reporters in a Pen­ta­gon news con­fer­ence. They expressed sup­port for Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s strat­e­gy in Afghanistan and con­fi­dence in his deci­sion to nom­i­nate Army Gen. David H. Petraeus to com­mand U.S. and inter­na­tion­al forces there.

Though Petraeus will be giv­en an oppor­tu­ni­ty to assess the sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan, assum­ing he’s con­firmed by the Sen­ate, Gates said, the strat­e­gy there has not changed, and the chair­man agreed.

“The strat­e­gy hasn’t changed in any way,” Mullen said. “Nor has the pol­i­cy.”

Mullen explained that the strat­e­gy and troop increase Oba­ma announced in Decem­ber still is in its ear­ly stages. About one-third of the 30,000 addi­tion­al troops the pres­i­dent approved have yet to deploy there, he not­ed.

Most of the surge troops who have arrived are oper­at­ing in Mar­ja, a for­mer Tal­iban strong­hold in south­ern Afghanistan’s Hel­mand province. Suc­cess there is evi­dent, the admi­ral said, as mar­kets, schools and gov­er­nance are under way there. Such free­doms had not been avail­able there for more than eight years, he added.

Offen­sive oper­a­tions in Kan­da­har, how­ev­er, are kick­ing off slow­er than pre­dict­ed, Mullen acknowl­edged. U.S. forces, he said, are still con­duct­ing “shap­ing” oper­a­tions in Kan­da­har ahead of a planned offen­sive.

“We haven’t put off the oper­a­tions in Kan­da­har,” Mullen said. “It’s an enor­mous­ly com­plex oper­a­tion. We need to make sure we get the forces there to exe­cute. A sig­nif­i­cant part of this last 10,000 [troops] will be includ­ed in that.”

Oper­a­tions in Mar­ja and Kan­da­har are clas­sic coun­terin­sur­gency oper­a­tions, and they must be devel­oped and exe­cut­ed care­ful­ly to sus­tain gains against the Tal­iban, Mullen said. Suc­cess in Kan­da­har, par­tic­u­lar­ly, is vital to the over­all suc­cess of the strat­e­gy, he added.

Ear­li­er today, Mullen spoke to a group of polit­i­cal staffers, defense indus­try offi­cials and reporters at The Hill newspaper’s annu­al Trib­ute to the Troops break­fast, where he not­ed Kandahar’s impor­tance.

“Kan­da­har is real­ly the cen­ter of grav­i­ty for how we move for­ward with this strat­e­gy,” he said. “I believe as goes Kan­da­har, so goes Afghanistan.

“This is a tough, tough time,” he con­tin­ued. “There’s cer­tain­ly a desire to get spe­cif­ic time­lines, but I think they’re very dif­fi­cult to pin down. It’s an extra­or­di­nary, com­plex chal­lenge. It’s not just about secu­ri­ty; it’s about gov­er­nance [and] get­ting at cor­rup­tion.”

Oper­a­tions have been hin­dered by chal­lenges in Kan­da­har, Mullen acknowl­edged, but it’s much too soon to deter­mine the lev­el of suc­cess there, he said.

“It is excep­tion­al­ly well planned,” Mullen said. “It is an oper­a­tion that has been dis­cussed at great length with [Afghan] Pres­i­dent [Hamid] Karzai, [and] both the Afghan lead­er­ship as well as the [NATO] and coali­tion lead­er­ships are very much com­mit­ted.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)