LOS ANGELES, Nov. 11, 2010 — After years of under-resourcing the war in Afghanistan, the coalition has put in place the pieces needed to win the counterinsurgency battle in the country, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen made the comments as part of the Bernard Brodie Distinguished Lecture Series on the UCLA campus here. Renee Montagne, the daughter of a Marine and co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition, hosted led conversation.
Mullen said that while the United States has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, only recently has the conflict received the attention and resources it requires. The war followed an arc that was promising in the early days, but seemed to plateau until 2006, when the Taliban came back with a vengeance.
When Mullen became chairman in 2007, Iraq was the main U.S. conflict. The surge was in full swing and American forces were spending 15 months at assignments in the U.S. Central Command area of operations. There were more than 150,000 Americans in Iraq and under 40,000 in Afghanistan. It was a conservation of force mission in Afghanistan, meaning the United States was sending just enough resources to maintain the combat forces there, he said.
The troop level was just one example of the under-resourcing in Afghanistan, which Mullen said was under-resourced “from every dimension.”
“It was strategically under-resourced, it was financially under-resourced,” he said. Military operators and planners were not focusing on or thinking of Afghanistan. U.S. civilian agencies also skimped in Afghanistan as did NATO allies, the chairman said. And it was “badly under-resourced from a military capability and capacity standpoint,” he added.
In February 2009, President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 more U.S. troops to the country. In December 2009, the United States launched a total review of the Afghan situation, covering everything from goals to strategy to logistics. Obama announced another 30,000 U.S. troops would go to Afghanistan, along with 10,000 more NATO allies.
“You can’t just feed someone who has been starving for a long time a full meal, and expect them to bounce back,” Mullen said. “It’s going to take some time to do this, and I think we have the strategy right, we have the resources right and we have the leadership right, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
The admiral is concerned about the time it will take to accomplish the mission of stabilizing the country, and providing security so Afghan security forces can take the lead. “The overall strategic view of Afghanistan is, we don’t want the country to return to fertile ground for terrorists,” he said. “There are plenty of them around – not that far away. When the Taliban ran the country before, they provided that fertile ground, from which we were originally attacked.”
The past year has been difficult for U.S., NATO and Afghan troops. The struggle against the Taliban and their allies in the south has been particularly bloody. Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city and spiritual home of the Taliban, is the key to the strategy. Coalition and Afghan forces have pushed the Taliban from their safe havens in the villages and areas around Kandahar, Mullen said. Some are attempting to regroup inside Kandahar itself, while others are trying to escape to Pakistan.
Military forces have had a “significant effect” on the insurgency this year, the chairman said. There have been successes in Panjwai, Argendhab, Dawi, Nawa, Marja and other areas. But there is still work that needs to be done in the longer run, he said.
The United States will be in the region for a long time, the chairman said. This does not necessarily mean large numbers of troops. The United States is committed to long-term relationships with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Americans must remember that the counterinsurgency effort is not solely military. “We’ve tripled the number of civilians there as well, because the governance piece – local, provincial and federal – must also improve,” he said. “In fact, it is just now that the strategy has been adequately resourced. Now it is being executed. It is fairly chaotic in some areas… and yet we’ve started to see some progress.”
Obama has said the United States will begin to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in July, beginning the process of transition to Afghan-led security. Mullen said some troops will leave, but he doesn’t know how many. It will depend on the conditions on the ground. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said it will likely be small, “and we don’t know what part of Afghanistan they will be from,” he said.
There can’t be a serious discussion of the future of Afghanistan without talking about Pakistan, the chairman said. The United States needs to engage Pakistan – a nuclear power with an economy in shambles and its own problem with terrorism. Mullen has worked to establish a relationship with Pakistani Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief of staff, meeting with him about 30 times in three years. “When I first met him, there was this enormous trust gap between us, both as individuals and as countries,” Mullen said. “Both of us are working hard to fill that up as rapidly as we can.”
But the break in relations from 1990 to 2002 has left a mark, and the question Mullen said he is asked most in Pakistan is, how long are you going to stay this time?
“(Kayani) trusts me to a point now where he tells me what he is going to do long before he does it,” the admiral said. “We have to understand their challenges. They have to focus on India, but they have rotated some 60,000 to 70,000 troops into the fight on the border [with Afghanistan]. They have lost many soldiers and civilians to terrorism. Sometimes his timelines doesn’t match my timelines.”
Americans are not a patient people and “aligning the patience indexes sometimes can be difficult,” Mullen said. The Pakistani army is resource constrained, but it seems to have the will to take on the Pakistani Taliban.
The Pakistani army had to change to a counterinsurgency force for the battles in the tribal areas along the Afghan border. They pulled troops from Kashmir, the volatile northern territory bordering Pakistan and India, retrained them and rotated them into the counterinsurgency fight.
During the White House review of actions in Afghanistan, Mullen said he will look closely at the growth and training of the Afghan security forces. “The whole idea of transition of putting the Afghan security forces in the lead is fundamental,” he said. “That’s our way home.”
And the process of training Afghan soldiers and police is improving. “We’ve put in place a structure, which means trainers, curricula, buildings where the training takes place, which didn’t occur before,” he said.
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