WASHINGTON, Aug. 5, 2009 – It is crucial that U.S., NATO and Afghan forces make progress in Afghanistan in the next 12 to 18 months, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep that security forces must reverse the trends in Afghanistan. “The Afghan people are tired of this, and my sense is that it has been eight years, and it has got to start moving in the other direction,” the admiral said on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”.”

Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met Aug. 2 with Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to discuss the general’s assessment of the situation.

“He’s looking at assessing the president’s strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Mullen said. “What he’s found is it’s a very tough fight, probably tougher than he thought it would be.”

News reports indicate that McChrystal will ask for more U.S. troops for the effort in Afghanistan. Mullen wouldn’t comment on that, but did say more civilian experts in city management, agriculture, building utilities and infrastructure are needed in the desperately poor and war-torn country. Security is a big part of the equation in the country, but so are effective governance and economic development, Mullen noted.

In Regional Command South, Marines moving into former Taliban strongholds have been followed by civilian experts. “I’ve seen civilians move in pretty quickly, and they need to do that,” Mullen said. “We don’t have yet a civilian capacity that we need, the numbers that we need. And we expect to generate a considerably larger number of them in the next several months.”

Security remains the epicenter of the fight in Afghanistan. Clearing ground of Taliban and al-Qaida is not enough, Mullen said. NATO — and ultimately, the Afghan government — must hold the areas and prevent terrorists from reoccupying the ground.

“This is a country that’s been basically at war for almost 30 years, a people who are tired of war,” Mullen said. “In fact, in some ways, [they] are sitting on the sideline to see if, in fact, the security that gets created is going to be sustained so they can get on with their lives.”

The Taliban have reconstituted since the United States first defeated the organization in 2001 and 2002. “One of the reasons that it’s a tougher fight is because it has been under-resourced,” Mullen said. “The Taliban has gotten much better, and we’ve seen that since 2006.”

The enemy has made increases in capabilities, and attacks are increasing in sophistication. Still, a new strategy to defeat the insurgents and their allies is in place, and the struggle now is adequately resourced, the admiral said.

“There is a newness to this, because it’s a fresh strategy, fresh people,” the chairman said. “We’ve learned lessons from Iraq; the sense of urgency here is very important to move as rapidly as we can.”

Mullen reiterated his frequent assertion that the struggle in Afghanistan cannot be completely understood without taking the situation in Pakistan into account. The mountainous area between the two countries affords safe havens on both sides of the border for Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and also harbors al-Qaida.

In this regional strategy, the nation’s top military officer said, it is important that the United States stay the course.

“When I go there — both to Pakistan and Afghanistan — the question that is there, both directly and indirectly oftentimes is: ‘Are you staying or are you leaving this time?’” Mullen said. “Because we’ve left before in both those countries, I think it’s important that we have a sustained relationship with both these countries. And I think stability in that part of the world is absolutely critical.”

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