Mullen said he expects fighting to be fiercest in the coming year in Regional Command South, and that part of his reason for visiting Kandahar was to meet with officials from the NATO command in southern Afghanistan.
The chairman said he takes advantage of the USO Holiday Tour not only to bring a bit of cheer to American servicemembers deployed overseas, but also to sound out commanders and get a feel for the situation on the ground in some tough spots.
The chairman met with the leaders of Combined Joint Task Force 101 in Bagram Airfield, the commander of Task Force Castle at Forward Operating Base Sharana, and with the senior American in NATO’s Regional Command South. At the same time, USO performers accompanied Mullen to these areas and put on shows for thousands of American servicemembers.
Mullen said he also wanted to discuss with military leaders the deployment of more American troops to Afghanistan in 2009. The 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team will arrive in January. Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, has asked for two more brigades and enablers. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said he likes the idea, but no decision has been made yet.
In Kandahar in particular, Mullen said, he wanted to understand what has happened since U.S. Marines left Regional Command South earlier this year. The Marines arrived in March and controlled their area. Over the summer, they took the fight to the Taliban. They left in early November.
“There was some concern that when they left, the area would fall back into the hands of the Taliban,” Mullen said. “That hasn’t happened at all.”
The visit to Sharana focused on engineering and logistics side of operations in Afghanistan.
“As we look to the future with potential requirements to bring in more forces, you’ve got to have a place for them and a support mechanism,” he said. “I wanted to understand what the engineers were thinking about. At the same time, I wanted to send the message that if we get to a point where we add additional bases, I want them to be minimal, not maximal, bases.”
New bases should not give the Afghan people the idea that they are being occupied, he explained.
The chairman said the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan concerns him, and that he agrees with Gates that numbers alone do not guarantee success, as the Soviet Union had 120,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and still lost. Still, he said, more U.S. forces clearly are needed in the country. If the president decides to send more troops to Afghanistan, the number of 20,000 should be manageable, he said, but he noted that the enemy has a vote, and circumstances could change the size of the force.
“We need to be able to clear and hold in the areas where now we can’t do that,” he said.
The chairman called the Afghan people the center of gravity in the conflict. “We cannot be there if it looks like we’re taking over,” he said. “It has to have their face on it; it has to have their will, their security forces.”
And security alone isn’t the answer to Afghanistan’s problems, Mullen said. The other two legs of the strategic stool – governance and economics – are significantly undermanned and underachieving, he acknowledged.
One of the greatest challenges the coalition in Afghanistan faces is coordination and cooperation among the different countries and agencies, and more must be done to facilitate those partnerships, he said.
Mullen also pointed out that what happens in Pakistan also has a profound impact on operations in Afghanistan. He credited Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of Pakistan’s army, and the country’s civilian leadership with trying to do something about terrorist safe havens in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas. “They moved in to Baijur, that’s had an impact,” the chairman said.
Better operations with the Pakistanis also are paying dividends. “We are not synchronized with [the Pakistanis], but we are much more coordinated with them,” Mullen said.
Ultimately, the admiral said, success in Afghanistan must “have an Afghan face.” The United States must minimize civilian casualties in the country, and the Afghan security forces need to take over more of the fight, he said. Progress with the army has been good, but progress with the police is just now starting to ramp up, he added.
American servicemembers recognize that they are in tougher fight today, but they are prepared for it, the chairman said.
“They are tremendously motivated, and they are doing great work in a very challenging environment,” he said.