WASHINGTON– Though troop morale is high in Afghanistan, the Taliban is a tough organization and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he doesn’t expect conditions to change soon.

“As everyone knows, we’ve lost a large number of people here very recently,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said during a Pentagon Channel podcast interview today. “It’s going to be a tough fight in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, and we’re doing everything we can to certainly eliminate any losses.

“But the Taliban are a tough, tough organization, and it’s going to be that way for a while.”

Despite seeing a long road ahead, Mullen, who recently visited Afghanistan, said he was pleased with what he saw. That includes the Marine Corps’ integration with the British military, which he called “exceptionally good,” in southern Afghanistan. He noted the same with the provincial reconstruction team in the area.

“I also was encouraged by what I saw there in terms of the civilian and military integration,” he said. “This is not about a military solution alone. It can’t be.”

In fact, Mullen said the Afghan people must be at the heart of the solution. That’s where Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, is focusing.

McChrystal has issued a tactical directive to reduce airstrikes in Afghanistan in an effort to decrease civilian casualties. The directive is being well received by forces on the ground, Mullen said.

“I think his directive is well focused, it’s well understood and is being executed exceptionally well very shortly after he put it out,” Mullen said, offering an example in which he said Marines executed an operation over several days in which no Afghans were killed.

“All that focuses on the criticality of making the Afghan people the center of gravity,” he added. “If we can’t get it right for the Afghan people, we can’t get it right.”

Mullen added that McChrystal’s assessment of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan isn’t really up until mid-August. He anticipates that a focus on the population and integration with the civilian team will be a part of the assessment, however.

“I think what General McChrystal represents … is new leadership, new focus, new strategy, and they’ll be doing all they can to [make progress] as rapidly as we can so we can really start to turn the tide in Afghanistan,” he said. The upcoming national presidential elections scheduled for Aug. 20 are a big part of that.

On Iraq, the chairman said he was pleased with what he saw during a visit to the country a short time after the official withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities.

“The conversations I had with leaders were good,” he said. “There are some very difficult issues and the politicians in Iraq are really going to have to move forward and solve them.”

Mullen also said he was impressed with the way U.S. forces talked about the Iraqi security forces. Currently, U.S. forces are supporting Iraqi elections, which are slated to happen in January 2010.

“I was encouraged, cautiously optimistic,” he said.

Mullen also touched on Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ decision to increase the Army’s numbers by 22,000. Those soldiers would fill brigades scheduled to deploy.

With brigades full, Mullen said he’s confident that by increasing the Army ranks by 22,000, everyone will benefit.

“The operational tempo has stayed the same and we don’t see dwell time going down significantly right now,” he said. “I expect within the next couple of years, as these brigades actually fill up because of this increase, we actually will see our [operations] tempo be reduced and see dwell time increase, which is absolutely critical.”

Mullen addressed the Pentagon’s preparations to respond to any changes President Barack Obama makes to the so-called “Don’t, ask, don’t tell” policy, which prohibits officials from inquiring into servicemembers’ sexual orientation in the absence of disallowed behaviors, but allows action to be taken if a servicemember discloses homosexuality by word or action. In fact, he said, he’s addressed the topic with the service chiefs and combatant commanders, as well as his own staff.

“There’s a lot of focus with respect to this right now,” Mullen said. “Certainly when the law changes, when we get to that point, we’ll carry out the law.”

Mullen’s podcasts are available on the Pentagon Channel’s Web site,

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