WASHINGTON, July 2, 2008 – Defense Department officials are very concerned about the situation in Afghanistan, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today. “Violence is up significantly from a year ago,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said during a Pentagon news conference. For the second month in a row, more coalition servicemembers died in Afghanistan than died in Iraq.

Given the country’s harsh winters and unforgiving terrain, summer historically is the fighting season in Afghanistan, but the Taliban have become more organized and efficient, Mullen said. But part of the increase in violence is because there are more coalition and Afghan troops in the country. They are going into more areas, and the Taliban are responding, the admiral said.

Another factor, he said, is a combination of Afghanistan’s porous border with Pakistan and the Taliban using areas in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal area as safe havens. “There is much more freedom this year to move across the border,” the chairman said.

The NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan is at 52,700 personnel, and the effort in the country remains in what’s known as an economy-of-force mission, Mullen said. “What we’re going through now is an ability to win in the combat standpoint, but we don’t have the troops to hold the areas,” he explained.

Mullen said a recent statement by Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani on the terrorist problem in the country is encouraging. He praised Gilani’s appreciation of the terrorist threat and the decision to place Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in command of Pakistan’s frontier corps in addition to the army.

Pakistani security forces launched attacks against the Taliban in and around Peshawar. “It’s important that this be sustained and pressure placed on insurgents,” Mullen said. “I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen, but I think we must be patient.”

U.S. assistance must be as robust as it can possibly be, and the Pakistani government and military must move as rapidly as they can against this problem, the chairman said.

U.S. and NATO leaders are focused on the challenges in Afghanistan, particularly in the east and the south. “We are exploring a number of options and opportunities to get a better understanding of the scope of the threat and the best means with which to counter it,” Mullen said. “I’ve made no secret of my desire to flow more U.S. forces to Afghanistan just as soon as I can. Nor have I been shy about saying those forces will not be available unless or until the situation in Iraq allows us to do so.”

The United States does not have the forces available to flow into Afghanistan without a reduced requirement in Iraq. “We’re on an increasingly positive path in Iraq, and … I’m hopeful that towards the end of the year, opportunities like that will be created,” Mullen said.

No easy solution or quick fix is available in Afghanistan, the admiral said, and more troops will be necessary. Some NATO allies have committed to sending more troops, but not until the end of the summer and into the fall.

“We need and are pursuing a broader interagency international approach — one that includes infrastructure improvement, foreign investment and economic incentives,” Mullen said. “I’m hopeful these efforts will pay off in the future.”

But everyone needs patience, the chairman said. “As we have seen in Iraq, counterinsurgency warfare takes time and a level of commitment and flexibility,” he said. “We remain committed to a stable future for Afghanistan and her people, and I’m just as convinced as ever that we will achieve it.”

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