Navy Adm. Mike Mullen noted recent progress in Iraq, saying “the security has improved remarkably.” But when asked about the possibility of lower troop levels there and sending more troops to Afghanistan, he said it’s too soon to make any decisions. Military leaders in Washington and Iraq will continue evaluating improvements based on conditions on the ground, he said.
“If we are able to sustain this kind of improvement in security, I’d have expectations that this fall I’d be able to make recommendations to President Bush that we can [draw down troops in Iraq],” Mullen said. “It would depend on how conditions continue to evolve.”
If security continues to improve, more troops will be available for missions in Afghanistan, where coalition forces are seeing “more sophisticated attacks more often by terrorists,” the admiral said. He said he hopes eventually to increase troop levels there by three brigades, or 10,000 troops. Two brigades would focus on counterinsurgency operations, while another brigade-size element would train Afghan police, he said.
Coalition forces in Afghanistan now are challenged with a recent spike in violence and an underdeveloped police force and government. Also, terrorists have found safe havens along the Pakistani border, and because of a lack of border security by the new Pakistani government, they are able to flow more freely in and out of Afghanistan, Mullen said.
Coalition commanders in Afghanistan have noted success in many areas, however, but still feel the need for more troops, the chairman said. Currently, only two U.S. Marine battalions — about 2,500 Marines — are filling that void. One is training Afghan police, and the other is conducting combat operations.
“Clearly, we are watching [insurgent activities in Afghanistan] very closely,” Mullen said. “We are concerned about the increase, the improvements, in the sophisticated attacks. And until we get to a point [in Iraq] where we can reduce [military] commitment, we won’t have significant additional troops to add in Afghanistan.”
Additional troops in Afghanistan may have a similar outcome to the same strategy that has proven successful in Iraq, the chairman said. He credited the troop surge in Iraq for being the foundation in a combination of efforts that led the country to its current state.
“The five brigades that were the additional surge brigades made a huge difference, and I would argue that they put us in a position now that not many of us would have imagined we could be 12 months ago,” he said.
Mullen said the additional troops provided security for political actions to take place and for the economy to move in the right direction while giving Iraqi security forces the opportunity to train and mature.
“[Progress in Iraq] has been a number of things,” he said, “but more than anything else, I think the underpinning of that has been the surge and the security provided for the opportunities that are there now.”
However, as Mullen and the U.S. military focus on the current happenings in Middle East, Lehrer observed the possibility of their mission shifting as early as next year. The two leading candidates for the upcoming presidential election differ greatly in their opinions concerning the U.S. military’s stance in the Middle East.
“I think it’s really important for the military to remain neutral in this political season,” Mullen said. “And in maintaining that position, we carry out the mission that we have right now.”
Current priorities put the focus on Iraq first, Afghanistan second and then on building “dwell time” for troops at their home stations between deployments, Mullen said.
“My mission is to continue to evaluate conditions and to give my best advice to President Bush, and I’ll continue to do that,” he said.
Mullen said he’d have no issues serving under any president. “Clearly, we’re going to have a new president in January. I’ll get my mission from whoever that president may be, and I’ll give him my best military advice,” the admiral said. “I’ll get my direction from him, and I’ll carry that out.”