Even with U.S. troops headed soon from Iraq to a more turbulent Afghanistan, defeating extremists in Afghanistan is growing more complex and more urgent, President Bush's senior defense advisers said Wednesday.
“Frankly, we are running out of time,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee, referring to the international effort to stabilize Afghanistan.
“I'm not convinced we're winning in Afghanistan,” said Mullen, adding quickly, “I'm convinced we can.”
What is needed, he said, is better Afghan governance, more foreign investment, a viable alternative to poppy farming, greater cooperation with Pakistan and more U.S. nonmilitary assistance.
Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates – testifying together a day after President Bush announced that one Marine battalion and one Army brigade would be shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan this fall and winter – both stressed the futility of relying too much on military power in Afghanistan.
“We cannot kill our way to victory,” Mullen said.
Gates did not address the issue of whether U.S. forces are winning, but after the hearing his press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said Gates sees the conflict as an ill-fated attempt by the Taliban to overthrow the government.
“The secretary believes we won the war in Afghanistan back in 2001-2002 when we drove the Taliban from power,” Morrell said. “They no longer run the country. They no longer control any significant territory within the country; however they are trying to reassert themselves … and they will not be successful.”
U.S. commanders in Afghanistan say they need another 10,000 troops – about three times as many as they will receive this winter under the troop deployment Bush announced. The commanders also urge more nonmilitary aid and say the Afghan government must perform better.
Gates said the insurgency in Afghanistan has gained “greater ambition, sophistication and coordination” since 2006, and he underlined the importance of denying them haven in neighboring Pakistan.
“As in Iraq, until the insurgency is deprived of safe havens, insecurity and violence will persist,” Gates said. He was alluding, at least in part, to the effect of having eliminated Iraq's Anbar province as a haven for Sunni Arab insurgents – a key to recent overall security improvements in Iraq.
Meeting with Bush in the Oval Office on Wednesday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani praised the president's military buildup, saying, “There is no inch of Iraqi land under the control of terrorists.”
Bush told Talabani that conditions remain difficult in Iraq, but security gains were allowing him to pull out troops.
“The Iraqis want there to be fewer U.S. troops,” Bush said. “The United States wants there to be fewer U.S. troops. But both of us want to realize that vision based upon success.”