With the nation's top military officer calling the situation in Afghanistan dire, President Barack Obama soon may face two equally unattractive choices: increase U.S. troops to beat back a resilient enemy, or stick with the 68,000 already committed and risk the political fallout if that's not enough.
Adm. Mike Mullen on Sunday described the situation in Afghanistan as "serious and deteriorating," but refused to say whether additional forces would be needed.
"Afghanistan is very vulnerable in terms of (the) Taliban and extremists taking over again, and I don't think that threat's going to go away," he said.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is completing an assessment of what he needs to win the fight there. That review, however, won't specifically address force levels, according to Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But military officials privately believe McChrystal may ask for as many as 20,000 additional forces to get an increasingly difficult security situation in Afghanistan under control. And one leading Republican is already saying McChrystal will be pressured to ask for fewer troops than he requires.
"I think there are great pressures on General McChrystal to reduce those estimates," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "I don't think it's necessarily from the president. I think it's from the people around him and others that I think don't want to see a significant increase in our troops' presence there."
Mullen also expressed concern about diminishing support among a war-weary American public as the U.S. and NATO enter their ninth year of combat and reconstruction operations.
In joint TV interviews, Mullen and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said last week's presidential election in Afghanistan was historic, given the threats of intimidation voters faced as they headed to polling stations. It could be several weeks, however, before it's known whether incumbent Hamid Karzai or one of his challengers won.
Charges of fraud in the election are extensive enough to possibly sway the final result, and the number of allegations is likely to grow, according to the independent Electoral Complaints Commission, the U.N.-backed body investigating the complaints.
Obama's strategy for defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida is a work in progress as more U.S. troops are sent there, Mullen said.
Three years ago, the U.S. had about 20,000 forces in the country. Today, it has triple that, on the way to 68,000 by year's end when all the extra 17,000 troops that Obama announced in March are in place. An additional 4,000 troops will help train Afghan forces.
|US Marines patrol with Afghan National Police in the district of Garmsir in Afghanistan's Helmand Province in July.|
Mullen said the security situation in Afghanistan needs to be reversed in the next 12 to 18 months.
"I think it is serious and it is deteriorating, and I've said that over the last couple of years, that the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated," he said.
Just over 50 percent of respondents to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this past week said the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting.
Mullen, a Vietnam veteran, said he's aware that public support for the war is critical. "Certainly the numbers are of concern," he said.
"We're just getting the pieces in place from the president's new strategy on the ground now," he said. "I don't see this as a mission of endless drift. I think we know what to do."
McChrystal's orders from Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were "to go out, assess where you are, and then tell us what you need," Mullen said.
"And we'll get to that point. And I want to, I guess, assure you or reassure you that he hasn't asked for any additional troops up until this point in time," he said.
Mullen and Eikenberry appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" and CNN's "State of the Union."