FORT DRUM: The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff said Monday the United States was still “not done” in Iraq but that the military's primary focus was now the war in Afghanistan.
“You have turned it around in Iraq,” Admiral Mike Mullen told several hundred soldiers at the Fort Drum US Army base in New York state.
“A year or two ago we were not in a situation where it looked like we could succeed. Now we are,” Mullen said referring to the US surge of troops credited in part for improved security in Iraq.
But he added: “We're not done in Iraq.”
“Al-Qaeda is still there, still a problem, although greatly diminished.”
Mullen said he was hopeful the number of US troops in Iraq could be reduced over the next few months but that more forces would be needed in Afghanistan to fight a spreading insurgency.
“Our focus is shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan,” he told enlisted men and women of the 10th Mountain Division, which has deployed large numbers of soldiers to Iraq.
“It's gotten worse in Afghanistan. Violence is up. The Taliban is back. More than anything else there's a governance issue which is not going well.”
The admiral said while he anticipated more troops would be sent to Afghanistan as requested by the commander of US forces there, it was unlikely the force would surpass a total of about 66,000 — nearly double the roughly 36,000 now deployed there.
“From my perspective right now, I don't see us growing a force well beyond the 20,000 to 30,000 (additional troops) for Afghanistan,” he said.
Officials have said the military has prepared for the possible deployment of three combat brigades, about 10,000 to 12,000 soldiers, to Afghanistan.
Mullen's comment indicated the US presence in Afghanistan would not expand to a level similar to the force in Iraq, where about 144,000 troops are deployed.
His remarks came as President Barack Obama's administration carries out a review of strategy in Afghanistan and as Taliban militants challenge the Kabul government for control of the south and the east of the country.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other officials have signaled any new strategy would likely abandon the ambitious goals of the previous administration — to forge a democracy in the war-torn and impoverished country — and instead carry out a narrower goal of eliminating Al-Qaeda safe-havens.
Mullen said military means alone could not defeat the insurgents in Afghanistan, but that like Iraq ensuring security for the population was a vital precondition to other efforts by the State Department and other agencies.
“The military side of this (is) a necessary condition without which success cannot be generated,” he said.
Mullen said Afghanistan in some ways presented a “tougher fight than Iraq,” citing complex tribal politics and Al-Qaeda safe havens along the border with Pakistan.
He expressed gratitude to the young soldiers for enduring frequent deployments, citing a military wife he met earlier on Monday whose husband was sent to Iraq five times.
“We have put an unbelievable amount of pressure on you, you delivered and I am looking to figure out how to create some relief on the force,” he said.
Mullen said he favored changing rules for army troops that would allow soldiers a longer break at home between missions to Iraq or Afghanistan, instead of the customary 12 to 14 months leave.
Citing a rise in suicides in all the armed services, particularly the US Army, Mullen said the military needed to find a better way to help those traumatized by their experiences in war.
“Many of you who have been in combat have seen things that you never could imagine,” he said.
According to a recent US Army report, in 2008 as many as 143 soldiers took their own lives, up from 115 the previous year.
Gates said fellow soldiers needed “to take care of each other” and seek help for themselves or their comrades when facing emotional trauma.