The top U.S. military officer says critics who claim it will take years to even have a chance to defeat the Afghan insurgency ignore the fact that a similar counterinsurgency strategy turned around a similarly difficult situation in Iraq in 2007. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, spoke to reporters traveling with him to South and Central Asia Thursday.
Admiral Mullen acknowledges that it may take years to fully defeat the Afghan insurgency. But he says that is not what the United States expects to accomplish by this time next year, when President Barack Obama has said he will begin to withdraw U.S. troops. But Mullen says the year-and-a-half the president allowed for the new strategy to prove itself is adequate.
"Insurgencies last a long time," said Mullen. "But, as you look at how long it took to turn Iraq around, it was about 18 months. Now, we're about two-and-a-half years later, and we're still working in Iraq. But it was sort of that period of time where it really turned. Turning it doesn't end it, [but] you've got to turn it to get it moving in the right direction."
The admiral says the situation in Iraq seemed impossible to resolve a few years ago, and, although the two countries are very different, and progress in Iraq is not a guarantee of progress in Afghanistan, it does give him reason to be hopeful about Afghanistan - even during the current period of heavy violence and, at best, slow progress.
"There are similarities and differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, and I understand that," added Mullen. "But I don't accept the fact that, just because it takes insurgencies a long, long time [to be defeated], that we're not at a point where it can't be turned, because I think it can. It doesn't mean it's going to be easy. But, I think it can be [turned] over the period of time that we're talking about."
An Afghan couple with their donkey pass in front of a NATO patrol in Balamorghab district of Badghis Province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, 12 Apr 2010
U.S. officials acknowledge that, even if the situation in Afghanistan begins to turn during the next 12 months, the U.S. withdrawal will likely be very gradual, and some number of international troops will be needed in Afghanistan for many years to come.
Admiral Mullen welcomed the statement by Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week that he wants his forces to be able to take responsibility for security in the country by 2014. Mullen said the goal sounds reasonable and that it is important for leaders to set such targets to focus the efforts of their governments.
The admiral spoke as he flew toward New Delhi, where Afghanistan will be among many issues he will discuss with Indian defense officials. It will be on the agenda again when he visits Pakistan later in the week, before heading into the war zone itself.