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Top US Military Officer Expects No Big Change in Afghan Strategy

The top U.S. military officer said he does not expect three current strategy reviews to recommend any major change in the U.S. approach to Afghanistan. The three review teams are expected to issue their reports before, or just after, President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, is heading one of the reviews. The other two are being done at the White House and at U.S. Central Command, which supervises U.S. military operations throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. But although Taliban attacks have been on the rise in recent months, Admiral Mullen said he expects the reviews to generally endorse the current approach.

"At this point, anyway, I don't expect any radical changes," he said. "I think emphasis is going to be important. Clearly, we'll see where we go with a new administration with respect to that and clearly part of the discussion will be how the strategy gets resourced. And we'll have to see what's available to do that."

Current U.S. and NATO strategy in Afghanistan calls for a three-pronged approach, involving security, economic development and improved governance throughout the country. Admiral Mullen acknowledged that resources for the effort are limited, but he noted that one U.S. combat brigade, about 3,500 troops, will be added in January, and he hopes to send more troops as soon as possible after that. Officials said as the United States could add as many as 20,000 troops to Afghanistan next year, to join the 32,000 it already has there, along with nearly as many from other NATO countries.

"Flowing all those troops to Afghanistan will not fix the problem. It will create the environment, shape the environment. But there's a great deal of work that has to be done not just by the United States, not just by NATO, but by the international community to get those other two pieces [economic development and improved governance] right," he said.

The admiral said another "big piece" of the Afghanistan strategy has to be an improved counter-narcotics effort. NATO has accepted that mission, in part, and Admiral Mullen said the U.S. troop increase will help the effort.

And he said there is at least one additional element he believes will be emphasized in the strategy review reports - the need for a better South Asian regional strategy to ease India-Pakistan tensions in the wake of the Mumbai attacks and to help Pakistan eliminate the terrorist safe havens in its tribal areas along the Afghan border.

"It's my view we need to have a comprehensive approach with the country of Pakistan, and we've worked hard to try to expand that, not waiting for any strategy review. We've worked pretty hard on that over many, many months," he said.

Admiral Mullen, who met with top Pakistani military and civilian leaders in Islamabad last week, said he is pleased with Pakistan's moves in recent days to arrest people who are believed to have been involved in the Mumbai attacks. But like other U.S. officials, he called for a sustained Pakistani counter-terrorism effort.

Experts said that can only happen if India-Pakistan tensions are low, and Admiral Mullen said Pakistan needs to ensure that its intelligence service operatives are not doing anything that would increase tensions. The Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence unit has been implicated in past attacks in both India and Afghanistan.