By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 21, 2009 - Afghanistan, "dwell time" at home stations between deployments and the health of the force are at the forefront of concerns the Defense Department must address, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. The United States will deploy between 20,000 and 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in the coming year, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said in a Jan. 16 Pentagon Channel interview.
The number is tied to the combatant commanders' needs. "We're working hard to move as many of the forces needed into Afghanistan as quickly as possible," he said.
Any additional deployments to Afghanistan are tied directly to force levels in Iraq, he said. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has dropped over the past year, and Mullen said he expects the number to continue to reduce "based on the recommendations of the commanders on the ground."
"I hope we can make that happen," he said. The security situation has improved in Iraq, with Iraqi forces now in the lead. With improved security, infrastructure improvements and development projects under the Iraqi government's direction can move ahead.
The same cannot be said of Afghanistan. Mullen said before Congress last year that while the United States is not losing the war on terror in Afghanistan, it is not winning it, either. Commanders in Afghanistan have asked for more forces to implement the counterinsurgency strategy.
While U.S. and other NATO forces can clear areas, more troops are needed to hold the areas once they are clear of extremists. U.S. forces also will be needed to train Afghan security forces.
"The force has performed extraordinarily well -- has really made a difference," Mullen said. "We still seek success in Iraq and are shifting focus to Afghanistan." But he emphasized that success in Afghanistan is not going to be measured in military force.
"We've also got to get things going with respect to the development, the economics, [and] the political side of Afghanistan as we move forward," he said.
The United States must look at the fight in Central Asia as part of a regional strategy, military officials have said. As success continues in Iraq and forces shift to Afghanistan, U.S. officials will continue to work with Pakistani leaders to deny the Taliban and other extremist groups safe havens in that country.
Meanwhile, the chairman said, defense officials are looking for opportunities to increase dwell time over the next 12 to 18 months to take some of the pressure off the force.
The next two years will be a delicate time for the U.S. military, Mullen acknowledged. He said he is worried about the force and the stress that repeated deployments place on servicemembers and their families, and that he will continue to monitor dwell time, the ability to recruit and retain the force and ways to maintain the balance of the military.
Defense officials must focus on programs for families, and on "making sure we take care of the wounded in such a way to put them in a position to succeed for the rest of their lives," he said. They also must "make sure we have the right emphasis on those who sacrificed the most: the families of the fallen," he added.
"People ask me about evolution into the 21st century and the things we have to get right," the chairman said. "If we get it right for our people, we will ensure we have got it right for the 21st century, and that includes all the support we have to put in place for our families."
The chairman also spoke about President Barack Obama's stated intent to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba.
"The military's mission is to run the facility, and they have done that exceptionally well," Mullen said. "If that guidance comes [to close the facility], we will move expeditiously and in accordance with his guidance."
But it is a challenging issue, with a "significant number of individuals there who have hurt us badly in the past," he said.
Mullen noted that he spoke out two years ago in favor of closing the Guantanamo facility.
"I think our challenge will be to figure out how we will handle the individuals who are currently there," he said.