By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 10, 2009 - Weak governance, particularly in light of upcoming elections, poses the most immediate and pressing challenge in Afghanistan, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said here today. Mullen offered his assessment after a full day of sessions with Canadian military leaders about the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force mission and other issues of mutual concern.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Canada's chief of the defence staff air force Gen. Walter Natynczyk, Mullen praised Canada's "extraordinary efforts" in Afghanistan, and called that continued support over the next couple of years "absolutely vital."
Canada's leadership in Regional Command South has made "a huge difference," Mullen said, and helped to improve the lives of the Afghan people.
"I have said it many times before: the U.S. military cannot do it alone, and we certainly cannot do it without our Canadian brothers and sisters," he said.
Mullen called governance his No. 1 concern in Afghanistan, as well as the corruption that he said is hindering progress.
What's needed, the chairman said, is a surge of civilian capability to help to build governance at the local, district, provincial and national levels. "That's our biggest shortfall," he said.
Canada has about 2,800 soldiers in Afghanistan, most operating in Kandahar province. While these troops are helping to improve security and build capacity within Afghan security forces, Natynczyk said, he shares Mullen's view that the more pressing immediate gap is governance.
"What's missing is a public service that makes the machinery of government actually function," he said.
Natynczyk praised the 800 82nd Airborne Division soldiers who joined the Canadian forces in Afghanistan last summer and brought much-needed additional capability, and he said he looks forward to additional U.S. troop reinforcements.
These troops, Natynczyk said, will "enable us to continue to not only secure an area and then do the build, but also then to hold – something we have had a challenge with, with the lack of forces on the ground."
Mullen emphasized that no decisions have yet been made regarding the request by U.S. Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, for up to 30,000 additional troops. If President Barack Obama approves their deployment, they most likely will operate in the east and south, "which is where security is the poorest for the people and the biggest demand exists in providing that security," he said.
The outcome of Obama's strategic review of operations in Afghanistan, he said, will "put us all in a position to put significant, coordinated, synchronized steps forward."
Mullen said he did not discuss Canada's plans to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in 2011. "Clearly, combat forces who are there that make a difference are absolutely critical," he said. "I am aware that 2011 is out there, but I have literally not discussed that policy or the impacts of it ... with government leaders here today."
Natynczyk said his government has made its marching orders clear: Canada's military mission in Afghanistan will end in 2011. "We are focused on the here and now for the next few rotations from now through 2011," he said.