By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
July 8, 2009 - Combat operations some 4,000 Marines began last week in southern Afghanistan and an influx of additional forces represent a big step toward carrying out a more comprehensive U.S. strategy there, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told a National Press Club audience today he's encouraged by the regional focus of the strategy and its emphasis on building capacity in the economic, agricultural, governance and other civilian realms.
"There is a very comprehensive approach here that covers all of the areas that are required to move this in a positive direction," he said. "And I'm actually encouraged by the strategic approach, and now we're in a position where we just have to execute it."
But the chairman acknowledged that the additional troops focused on providing the security climate necessary for those efforts -- as well as the new leadership Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal brings to NATO's International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan -- come at a time of increased violence.
Mullen conceded that the fighting during the next 12 to 18 months "is going to be very, very challenging" and will mean more troop casualties.
As a sobering testament to that violence, Mullen was slated to fly directly from today's National Press Club event to Dover Air Force Base, Del., to officially receive the remains of seven fallen servicemembers returning from Afghanistan.
Mullen said the Taliban have become "tougher and tougher, and better and better."
"Meeting that challenge is what these forces are right now," he said. "And they're more than anything else focused on security for the Afghan people."
He expressed hope that more resources and the ability to apply lessons learned from counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq will make a difference in Afghanistan.
"We are now resourcing it to the needs of the commander on the ground," he said. "We just haven't done that before."
It is those resources, in addition to the joint civil-military team to be brought in by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, that "will allow us to move forward in a very positive way," the chairman said.
The appropriate troop level, and whether still more will be required, will be part of an assessment McChrystal is conducting, Mullen said.
"I think all of us are concerned about having the right level of footprint but not getting to a point where it looks like we're an occupying force," he added. "If we get to that point, it isn't going to work."
One conclusion McChrystal already has made known, and that Mullen said he supports wholeheartedly, is that success of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy has to be measured through civilian lives protected, not numbers of enemy fighters killed.
Protecting civilian lives must be paramount, the chairman said. "Civilian casualties, when they occur, set us back," he acknowledged.
The admiral cited a new directive McChrystal issued last week that emphasizes preventing civilian casualties as well as protecting U.S. troops.
"One of the thrusts is [that] we will do everything we can and everything we have to, to protect our own troops," Mullen said. But it also calls on combat leaders to consider the follow-on effects of an action, and to recognize that "a tactical win can well be a strategic defeat," he added.
Mullen declined to predict how long U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan. But he said he believes the effort has to "start to turn the tide with respect to the Taliban in the next 12 to 18 months."
"I believe the forces that we have and the strategy that we have and the approach that we have will allow us to do that," he said.