By Roxana Tiron - 09/15/09 10:53 PM EDT
In the face of an increasingly unpopular war, Joint Chiefs of Staff
Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen pleaded for patience as he told senators that
more U.S. troops likely will be needed to win the war in Afghanistan.
“A properly resourced counterinsurgency [in Afghanistan] probably means more forces,” Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday during his confirmation hearing for a second term. Mullen is widely expected to be reconfirmed.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Tuesday morning indicates that 39 percent of Americans favor the war in Afghanistan, with 58 percent opposed to the mission.
President Barack Obama’s one-time campaign rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is emerging as one of the most outspoken supporters of sending more ground combat troops to Afghanistan.
McCain, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Tuesday that more troops are “vitally needed” and any delay in deploying more could put the American troops who are already there “in danger.”
Mullen said that military leaders have not yet recommended to Obama that more troops be sent. And he has not elaborated on what number of additional troops would be recommended to the president.
The senior U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is expected to ask for additional troops.
“I do believe that having heard his views and having great confidence in his leadership, a properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces, and without question, more time and more commitment to the protection of the Afghanistan people and to the development of good governance,” Mullen told senators on Tuesday.
As part of a new Afghanistan strategy introduced by Obama in March, about 21,000 new U.S. troops are making or have made their way to Afghanistan.
The United States has 62,000 troops in Afghanistan. That number is expected increase to 68,000 by the end of the year.
But Mullen indicated those troop numbers will not be enough.
“It is very clear to me we will need more resources to execute the president’s strategy from the end of March,” Mullen said. “We’re very badly under-resourced in Afghanistan” for about three to four years, Mullen added.
Mullen asked senators for time and patience to turn around a war that will enter its ninth year this fall.
“We will need resources matched to the strategy, civilian expertise matched to military capabilities, and the continued support of the American people,” Mullen said. He indicated that the U.S. and NATO forces are on “the defensive” in Afghanistan.
Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is pressing the administration to send in more trainers to help grow the Afghan security forces, rather than send in more ground combat troops.
“We should not commit to additional combat troops before we take the steps — that have not been taken — to have a very major effort” to grow and properly equip the Afghan security forces, as well as get the low- to mid-level Taliban insurgents to recognize the authority of the Afghan government, Levin told reporters on Tuesday.
Those “major steps” should be “set in motion” before any consideration is given to more combat troops, Levin said.
Mullen told senators at his confirmation hearing that there are about 2,000 to 4,000 additional trainers on top of the roughly 6,500 trainers in the country now. Mullen stressed that “as many as possible” of the new trainers should come from NATO partners.
Meanwhile, Levin’s plan is already dividing members of his committee, with Sens. McCain, Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) criticizing the idea of sending trainers alone and pressing for more combat troops to be sent to Afghanistan immediately.
Mullen on Tuesday also agreed to provide senators with his thoughts on a controversial law prohibiting openly gay people from serving in the military.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) won a promise from Mullen that he would provide his take on the repeal of
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” before the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing on the matter this fall.
Mullen did not express any opinion on repealing the law. Obama promised to repeal it during his campaign, and reiterated that vow earlier this year in a meeting with gay-rights activists at the White House.
Mullen repeated his previous position that “any change in the law would require sound policy revisions and leadership.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to hold the first hearing in 16 years on the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” provision later this fall. The hearing will be held at the request of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Levin told reporters that the hearing likely will be scheduled for October.
Gay activists have been growing increasingly impatient with the Pentagon and the White House for not overturning the law.
The leading organization pushing for repeal, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), rebuked Mullen’s answers to the panel, calling them disappointing.
“Unfortunately, Mullen did not come to the Senate today to give a ringing endorsement of President Obama’s stated objective to end ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” Aubrey Sarvis, the SLDN executive director, said in a written statement to The Hill. “There were no signs or words from [Mullen] showing that he is aligned with his commander in chief on repealing” the law.
Several senators are in talks to introduce a bill repealing the law over the next couple of weeks. If a bipartisan approach does not work, several Democrats may sponsor the bill. The most likely candidates for that are Gillibrand and Udall. The bill likely will be introduced before the hearing in the Armed Services panel.