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Chairman Says Possible Buildup in Afghanistan Could Have Major Impact

Jim Garamone - American Forces Press Service

If Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates approves a proposal to send 3,000 Marines to Afghanistan, it could have a significant impact on operations in the country, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today.

Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen said during a Pentagon news conference that the proposal is on the table and that the secretary has discussed it with military leaders, including the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill. No decision has been made yet, he said.

The issue of additional forces to Afghanistan speaks to challenges NATO and the United States have faced there, Mullen said. Though there has been a “tremendous amount of success” in the country, it has been uneven, the chairman said.

He said NATO commanders in Afghanistan say their forces have had significant military impact on the Taliban in 2007. “We are in an economy-of-force operation there, and if we are able to create additional forces, we think it can have a big impact,” Mullen said.

The United States has made a conscious decision to economize combat power in Afghanistan. “We do what we can in Afghanistan; we do what we must in Iraq,” said a Joint Staff official speaking on background. “If we had these forces readily available, we would have sent them to Afghanistan already.”

About 27,000 Americans are serving in Afghanistan -- 14,000 as part of ISAF and 13,000 operating under Operation Enduring Freedom. The proposal for 3,000 more troops was a NATO request, but no NATO nation has stepped forward to fill that request. If Gates approves the proposal, the United States would fill that gap.

U.S. ground forces are under tremendous strain, Mullen said, and the current deployment tempo is proof of that. Army forces deploy for 15-month tours and then come back to home station for a year. Marine forces deploy for seven months and are back for six before redeploying for another seven.

“The strain on the force is something that is front and center in my mind all the time,” he said. “It is something we calculate when we get any request for forces from any commander, anywhere.”

Mullen said he is concerned about NATO nations not stepping forward with these troops. “I believe strongly that success in Afghanistan, in ISAF, for NATO, is a bellwether for whether NATO succeeds in the long run as an institution,” Mullen said.

The chairman also addressed the situation in Pakistan and reported that al Qaeda and the Taliban are using the federally administered tribal areas in that country to plan, train and finance operations inside Afghanistan and worldwide.

“We’re mindful that Pakistan is a sovereign country and it is up to President (Pervez) Musharraf and his advisors to address that problem directly,” he said.

The desperate poverty in Afghanistan complicates any security progress made there, Mullen said. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Still, he noted, there have been major infrastructure improvements. Mullen said Afghanistan’s Ring Road connecting the country’s major cities is roughly 80 percent complete, and a dam project in the south promises economic progress to that troubled area.

“But we’ve got an awful long way to go,” he said. “There are 42 contributing countries. In the long run, we’re going to have to lift the economy to help bring a stable and secure environment.”

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