WASHINGTON — Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that the U.S. "probably" needs to send more troops to Afghanistan to support the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which he called a large part of the problem there.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of his reconfirmation as chairman, Mullen asked the public for more time to consider whether to send more American troops, but six months after the administration announced its plan for Afghanistan, he also said there should be a sense of urgency about Afghanistan.
His mixed messages appeared to reflect the Obama administration's difficulty defining a strategy for Afghanistan amid declining political and public support, mounting U.S. casualties, evidence that Karzai rigged his re-election last month, pervasive official corruption, a resurgent Taliban and halfhearted assistance from neighboring Pakistan.
If Karzai is re-elected, as appears likely, and the outcome is seen as illegitimate, it could further undercut domestic support for the Afghanistan war, and leave the White House hitched to an unpopular leader in Kabul.
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Referring to Karzai, one senior defense official told McClatchy: "We are chained to a disaster." He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
Nevertheless, the administration is contemplating sending more troops to Afghanistan, and Mullen said that while the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, won't request more troops for another two weeks, he already thinks the war will require more troops based on a 60-day assessment that McChrystal submitted last month.
"A properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces," Mullen told the committee, without offering any specifics. It was the strongest signal yet from the administration that it will increase its forces there.
He also said that it would take two to three years for the Afghan forces to become strong enough to change the momentum on their own.
Mullen said the U.S. wants to expand the Afghan National Army to 134,000 troops by the end of 2011. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the armed services committee, called for expanding the Army to 250,000 by the end of 2012. Mullen said that whatever its size, the Army alone wouldn't improve security.
"I don't argue for a strong central government in Afghanistan," Mullen told Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.
Some senators asked whether the Taliban or a failing government was Afghanistan's biggest problem.
"The biggest threat, in my opinion, is not the Taliban, it's the governance. The only reason they (the Taliban) possibly could have come back is because there's been a vacuum created," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "We could send a million troops, and that will not restore legitimacy to their government. Would you agree with that?
"That is a fact," Mullen replied.
The senior defense official told McClatchy that the administration refuses to be rushed into a decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, calling it "probably the most important foreign policy decision (President Barack Obama) will make."
Last spring, the Obama administration authorized an additional 17,500 troops and 4,000 trainers in a rush to get additional forces on the ground in time for the presidential election. The rest of those troops are expected to arrive by November, bringing the U.S. troop commitment there to 68,000.
Mullen said Tuesday that the administration would need time to consider whether to send more troops, and reflecting that caution, it declined to send witnesses to testify at Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings this week on Afghanistan.
The administration's review will continue "for some time," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday.
That cautious approach drew the ire of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the leading Republican member of the committee. "I am frustrated and curious as to why the president's spokesperson yesterday should say it takes weeks and weeks," McCain said. "We're restating a strategy. We know what the resources are and — that are required, and yet it would take weeks and weeks. There are more and more Americans who are at great risk. And that is really, really bothersome."
By the end of August, 2009 became the deadliest year of the war for U.S. troops. So far, 22 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan in September. In all, 742 troops have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began nearly eight years ago.
Despite the differences over Afghan policy, senators assured Mullen that his reappointment as chairman of the Joint Chiefs was all but certain, and instead used the nearly three-hour session to press the administration to explain its policy in Afghanistan. Mullen's two-year appointment expires on Sept. 30.
(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article.)
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