WASHINGTON, (AFP) — The top US military officer held out the possibility of a draw-down of American forces from Afghanistan within a few years, citing the troop “surge” in Iraq as a model.
As President Barack Obama weighs a request for more troops in Afghanistan, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen said it was “reasonable” to look at Iraq — where additional American forces were sent to bolster security in 2007 — as a guide.
“If I were to use the surge in Iraq, in 2006-2007, look where we are right now, sort of apply the same kind of timeline to Afghanistan as best we can tell,” Mullen said at a Washington event.
“And we think that’s reasonable in terms of having the impact and then being able to thin our forces out and bring them back,” he said, responding to a question about the future of the US force in Afghanistan.
But Mullen added that “we have to be careful about the direct comparisons between Iraq and Afghanistan.”
US officials have tended to shy away from estimating how long it might take to gain the upper hand in Afghanistan and eventually hand over security duties to Afghan forces.
Mullen’s comments come amid an intense debate inside the Obama administration over strategy and troop levels, with the president yet to announce a crucial decision on whether to send in tens of thousands of reinforcements.
In January 2007, former president George W. Bush ordered five additional combat brigades to Iraq to stem deteriorating security and provide time for political reconciliation among the country’s rival factions.
With violence down from its peak two years ago, the US military has begun to gradually reduce the US force in Iraq under an agreement with Baghdad.
The “surge” strategy has been touted as a success in Washington and advocates of a troop buildup in Afghanistan cite the approach as a model.
But skeptics warn Afghanistan, a country ravaged by decades of war and extreme poverty, presents more difficult conditions than Iraq.
Mullen also demanded decisive action from Afghan President Hamid Karzai against what he called “endemic” corruption, saying tainted officials had to be prosecuted.
Adding to growing international pressure on the newly re-elected Karzai, Mullen said the Afghan president “has got to take significant steps to eliminate corruption.”
“That means that you have to rid yourself of those who are corrupt, you have to actually arrest and prosecute them. You have to show those visible signs,” Mullen told reporters.
The United States was “extremely concerned about the level of corruption and the legitimacy of this government,” the chairman said, adding that coruption was too “endemic.”
Karzai, re-elected to office after a vote marred by allegations of massive fraud, has faced mounting calls from the United States and its allies to crack down on corrupt officials.
The head of the UN mission in Afghanistan on Tuesday warned Karzai that the world could desert him if he does not show his commitment to reform in his next cabinet.
US officials worry the Kabul government’s corruption-plagued reputation is feeding the Islamist insurgency, which has gained momentum despite the presence of more than 100,000 NATO-led troops — including about 68,000 Americans.
Obama’s administration has made little secret of its concerns with Karzai’s alleged graft and his pacts with unsavory warlords.
Mullen said a credible Kabul government was crucial to the success of the military mission.
“If we don’t get a level of legitimacy and governance, then all the troops in the world aren’t going to make any difference,” he said.
For weeks, Obama has held off making a decision on the troop request from the commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, partly because of the political uncertainty surrounding the disputed August election.
But Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month said Obama may have to make his decision even if the legitimacy of the Afghan government remains in doubt.