Afghan conflict serious, "deteriorating": Mullen

WASHINGTON Sun Aug 23, 2009 6:25pm EDT

Chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, speaks during a news conference at Camp Eggers in Kabul December 20,2008. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, speaks during a news conference at Camp Eggers in Kabul December 20,2008.

Credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating along with U.S. public support for the war, Washington's top military officer said on Sunday as he left open the possibility of another increase in troops.

"I think it is serious and it is deteriorating, and I've said that over the past couple of years -- that the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated," said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

U.S. combat deaths have risen since U.S. President Barack Obama ordered a troop buildup to confront a resurgent Taliban, with a record 44 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan in July.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed a majority of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, and just a quarter say more troops should be sent there.

"Certainly the numbers are of concern," Mullen said on NBC's "Meet the Press." But he later added, "this is the war we're in."

Mullen said the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was "wrapping up" his assessment of the situation and would submit it in a couple of weeks.

Mullen said he would evaluate whether more troops were needed after reviewing McChrystal's report.

"We'll see where that goes once the assessment is in here," he said. "And I've had this conversation with the president, who understands that whatever the mission is, it needs to be resourced correctly."

McChrystal's report, originally due in mid-August, was expected after the Afghan election process is completed. Counting is under way following Thursday's election, which drew allegations of vote rigging Sunday from Afghan President Hamid Karzai's main challenger.

NO "ENDLESS DRIFT"

A credible election result is important for the country and for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has made stabilizing Afghanistan a top foreign policy priority.

Obama already plans to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to about 68,000 by year's end, more than double the 32,000 the United States had there at the end of 2008.

Mullen declined to comment on U.S. media reports that McChyrstal might recommend additional increases of 15,000, 25,000 or 45,000 troops.

He said the United States faced a multi-year effort to establish security and enable Afghan forces to maintain it.

"I don't see this as a mission of endless drift. I think we know what to do, we've learned a lot of lessons from Iraq, focusing on the Afghan people," Mullen said.

Asked about an exit strategy, Mullen said: "I've said from a military perspective I believe we've got to start to turn this thing around from a security standpoint in the next 12 to 18 months."

"And I think after that we'd have a better view of how long it's going to take and what we need to do."

Sen. John McCain, the Republican who lost to Obama in last year's presidential election, said on Sunday he did not believe there were enough troops on the ground in Afghanistan.

McCain told ABC's "This Week" that the "clock is ticking" on American public opinion of the Afghan war.

"I think you need to see a reversal of these very alarming and disturbing trends on attacks, casualties and areas of the country that the Taliban has increased control of," he said. (Additional reporting David Lawder; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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