WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Even more U.S. troops will likely be needed in Afghanistan beyond the 68,000 who will have deployed there by the end of this year, the top U.S. military officer said on Tuesday.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not estimate how many more troops would be needed but said he expected a request for more resources from the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan in a couple of weeks.
Mullen said he felt a sense of urgency about the war but also pleaded for patience as skepticism about it grows among members of Congress, especially in President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party, and the American public.
“A properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces,” Mullen told the U.S. Senate’s armed services committee.
“We can get there. We can accomplish the mission we’ve been assigned,” he said.
“But we will need resources matched to the strategy, civilian expertise matched to military capabilities, and the continued support of the American people.”
In Kabul, the head of a U.N.-backed watchdog that monitored last month’s Afghan elections said on Tuesday a partial recount ordered to prevent voter fraud will cover more than 10 percent of polling stations.
That means that enough votes are likely to be subjected to the fraud investigation to potentially alter the outcome, prolonging uncertainty over the result for weeks or months.
The preliminary results give President Hamid Karzai a majority of 54.3 percent, but the U.N. watchdog has already annulled votes from dozens of polling stations and can discard even more.
Fifty-eight percent of Americans now oppose the Afghan war while 39 percent support it, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll released on Monday.
Obama himself acknowledged that continued public support for the mission was important but rejected comparisons between Afghanistan and the deeply divisive Vietnam War.
“Afghanistan is not Vietnam,” he said in an interview with CNBC television and the New York Times published on Tuesday.
“But the dangers of overreach and not having clear goals and not having strong support from the American people, those are all issues that I think about all the time,” Obama said.
The Pentagon said Defense Secretary Robert Gates had not yet come to a conclusion on whether more troops were needed.
“The secretary’s thinking on this is a work in progress,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.
The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has almost doubled this year from 32,000 to 62,000 and is expected to grow by another 6,000 by the year’s end. There are also some 38,000 troops from other nations, mainly NATO allies.
Insurgent violence in Afghanistan has reached its highest level since the Taliban was ousted from power in late 2001. Adding to the country’s difficulties are allegations of fraud surrounding last month’s Afghan presidential election.
Grant Kippen, the Canadian, U.N.-appointed head of watchdog the Electoral Complaints Commission, which has the power to veto the election result, told Reuters 2,516 polling stations were subject to a recount order his commission issued last week.
Opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, said that if a result is delayed into next year, he wants a transitional government led by neither himself nor Karzai.
Abdullah says ballot stuffing took place on a large scale, especially in southern areas where the reported result overwhelmingly favors Karzai.
Karzai’s lead is big enough that fraud would have to be uncovered on a huge scale to force another round.
The Senate hearing to consider Mullen’s nomination for a second term as the top U.S. military officer and military adviser to the president — which is expected to be approved — offered a snapshot of the current debate over Afghanistan.
The committee chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat, took the opportunity to restate his proposal not to send more combat troops for now and instead focus on training and expanding Afghan security forces.
Senator John McCain, the panel’s ranking Republican, strongly rejected the idea, saying it resembled the failed U.S. policy of relying too soon on local forces in Iraq.
“With all due respect, Senator Levin, I’ve seen that movie before,” McCain said.
Mullen pushed back more subtly against Levin’s proposal, saying a greater focus on Afghan forces was needed but could only be part of the solution in Afghanistan.
“Sending more trainers more quickly will give us a jump start — but only that. Quality training takes time and patience,” he said.
Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli and Peter Graff in Kabul, editing by Philip Barbara