America's top military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, told Congress this month that a winning strategy in Afghanistan "probably means more forces." This comes as little surprise in the halls of the Pentagon, where Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of U.S. war efforts on the ground, is expected to request more troops after conducting a widely heralded assessment of the way forward in Afghanistan.
The question has been whether the administration will back such an appeal. On Capitol Hill, Mullen's appraisal met with decidedly mixed reviews, signaling a showdown in which some of the most vocal opponents of a surge of forces are emerging from within President Obama's own party.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made it clear early in the hearing to re-confirm Mullen as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he wanted to see tens of thousands more Afghan troops trained and fighting before sending any more U.S. combat forces. A lack of Afghan forces "is absolutely our Achilles' heel," said Levin, who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan. He noted that U.S. troops outnumber their Afghan counterparts 5 to 1.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the committee, begged to differ. "With all due respect," he said, "I've seen that movie before." Such an approach, he argued, "would repeat the nearly catastrophic lessons of Iraq." He added that "any delay" in increasing troop levels, "which we all know is vitally needed, puts troops' lives in danger."
Beginning his round of questions with a lawyerly rundown of Levin and McCain's positions, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, observed that the hearing seemed to mark the beginning "of a very serious national debate."
It is a debate that the White House had hoped to delay for a few weeks. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said that any request for new troops would include "many weeks of evaluation and assessment." Secretary Robert Gates has in the past expressed reluctance to increase troop levels, an action that he believes could increase the perception of the United States as an occupying force. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell last week downplayed the notion of any infighting between the Pentagon's civilian and uniformed leadership. But within the Pentagon there is some question about whether Obama will heed the "best military advice" of his commander on the ground—and of his top military adviser, Mullen. "It's sort of like, 'Okay, you put this guy in here, and this is what he wants' " says one senior Pentagon officer, referring to McChrystal's request for more troops. "Now do you agree?"
Gates signaled earlier this month that he would be more supportive of the possibility as long as U.S. troops did a better job of keeping Afghan civilian casualties to a minimum. But U.S. casualties have already surpassed last year's record high of 144 deaths, and a slew of polls indicate that the war in Afghanistan is losing U.S. domestic support. In a recent CNN poll, nearly three quarters of Democrats said they opposed the war, a point not lost on Democratic legislators.
For his part, Mullen emphasized, as he has often of late, that the Taliban insurgency continues to grow "in both size and complexity." He made a point of noting, too, that McChrystal was "alarmed" by the growing insurgency, which has "grabbed" momentum over the past three years. And Mullen said he knows that U.S. forces don't have long to take it back. "Time," he added, "is not on our side."
- See photos of the election in Afghanistan.