The United States’ highest-ranking military officer, on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, said Sunday that President Obama’s order to begin withdrawing the 33,000 additional American “surge” troops, beginning this summer, could be carried out without putting the mission at risk.
The officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “I am very confident that we can meet both the needs on the ground as well as the deadlines and the goals that have been laid out by the president.”
The details of the withdrawal have not been finalized, but it is certain that some entire units returning home will not be replaced, and some headquarters’ staffs whose tasks can be performed by others will be eliminated. In addition, individual assignments within larger units are likely to be abolished to meet the president’s withdrawal numbers, officials said.
Under the president’s order, 10,000 of the “surge” troops are to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, and 23,000 more by the end of next September, leaving an American deployment of about 68,000.
Noting that Afghan security forces were scheduled to increase in size over the timeline of those withdrawals, Admiral Mullen said, “I am confident that we will have the forces there to reassure the Afghan people.”
He disclosed that top commanders in Afghanistan were likely to submit their specific proposals for the withdrawal sometime in October.
Despite a wave of high-profile suicide attacks against key officials in southern Afghanistan, Admiral Mullen, who toured southern and eastern regions of the country, offered assurances that allied and local security forces would continue to push insurgents into retreat.
“We are not surprised by the spectacular attacks,” Admiral Mullen said.
He made the case that the Taliban had suffered such significant losses over recent months that it could not mount significant military offensives to retake lost ground across the region, and had resorted instead to individual, terrorist-style attacks.
Even so, the assassinations of two key local leaders with national profiles — one, the half-brother of President Hamid Karzai, and the other, the mayor of Kandahar — have unsettled the region that once served as the Taliban capital just as President Obama announced a timetable for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Admiral Mullen said American commanders had taken extra precautions to protect their forces and were advising senior Afghan officials on security measures as well.
Corruption continues to be a major concern, Admiral Mullen acknowledged, in particular what he described as “criminal patronage networks that are here, and how they are woven into the fabric of how things get governed, the loyalties between people, how decisions get made and how that gets in the way for support of the normal Afghan citizen who is worried about their government not delivering good services.”
After three days of consultations with commanders across southern and eastern Afghanistan, Admiral Mullen said that “all the leaders are reasonably confident on the security side and probably very concerned on the governance side.”
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