Mullen Backs Afghan Pullout Plan but Calls It Riskier

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Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

une 23, 2011

Mullen Backs Afghan Pullout Plan but Calls It Riskier

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, acknowledged Thursday that President Obama’s timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan was more aggressive than he and senior commanders had been prepared to accept.

But Admiral Mullen, the nation’s top military officer, told members of the House Armed Services Committee that he was now fully able to “support the president’s decisions.”

And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, asserted that the United States was able to withdraw the troops from “a position of strength” because of the progress that has been made, though officials said she, too, had opposed the accelerated timetable.

“The president’s decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept,” Admiral Mullen said.

“More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course,” he added. “But that does not necessarily make it the best course. Only the president, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take. I believe he has done so.”

Admiral Mullen said the goal of the internal policy debate “was preserving the success our troops and their civilian counterparts have achieved thus far,” and he agreed with the president’s assessment that “the strategy is working.”

“Al Qaeda is on their heels, and the Taliban’s momentum in the south has been checked,” Admiral Mullen said. “We have made extraordinary progress against the mission we have been assigned, and are, therefore, now in a position to begin a responsible transition out of Afghanistan.”

In sharing what he said was a candid assessment, Admiral Mullen noted: “No commander ever wants to sacrifice fighting power in the middle of a war. And no decision to demand that sacrifice is ever without risk.”

But he said that “we would have run other kinds of risks by keeping more forces in Afghanistan longer,” and he listed them: “We would have also continued to limit our own freedom of action there and in other places around the world. Globally, the president’s decisions allow us to reset our forces more quickly, as well as to reduce the not inconsiderable cost of deploying those forces.”

Admiral Mullen was joined in morning testimony by Michele A. Flournoy, the Pentagon’s top policy officer, who stressed that even when all surge forces were withdrawn by the end of next summer, “we will still have about 68,000 U.S. service members in Afghanistan. That’s more than twice the number as when President Obama took office.”

The withdrawal timetable, she said, “is not a ‘rush to the exits’ that will jeopardize our security gains.”

And while some analysts have said the president’s order emphasizes targeted attacks on terrorist leaders over a broader — and costlier — counterinsurgency campaign, Ms. Flournoy said the president’s decision “in no way marks a change in American policy or strategy in Afghanistan.”

The Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Representative Howard P. McKeon of California, said he remained unconvinced that the drawdown timetable was a military decision and not a political one. He expressed concerns that the withdrawal would not allow American, allied and Afghan forces to “cement recent gains” and warned that reducing the troop presence would “give a breather” to the insurgency.

At the Senate hearing, Mrs. Clinton cited a large increase in school enrollment — from 900,000 boys under the Taliban to more than 7 million students today, 40 percent of them girls — and a 22 percent decrease in infant mortality.

“Despite the many challenges that remain, life is better for most Afghans,” she said. “And the Karzai government has many failings, to be sure, but more people in every research analysis we are privy to say they see progress in their streets, their schools, their fields.”

Mrs. Clinton added that the administration’s focus was now shifting to a longer-term development and political reconciliation, including “very preliminary outreach to members of the Taliban.”

“This is not a pleasant business, but a necessary one,” she said, “because history tells us that a combination of military pressure, economic opportunity and an inclusive political and diplomatic process is the best way to end insurgencies.”

Mr. Obama’s strategy won support from abroad, too, though it appeared to hasten decisions by at least some allies to pull out their troops as well. Only hours after Mr. Obama spoke, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said on Thursday that he would begin drawing down some of the 4,000 French soldiers.

Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said his country’s goal was “to be able to reduce the number of German troops for the first time at the end of the year.” Germany has nearly 5,000 troops in Afghanistan.

“I also welcome President Obama’s emphasis on the necessity of the political process in Afghanistan,” Mr. Westerwelle said in a statement. “On this point the German government agrees with our American partners: the stabilization of Afghanistan cannot be achieved without a successful political process and conciliation within the country.”

Copyright.2011. The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved

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