By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff
The nation's top military officer, in a deeply pessimistic assessment of the war in Afghanistan, said today that due to years of neglect the United States is basically "starting over" in its battle against the radical Taliban movement and its Al Qaeda allies.
Acknowledging that public support for the war is waning, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the US operation needs "12 to 18 months to turn this thing around."
"It is doable, but it is going to take some time," he said, urging Americans to be patient.
With the intense focus until recently on fighting the war in Iraq -- where the United States plans to keep nearly twice as many troops as in Afghanistan until at least early next year -- he said that the Taliban is far more potent than it was during the US invasion in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Its alliance with Osama bin Laden and other leaders of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, who he said are hiding in neighboring Pakistan's lawless border region, is also stronger than ever, he said.
"This is the eighth year, but there is a newness here," Mullen told Globe reporters and editors today. "There is a starting again, or starting over. Iraq has been the focus, it hasn't been Afghanistan."
Mullen's wide-ranging interview came on a particularly bloody day in Afghanistan. Five car bombs simultaneously hit Kandahar, the country's largest southern city, killing at least 41 people. And four more US troops were killed by another bomb in southern Afghanistan, bringing the August total to 41 and making this year the deadliest yet of the war for American forces.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found that 51 percent of Americans now say that the war is not worth fighting and that only 24 percent support sending more troops. President Obama, in a speech last week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, conceded that the fighting has become more fierce, but called Afghanistan "a war of necessity."
Military commanders on the ground told Richard Holbrooke, the president's special envoy, over the weekend that the force was not big enough to defeat the Taliban, particularly in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The United States currently has about 68,000 troops dedicated to the war in Afghanistan, including 21,000 additional forces ordered by Obama earlier this year who are still flowing into the country.
Mullen, however, said he is awaiting a new assessment by the top commander in Afghanistan, Army General Stanley McChrystal, before making any recommendations on whether more US troops are needed to take on an increasingly emboldened Taliban.
But Mullen indicated that he believes that, at a minimum, more specialists will be needed to train the Afghan security forces. "We all believe there is going to be a need to accelerate the training of the Afghanistan security forces, army and police, and that is going to take additional trainers," he said.
Mullen, who became the nation's top military officer in October 2007, visited patients at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Jamaica Plain earlier today and plans to speak Wednesday at a Harvard Medical School conference about traumatic brain injuries, which have become much more common among combat troops.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.