The top U.S. uniformed military officer Wednesday offered a bleak assessment of the war in Afghanistan, saying that years of neglect before the Obama administration had starved the U.S.-led effort of funds and diplomatic heft - a condition he called "a culture of poverty."
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times that nearly eight years after the war began, the U.S. military is still digging its way "out of a hole" and has not reached "year zero" in the campaign to turn back Taliban advances and gain the trust of the Afghan people.
"What I do see and have seen over the last two or three trips is something that I call a 'culture of poverty' and it isn't just that we've under-resourced it - we've under-resourced it for a significant period of time," Adm. Mullen said.
He said a strategy devised since President Obama took office is intended to reverse these negative trends and hinted that another assessment to be completed late this month or in September might assign more military and civilian personnel to the war and to Afghan development.
"We now have a strategy which is a civilian-military campaign plan, a civilian-military strategy," he said.
The administration has sent an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan for a total of 68,000. Casualties are at an all-time high since the U.S. toppled the Taliban in 2001, with 45 Americans killed in Afghanistan last month alone.
Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has called the situation in Afghanistan "a dysfunctional, wasteful mess."
A report titled "The Taliban's Winning Strategy in Afghanistan," by Gilles Dorronsoro, a South Asia analyst and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said "Defeating the Taliban would require at least 100,000 new reinforcements as long as the Afghan-Pakistani border remained open to insurgents. Neither the United States nor NATO is willing or able to pay the human and fiscal costs of reinforcements at this level."
The Taliban "have efficient leadership, are learning from their mistakes, and are quick to exploit the weaknesses of their adversaries," Mr. Dorronsoro wrote. He added that the militant group was building strength in the north of Afghanistan as U.S. forces surge in the south and east.
Adm. Mullen did not disagree with this assessment, saying the Taliban has become more effective and sophisticated in recent years. He said that the U.S. has 12 to 18 months "to start turning this thing around."
He added that he and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have put together a new team, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
"I have taken my best people and given them to McChrystal," Adm. Mullen said. "He literally has an open book or a blank check to get the best people we have there on the military side because this is a top priority. We're at war. We're losing young people and I want the absolute best people we've got."
Gen. McChrystal is due to release a new assessment Wednesday that is expected to ask for more U.S. and allied forces and to set new goals for the Afghan army and police forces. However, Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell said Mr. Gates has extended the deadline until late August or early September, the Associated Press reported. "He wants [Gen. McChrystal] to take into consideration a few other ideas; he had to address some additional issues in this review of the situation on the ground," Mr. Morrell said.
Queried about the sudden appearance of two Russian nuclear submarines off the U.S. East Coast, Adm. Mullen said he did not consider the patrols a sign of resurgence of the Cold War.
"I'm not alarmed by it. I'm very mindful of it and keeping an eye on it," he said.
Asked why Russia would make such a move, Adm. Mullen replied: "Some of this is to show that [Russia] can" after years of watching their military infrastructure fray.
The Joint Chiefs chairman said that Russian navy officials had advised him in advance last year when they sent a warship through the Panama Canal to Venezuela.
U.S. officials said they were not told in advance of the submarine patrols.
Adm. Mullen, who has visited Afghanistan 10 times, said it was crucial to gain the trust of the Afghan people, who have endured 30 years of conflict since the Soviet invasion.
Many Afghan citizens and officials have expressed concern that the U.S. will abandon the country again as it did in 1989 after the defeat of the Soviet occupation.
"That trust was badly broken when we left [Afghanistan] before and it was badly broken in Pakistan ... when we sanctioned them [over their nuclear program]," he said. "It's going to take a lot of time to develop."
"I liken it to somebody who has been starving for a significant period of time and all the sudden you put all the food they need in the world there - they're just not going to come back overnight," he said. "So there's a culture of poverty there which is very much a part of where we are in terms of resources and this isn't just on the military side - this is on the civilian side."
"I'm digging myself out of a hole in Pakistan and in Afghanistan," Adm. Mullen said. "So there's an argument to be made that I haven't gotten to year zero yet with respect to that long-term relationship, and then that gets reflected in how the people look at this. Which I understand completely."