Getting Realistic About Iraq
Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, is no shrinking violet. Like his boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, he has worked hard over the past several months to demonstrate that he takes an independent, fact-based approach to the problems of the day, whether the issue is Iraq force levels or dissent within the force.
Yesterday, Mullen continued that tradition with comments at a Pentagon press conference spelling out the tradeoffs between keeping troops in Iraq and deploying them to Afghanistan. Here's what he had to say:
Let me also say just a word about Afghanistan. I am and have been for some time now deeply troubled by the increasing violence there. The Taliban and their supporters have, without question, grown more effective and more aggressive in recent weeks and as the casualty figures clearly demonstrate...
I've made no secret of my desire to flow more forces, U.S. forces, to Afghanistan just as soon as I can, nor have I been shy about saying that those forces will not be available unless or until the situation in Iraq permits us to do so.
There's no easy solution, and there will be no quick fix. More troops are necessary, and some of our NATO allies have recently committed to sending more of their own, but they won't fully ever be sufficient. We need and are pursuing a broader interagency international approach, one that includes infrastructure improvement, foreign investment and economic incentives, and I'm hopeful these efforts will begin to pay off in the near future. But we all need to be patient. As we have seen in Iraq, counterinsurgency warfare takes time, and it takes a certain level of commitment. It takes flexibility.
I think my friend Noah Shachtman is right to hear echoes of Sen. Barack Obama's statements in Mullen's words. There are opportunity costs associated with perseverance in Iraq, and Mullen is right to highlight those, as well as the simple fact that our current operations in Iraq are unsustainable.
I also hear echoes of Gen. David Petraeus, and think that his hand is guiding this line of thought. As Petraeus moves from commanding all troops in Iraq to commanding all troops in the CENTCOM area of operations -- including both Iraq and Afghanistan -- I think he's pushing a holistic evaluation of where we should allocate scarce military resources to get the most bang for our buck. For a variety of complex reasons, Iraq has stabilized. But Afghanistan has not, and our position is in grave peril there.
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