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Mullen: Afghanistan debate is over, it's time to move out

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, said Thursday that the Pentagon is ready to start the surge. The first troops will arrive in Afghanistan next week.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 2, 2009.

Gerald Herbert/AP

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Washington

The nation's top military officer said the debate on Afghanistan is now over and the time has come to execute President Obama's mission to "reverse the momentum" of the Taliban insurgency.

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In short, its time to move out, said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Pentagon Thursday.

By next week, a Marine battalion will have landed in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, the first of the 30,000 surge troops announced last month.

Engineers are expanding airfields, contractors are constructing new buildings, and winter supplies are being shipped in. "We're all on the balls of our feet, leaning forward," Mullen said.

Mullen noted the logistics challenges of surging forces and materiel into a landlocked country with nascent infrastructure. But he said he expects to have "the bulk" of the troops to the war zone by summer with the remaining units arriving by fall.

"No one is underestimating the scope of the challenge here," he added.

Gen. Stanely McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, and his civilian counterpart, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, finished a series of back-to-back hearings on Capitol Hill to explain Mr. Obama's new strategy. Congress has been at once skeptical and supportive, essentially resigned to Obama's new strategy even if they are concerned about some aspects of it.

Democrats are not happy about the administration's perceived narrowing of goals on development of Afghan national security forces. Obama has stepped back from a previously stated numerical goal of 400,000 soldiers and policemen to focus on realistic goals and improving the quality of recruits. But Democrats see a robust Afghan Army and police as the only way for the US to pull its combat forces out of Afghanistan in the coming years.

On the other side, Republicans lament Obama's decision to announce when the beginning of the withdrawal of forces will be, in July 2011. They say such a withdrawal date – even if it is the beginning of a gradual process – undermines the overall strategy.

Administration officials, including Mullen, have reiterated that it is only the beginning of a withdrawal and that it could amount to no more than a minimal number of troops. The rest of the withdrawal will be based on conditions on the ground, say officials.

As the military deploys its forces during the next months, Pentagon planners must begin a new chapter in budget-planning for the surge. That bill is estimated to be $30 billion for the next year. Costs for refurbishing or replacing equipment, for instance, will cost billions. But officials are just now getting into the finer points of the next budget, due to be released in early winter.

"There is a level of detail that still has to be worked out, particularly now as we begin to reset the force during an extended period of war."

See also:

Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Congress: 'We can defeat the Taliban'

Mullen to marines: You have two years to turn tide in Afghanistan

Karl Eikenberry, once a skeptic, backs more Afghanistan troops

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