Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told Congress Tuesday that more troops will be necessary in Afghanistan, for the first time offering insight into where he and other top uniformed leaders stand on an issue that is dividing President Obama's party.
The administration is currently awaiting the recommendations of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan. If, as expected, he requests more troops – perhaps as many as 45,000 – and Democrats oppose the request, they would be seen as flouting independent military advice.
Conversely, Mullen's comments help most Republicans who generally support a "surge" of additional forces.
Mullen has said repeatedly that the Afghanistan mission is under-resourced. But he had always stopped short of saying more troops should be sent. On Tuesday, he made his opinions plain.
"I believe that ... a properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces – and without question, more time and more commitment to the protection of the Afghan people and to the development of good governance," he told a Senate panel.
There are currently about 68,000 US forces in Afghanistan, which includes 17,000 troops approved by Obama this spring. There are also about 38,000 allied forces there.
Past chairmans have not voiced their opinions in such a forum. Under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, top officers were less willing or unable to provide their public views for fear of crossing swords with Mr. Rumsfeld.
Mullen's comments also suggest that the top officers present a unified front when it comes to increasing troops to Afghanistan. That was not the case prior to the surge of troops in Iraq in 2006, when commanders and service chiefs were divided over the issue.
But it remains unclear just how many troops Mullen will agree to, and that could become a contentious issue even within the Pentagon.
Mr. Obama might well agree to more forces in Afghanistan – both for US national interest as well as his own place in history, Mr. Cordesman says.
But members of his own party are questioning the need for more forces. On Friday, Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, presented a plan to increase the Afghan National Security Forces as a way to diminish the burden on US forces. Mullen appeared to disagree with this approach, saying that while building indigenous forces is critical to winning in Afghanistan, it would not bring security fast enough.
Mullen's bold pronouncement does not mean that his boss, Mr. Gates, agrees. Gates has indicated in the past that he is reluctant to make the ever-enlarging American "footprint" on the ground even bigger. But recent public statements suggest that he is increasingly open to the idea. His spokesman, however, said Tuesday that Gates has not yet arrived at a conclusion.
McChrystal has submitted an "assessment" of the situation in Afghanistan – essentially an analysis of how the current strategy unveiled by the president in March is working. But that document has not been made public.
In the coming weeks, McChrystal will submit a separate request for forces.
Many members of Congress as well as outside analysts like Cordesman would like to see McChrystal return to Washington to testify publicly about the war in Afghanistan. They complain that the debate is occurring absent a clear direction from the administration.
"If we are going to make this long war work, then we need that honesty, transparency, and we need that leadership," Cordesman says.
But Mr. Morrell said Gates is "emphatic" that McChrystal stay focused on the mission on the ground in Afghanistan instead.