Mullen Predicts “Difficult Year” in Afghanistan

America’s chief military officer talked about Afghanistan and the end of American involvement in the war on Sunday morning.

America’s top military officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat down for an interview with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour on This Week Sunday. The two talked about the future of Afghanistan and the end of American involvement in the war.

Whereas the Obama Administration previously expected to start withdrawing combat forces from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011, the deadline now discussed in Lisbon, Portugal where the NATO allies have gathered is 2014. According to Admiral Mullen, that is an “absolute” date. “It’s one everybody signed up to,” he said. American troops may stay on the ground longer to train Afghan security personnel but “in terms of combat operations, they would have the lead.”

In order to reach that deadline, the United States appear to be escalating the war. Under General David Petraeus’ leadership, American combat operations in Afghanistan have mounted in number and intensity with each passing week. Night raids are up sixfold; airstrikes nearly doubled. For the first time in nine years, the military is also deploying tanks in Afghanistan. “It’s not a significantly large number,” said Admiral Mullen on CNN’s State of the Union, “but it’s really tied to the campaign [in the south] and what we think will be an important part of executing that campaign.”

The heavier military presence comes at a cost however. As the visibility of ISAF operations increases and civilian casualities remain high, the Afghan people are complaining and may start to lose the confidence so crucial to American success. NATO commanders have been giddy but Afghan President Hamid Karzai is publicly entertaining the notion of negotiating with the Taliban.

Mullen didn’t foresee a significant shift in that situation for the next year. “We knew this year would be a particularly difficult year because of all the added troops that we put in,” he explained on This Week. “And it has been. And I would expect next year to be a very difficult year, as well.”

That said, “the security situation has started to change,” according to the admiral. “It has started to get better.” He recognized the Afghans’ concerns nevertheless, particularly with respect to night raids. “There has to be a balance here, very specifically,” he believed but didn’t say what such a balance would entail.

President Karzai recently startled American legislators when he voiced his opposition to night raids which have been instrumental to the American counterinsurgency strategy. He also told This Weekin August that his government was willing to negotiate with those Taliban fighters who renounced Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. General Petraeus similarly stressed the need of reconciliation on Meet the Press that month.

The negotiations path was proposed by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, this summer. Writing in Newsweek, Haass argued that the “war of necessity,” which the United States had to wage against Al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11, is over. Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network has been decimated. The chance to establish a “functional Afghan state” has passed in the meantime, since the Bush Administration refused to commit to nation building for almost eight years. Obama’s approach, to prevent the return of the Taliban altogether, is “hugely expensive” and “highly unlikely to succeed,” according to Haass.

Talking with the Taliban is controversial however and carries the risk of secession between the Pashtun south and southwest of the country, where the Taliban maintain a strong presence, and the rest of Afghanistan, where violence has been relatively constrained. What is more, with sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan and the United States preparing to retreat, the insurgents have every reason to bid for time and plot a return to power once foreign armed forces pull out.

On This Week, Admiral Mullen joined Secretaries Hillary Clinton of State and Robert Gates of Defense in their appeal to the Senate to ratify the new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. “From a national-security perspective,” he said, “this is absolutely critical.” He supported a “lame-duck” session of the chamber to enact New START which would compel senators voted out of office earlier this month to return to Washington DC before the 112th Congress convenes. “The sooner we get it done, the better.”