FORT DRUM, N.Y. – No more than an estimated 30,000 additional troops will be sent to Afghanistan as the U.S. ramps up forces there, the nation’s top military officer told soldiers Monday.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen also called U.S. efforts in Iraq a success, even though “we’re not done.”
Mullen, speaking to fresh-faced soldiers and war-weary military wives, sought to boost morale and soothe concerns at the Army base that has seen a constant revolving door of troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan over the last eight years.
“I don’t see us growing a force well beyond the 20,000 to 30,000 for Afghanistan – American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines – beyond that 30,000 or so,” Mullen told about 800 soldiers and specialists gathered for a town hall meeting.
He added: “It’s got to be met with a commensurate surge from the other agencies, particularly the State Department, in order for us to start generating success in 2009.”
Mullen’s comments mark the first time he has capped the number of soldiers to be sent to Afghanistan amid some predictions that the U.S. will be there for at least a decade.
An estimated 33,000 U.S. troops currently are in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon is set to announce at least three more brigades – about 16,000 soldiers – to be deployed in coming months. In all, the Pentagon said it expects to send about 60,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
By comparison, about 146,000 U.S. troops have been sent to Iraq.
Mullen also praised the soldiers for helping stabilize Iraq, where the U.S. is grappling with withdrawing all forces by the end of 2011 under an agreement signed late last year with the Iraqi government.
“You have turned it around in Iraq, and a year or two ago we were not in a situation that looked like we could succeed. And now we are,” Mullen said.
Even so, “we’re not done in Iraq,” he said, noting al-Qaida’s diminished but continuing threat there.
The White House is considering at least three options to withdraw troops from Iraq – either within 16 months, 23 months or a 19-month compromise. Even so, U.S. officials want to leave behind some noncombat brigades to help train and advise Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi government would have to agree in advance to let those troops stay behind.
Mullen said he sympathized with the strain the dual wars is putting on soldiers and their families, citing one Fort Drum woman who told him her husband has so far been sent on yearlong deployments to war zones five times since 2002.
Soldiers in the town hall meeting said they worried the Obama administration would cut military funding. Several also questioned why civilian contractors were in some cases being paid more to do the very jobs that soldiers are trained to do.
“The government spends so much money on training us in our jobs, and we get to our units and we see other people doing our jobs and getting paid,” said Pfc. Lawrence Williams, 24, of Sacramento, Calif. His unit is heading to Iraq in May. “So it’s like the government is actually paying twice, as opposed to just paying once and then getting us equipment. There’s a million of other things they could do with that money.”
Mullen said he would look into it.