The military may not finish its surge of 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan until nearly a year from now, a senior U.S. commander said Monday — a slower pace than President Barack Obama has described. The White House insisted it was sticking with a goal of completing the buildup by late summer.
The reinforcements begin arriving next week, and the bulk of the troops are scheduled to be in Afghanistan by the end of summer. But it will probably be nine to 11 months before all the troops are in place, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez said.
The timing is important. The sooner the full complement of 30,000 can get there, the sooner the added firepower might have an effect on turning around the war and creating conditions that will allow the Pentagon to proceed with Obama's promise to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011.
"We're still working the speed at which they can come in, and so we'll see how much faster that they can come in," said Rodriguez, the second-highest U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Military officials had already been hinting in recent weeks that the escalation might take longer, but Rodriguez' comments indicated that the notion of a six-month rapid escalation was not realistic and that reality is now setting in.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama still "believes we should get our troops in there by the end of the summer."
Several defense officials provided a similar timeline Monday, saying Defense Secretary Robert Gates has indicated that the all of the troops should be in place by summer's end.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Gates has made it clear that the majority of U.S. forces were slated for arrival by midsummer and the rest by the end of summer. "That is going to be a real challenge logistically, but we are determined to meet it," he said.
Tougher than Iraq
The sticking point appears to be over how quickly the military can deploy a final brigade of troops — containing between 4,000 and 5,000 soldiers, officials said.
Rodriguez said the calendar for adding forces is tied to the logistical challenges the military faces in bringing in so many forces so quickly. It is a complex effort to arrange for the barracks, equipment and tons of other supplies that enable incoming soldiers and Marines to perform their mission. Some will move to Afghanistan from the U.S; some materiel will be shifted from Iraq or Kuwait, which serves as a staging area for the Iraq war.
Afghanistan is logistically tougher than Iraq, in terms of a troop buildup, because it is landlocked and lacks the more extensive network of highways that proved valuable in the 2007 Iraq buildup.
Rodriguez said the rapid influx is a central part of the plan to take total U.S. forces to 100,000 next year, and there is a a heavy focus on finding ways to speed the deployment.
"It's a lot of things that have to line up perfectly ... to get where we want to go as fast as we want," Rodriguez said. "So it'll be plus or minus a month or two."
Obama has not cited a detailed timeline. In his Dec. 1 nationally televised speech, he said the fresh troops would "deploy in the first part of 2010 — the fastest pace possible — so that they can target the insurgency."
In Washington, Marine Corps Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said the plan has always been to put the bulk of the 30,000 forces in place by the end of summer — with a "few thousand" not deployed until in fall.
"Nothing has changed other than to figure out how to do it," Lapan said.
Concern about militants' collusion
Meanwhile, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, expressed concern Monday about the "growing level of collusion" between Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and al-Qaida and other militant groups taking refuge across the border in Pakistan.
Visiting Kabul to discuss the upcoming build up and training of Afghanistan's security force, Mullen told reporters he would discuss the issue with Pakistani authorities during talks in Islamabad later this week.
Painting a grim picture, Mullen said Afghan insurgents were dominant in a third of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and "the insurgency has grown more violent, more pervasive and more sophisticated."
"I remain deeply concerned by the growing level of collusion between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida and other extremist groups taking refuge across the border in Pakistan," Mullen said. "Getting at this network, which is more entrenched, will be a more difficult task than it was just one year ago."
Mullen's reference to militants based in Pakistan appeared aimed at U.S. efforts to press the Pakistani government to step up its crackdown on extremists who have long used their country as a refuge. The U.S. believes most of al-Qaida's top leadership has moved from Afghanistan to the lawless border area just inside Pakistan.
Mullen said, however, he was convinced that Pakistan was addressing the threat.
"I have seen Pakistan increase its commitment fairly dramatically over the past 12 to 18 months," he said, adding: "I am completely convinced that the government of Pakistan and the Pakistani military are very focused on this. They are going after this threat, as they have very clearly over the last year."
New missile strikes
Last week, U.S. officials in Washington said the Obama administration was considering widening missile strikes on al-Qaida and other militants inside Pakistan and planning to bolster the training of Pakistan's forces in the key border areas. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was sensitive.
Separately, Mullen was asked how important it was to kill or arrest Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, the top two leaders of the al-Qaida terrorist network.
"The most important goal in this strategy is the elimination of the safe havens for al-Qaida and its extremist allies and to ensure that Afghanistan does not provide a safe haven in the future," he said. "Part of that certainly is to capture, kill bin Laden, Zawahri and their other compatriots. We think in the long run, that will certainly be part of what needs to happen in terms of defeating al-Qaida."
Mullen's visit comes as the first of 30,000 U.S. reinforcements prepared to deploy to the 8-year-old war.
Underscoring the security crisis, Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior announced that 16 Afghan National Police were killed Monday in two separate attacks — one in northern Baghlan province and the other in the southern city of Lashkar Gah.
At a news conference in Kabul earlier in the day, Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman of the Ministry of Defense, said the troop buildup, a decrease in poppy cultivation in southern Afghanistan, and increased pressure on the hotbeds of the insurgency would yield improved security by the summer of 2010.
The 10,000-member Afghan army is expected to swell to 150,000 by March 2011. America's top military officer expressed concern Monday about the "growing level of collusion" between Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and al-Qaida and other militant groups taking refuge across the border in Pakistan.