WASHINGTON - More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek conqueror Alexander tried to pacify what is now called Afghanistan, and his descendents were expelled. More recently, the British tried to impose their rule over the territory, and were glad to get out during World War I. The Soviet Union sent 200,000 troops and reservists into subdue the land in 1979 and left humiliated ten years later.
Now the U .S. is leading a North Atlantic Treaty Organization force of almost 64,000 troops in a nation-building effort there. But today, Admiral Mike Mullen, left, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said efforts to control al-Qaeda and the Taliban there are failing, and could get worse in 2009.
"The trends across the board are not going in the right direction,” Mullen told a breakfast briefing for reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “And I would anticipate next year would be a tougher year.”
Mullen's comments mirrored a new American intelligence assessment that affairs in Afghanistan continue to be "in a downward spiral."
Among the difficulties mentioned by Mullen and the assessment were the rising dependence of Afghan farmers on the crops that produce heroin and opium, the antagonism of tribal leaders, rising costs of food and fuel. Mullen also mentioned "the flight of money" out of the country, presumably to Switzerland.
Both major party presidential candidates are committed to increasing American forces in Afghanistan, coordinated with a drawdown of troops now in Iraq.
Asked why the U.S.-led NATO enterprise would succeed where the British and the Soviets failed, Mullen said "we are not an occupying force." When it was pointed out to him that the resurgence of the Taliban has occurred at the same time that Western forces have expanded their presence in Afghanistan, Mullen said "we need to assure them (tribal leaders) that we are not an occupying force."
Mullen said more American resources are needed to bolster the nation's economy. "We can't kill our way to victory there," he said. Mullen acknowledged that the current financial crisis will make it difficult even for regular defense budget needs to be met.
The U.S. can't allow "safe havens" for terrorists to be maintained in Afghanistan or along the border in Pakistan, but he balked when asked if there were any plans for the U.S. to make air strikes in Pakistan which he said "is a sovereign country" with "a proud military."