KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The recent spike in spectacular violence rocking southern Afghanistan has been expected, but it's not clear yet how the attacks will affect the area's fragile governments, the top U.S. military officer said Friday as he arrived in the embattled region.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters traveling with him that he plans to talk to Afghan leaders during his visit about the surge in dramatic attacks and political assassinations in the south, and said U.S. officials are working hard to advise them how to improve their own security.
Mullen's unannounced trip to the region — with late night talk show host Jon Stewart and others in tow to entertain the troops — comes on the heels of a spate of bombings Thursday in the southern province of Uruzgan that killed at least 19 people, and just days after Kandahar's mayor was assassinated by a suicide bomber. The mayor was the third southern Afghan leader to be killed in the last three weeks.
Mullen's visit — his 15th to Afghanistan — comes at a critical political and military time, as he looks to assess the ability of the Afghan security forces to weather the violence and lay a path for their future. Within months U.S. troops will begin their slow, but deliberate withdrawal from Afghanistan, a process that is coming under more pressure from a Congress determined to slash spending, including on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
There have been expectations, Mullen said, "that there are going to be these kinds of spikes, in particular these spectacular assassinations. There are some who believe this is all they can do, given the challenges that the Taliban have faced over the course of the last couple of seasons."
The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attacks, in a clear bid to regain territory they lost over the past fall and winter as coalition forces pressed into insurgent strongholds in the south. There are persistent fears, however, that the escalating violence will jeopardize coalition gains, erode citizens' confidence in the Afghan government's ability to protect its own people, and undercut U.S. efforts to turn security over to the Afghans.
Over the winter, U.S. commanders offered cautious optimism that they were making headway in the south, a longtime Taliban stronghold. But during the spring thaw, U.S. commanders warned that insurgents — many returning to Afghanistan from across the border in Pakistan after the winter — would pick up the pace of their attacks.
The U.S. is in the process of turning over control of security to the Afghan forces in seven areas across the country, a process that will continue until they are in the lead across the country by the end of 2014.
Under President Barack Obama's plan, 10,000 U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, and another 23,000 by the end of next summer.
Asked about the withdrawal process for this year, Mullen said the details have not yet been worked out. He said he will talk to his top U.S. commander there, Marine Gen. John Allen, about it during the trip. And he said that the U.S. will likely pull out some combination of large and small units, but it will be up to Allen to evaluate his battlefield needs, and make recommendations based on that over the coming months.
Mullen, who is making what may be his final trip to the war front before his planned retirement Oct.1., said the U.S. "has to work harder to protect ourselves" and do everything possible to reassure the Afghans and help them prevent such attacks.
Billing this as his usual visit to the war front during the brutal summer heat, Mullen brought Stewart, magician David Blaine and basketball great Karl Malone with him to entertain and meet with troops.
"More than anything else it just brings a little bit of America halfway around the world, puts a smile on their faces," said Mullen, as he waited at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., for Stewart's private plane to arrive. "It also reminds them we appreciate it, and that a lot of people at home really care about what they're doing."