The top US military officer cautioned on Monday against comparing the US Department of Defense’s renewed focus on Afghanistan to the Vietnam War, citing terror and a nonoccupation strategy as “dramatic differences” between the two conflicts.
“Afghanistan is much more complex,” said Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“I certainly recognize — and having been in Vietnam myself — that there are those who make comparisons. I would be pretty careful about that though, for lots of reasons,” he said.
The Pentagon is preparing to deploy an additional 15,000 Army and Marine troops to Afghanistan this spring and summer in the campaign by the administration of US President Barack Obama to shut down the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Ultimately, an estimated 60,000 US troops could be in Afghanistan over the next year as Obama starts ordering soldiers from Iraq. About 32,000 US troops already are in Afghanistan.
Speaking to a Washington meeting of the Reserve Officers Association, Mullen stopped short of predicting how long US troops would stay in Afghanistan.
He said the main difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam was that “we are not an occupying force.”
“We have no intention of that,” Mullen said. “There isn’t any of the 42-plus countries who are there that have that intention ... That said, we cannot send a message to the Afghan people that we are.”
Chief among the concerns, Mullen said, was making sure Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for al-Qaeda leaders who moved to lawless Pakistan tribal regions after the Sept. 11, 2001, hunt for Osama bin Laden.
“We cannot accept that al-Qaeda leadership, which continues to plan against us every single day — and I mean us, here in America — to have that safe haven in Pakistan nor could resume one in Afghanistan,” Mullen said.
Efforts to eliminate government corruption and develop the poor nation also marks a contrast between the US mission in Afghanistan from Vietnam, he said.
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met Obama on Monday, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs would not say whether the two discussed troop levels in Afghanistan.