”It is absolutely critical that the safe havens in Pakistan get shut down. We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without that,” he said.
However, in an unusually upbeat assessment on the war, Mullen declared that the enemy in Afghanistan was losing.
The remark comes as the US faces a critical six-month period in Afghanistan.
US President Barack Obama last year ordered a build-up of troops with the promise that they would start leaving the country in July. Many of Obama’s Democratic supporters in Congress say they want to see significant progress by then.
But senior military officials, including Mullen, say they still aren’t sure how many troops can leave this summer and from what areas they would be pulled. They caution that significant drawdowns might not happen until closer to 2014, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai has promised to take over security of the country.
Mullen predicted on Wednesday that there would be ”plenty of forces left” come July and he expects violence to rise as US and Afghan forces continue to confront Taliban strongholds.
But, he added, local towns are beginning to reject Taliban fighters and that surprising progress is being seen in tough areas like southern Kandahar province.
”I have every confidence that (the enemy) will continue to lose, so long as coalition and Afghan forces increase their presence and their pressure on his operations and improve their own capacity,” he told reporters at the Foreign Press Center.
Last month, the Obama administration completed a strategy review that concluded Taliban momentum had been halted in many parts of Afghanistan and that al Qaeda leaders thought to be plotting further terrorist attacks on the US from Pakistan sanctuaries have suffered grievous losses.
But the review also made clear that further progress won’t come easily. And it indicates that ultimate success depends heavily on factors beyond Obama’s control, such as Pakistan’s effectiveness in eliminating al Qaeda and Taliban havens on its side of the border.
When asked whether he was painting too rosy a picture of the war, Mullen said that was not his intention.
”I’m encouraged, but I do not want to understate in any way, shape or form the difficulty of the task,” he said. ”It clearly continues to be severe.”
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