WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged Tuesday that the U.S. military's primary focus remained the war in Iraq, not Afghanistan, prompting criticism from Democratic lawmakers who want the Pentagon to devote more attention and resources to the Afghan conflict.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the war in Afghanistan was an "economy of force" operation, a military label for a mission of secondary importance.
"Our main focus, militarily, in the region and in the world right now is rightly and firmly in Iraq," Mullen said before the House Armed Services Committee. "It is simply a matter of resources, of capacity. In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must."
Mullen appeared with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates before the House panel as U.S. officials sought to increase pressure on North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies to boost the number of troops and equipment the alliance is providing for the Afghan mission.
But Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a retired Navy vice admiral, challenged Mullen. Sestak argued that in years to come the U.S. might regret not sending more of its own troops, particularly military trainers, to Afghanistan.
"I would think the better approach might be what Winston Churchill said: Sometimes it is not enough to do our best. Sometimes we have to do what is required," Sestak said. "How can we point at NATO when we haven't done what is required?"
Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called for the Pentagon to shift resources from Iraq and to make Afghanistan the focus of the war on terrorism.
The U.S. launched its invasion of Afghanistan a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to drive from power the Taliban regime, which had provided sanctuary to Al Qaeda. But many critics say the Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq before the job was finished.
"Afghanistan has been the forgotten war. Opportunities have been squandered, and now we're clearly seeing the effects," Skelton said. "We must re-prioritize and shift needed resources from Iraq to Afghanistan."
Mullen disputed the idea that Afghanistan was forgotten, and Gates said that achieving success in Afghanistan and Iraq was crucial. But the Defense secretary made clear that he was trying to increase pressure on NATO to do more.
"I am not ready to let NATO off the hook in Afghanistan at this point," Gates said.
Although security in Iraq has been improving in recent months, violence in Afghanistan is on the rise. There have been growing numbers of suicide attacks and roadside bombs.
Gates acknowledged the increasing number of attacks, but said the violence was a result of stepped-up NATO operations. He insisted that the Taliban had made no real military gains, and that only when security increased would governance improve and reconstruction projects expand.
"The Taliban and their former guests, Al Qaeda, do not have the ability to reimpose their rule," Gates said.
The Defense Department is trying to persuade NATO allies to send an additional 3,500 trainers and a similar number of combat troops, along with 20 more helicopters.
Gates said he was pressing for a civilian official to be appointed to coordinate reconstruction assistance in Afghanistan.
Although he did not mention any names, a military official said last week that Paddy Ashdown, a British diplomat who served as the administrator of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was the leading candidate for the post.
This week, Gates will travel to Scotland for a meeting with the NATO nations serving in the southern region of Afghanistan, where some of the most fierce fighting has taken place.
Gates is pushing the alliance to develop a three- to five-year plan that will set out measures to judge progress in Afghanistan. He argued that such a plan could help build public support in Europe for the Afghan mission.
"I think part of the problem that the European governments are having in selling their publics on the importance of their commitment in Afghanistan is a lack of understanding in Europe, particularly, of what we're trying to accomplish and why it's important," Gates said.