The nation's highest-ranking military officer Monday told soldiers, including many bound for Afghanistan, that he expects casualties to rise next year as additional U.S. troops pour into the war.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answered soldiers' questions for about an hour at this sprawling Army post on the Kentucky-Tennessee line. Many at Fort Campbell already had orders for Afghanistan before President Barack Obama unveiled his plan last week to add about 30,000 new troops to about 70,000 already there.
"I am sure we will sustain an increase in the level of casualties and I don't want to be in any way unclear about that," he told about 700 troops. "This is what happened in Iraq during the surge and as tragic as it is, to turn this thing around, it will be a part of this surge as well."
"I expect a tough fight in 2010," Mullen said.
Mullen was due to talk later in the day at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the Marine Corps base that will supply about 1,500 Marines for the first surge units by Christmas.
After the first of the year, the Marines will begin sending another 6,200 from Lejeune and Camp Pendleton in California, the Pentagon announced Monday. The Army will also begin sending in the first of its forces in the spring _ a training brigade with about 3,400 soldiers from Fort Drum, N.Y. About 4,100 support forces from various places will also deploy early.
At Fort Campbell, Capt. Matthew O'Neill, 31, a member of the 101st Aviation Brigades, said he expects his scheduled deployment next year to Afghanistan may be sooner than expected as a result of the new strategy because ground troops rely on aviation units like his to move around the country.
"I just think the support that is needed in Afghanistan is finally getting put in," he said after Mullen's talk.
Many questions from soldiers focused on the role of Pakistan and America's NATO allies in containing al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Mullen said the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is "the epicenter for global terrorism."
He said Pakistan's military has made huge gains in routing out terrorists from that country, but reminded soldiers that Pakistan is a sovereign nation and that the U.S. wants to maintain a long-term stable relationship with Pakistan.
"In the long run, we are anxious to get at al-Qaida and the leadership that resides in that border area," he said. "Strategically the way you do this in my view is to bring pressure from both sides."
Mullen, the president's senior military adviser, said Obama's announcement last week of a scheduled transition to a greater role for Afghan forces starting in July 2011 wasn't a deadline for pulling out troops.
"President Obama has not said we are leaving," he told the troops. "There's no deadline, there's no amount of troops that will come out in July 2011 and there's no withdrawal date."
Three brigades of the 101st Airborne Division were already planning to go on a scheduled rotation to Afghanistan next year, but other brigades were still waiting to hear if they would be part of the troop buildup. Mullen's visit to the post seemed to confirm the rumors to many soldiers who listened to the speech.
Mullen said the quick deployment of troops is needed to reduce recruiting among insurgent and radical groups.
"We are not winning, which means we are losing and as we are losing, the message traffic out there to recruits keeps getting better and better and more keep coming. That's why we need the 30,000 and in particular, and you are the lead on this, getting in there this year, over the next 12 months, almost in lightning bolt fashion."
Lt. Col. Ivan Beckman, 42, said after the speech that he expects his 4th Brigade Combat Team will get orders soon to go to Afghanistan. Beckman said he felt reassured by Mullen's expressed commitment to Afghanistan.
"We don't know for sure, but we're hoping to be a part of the force that goes over," he said.