The U.S. military's top officer told Congress on Thursday that President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw up to 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer is riskier than he originally was prepared to endorse.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that he supports the president's plans, which have been widely interpreted as marking the beginning of the end of the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan.
Mullen said the pullout plans are "more aggressive and incur more risk" than he had considered prudent.
"More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course," Mullen said. "But that does not necessarily make it the best course. Only the president, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take. I believe he has done so."
Obama announced Wednesday evening that the U.S. and its allies had achieved enough in Afghanistan to merit a drawdown of forces beginning this summer. Obama said 10,000 troops would come home by the end of this year, to be followed by as many as 23,000 next summer. That will leave about 68,000 U.S. troops there.
Mullen, who is retiring Oct. 1, was blunt in testifying about the risks and potential rewards of Obama's decision.
"No commander ever wants to sacrifice fighting power in the middle of a war," Mullen said. "And no decision to demand that sacrifice is ever without risk. This is particularly true in a counterinsurgency, where success is achieved not solely by technological prowess or conventional superiority, but by the wit and the wisdom of our people as they pursue terrorists and engage the local populace on a daily basis. In a counterinsurgency, firepower is manpower."
On the other hand, Mullen said, taking the safer course would have entailed other kinds of risks, such as increasing the Afghan government's dependence on the U.S.
"We would have signaled to the enemy and to our regional partners that the Taliban still possessed strength enough to warrant the full measure of our presence," Mullen said. "They do not."
Under critical questioning by committee Republicans, Mullen said that while Obama's decision on a timetable for the troop withdrawal was more aggressive than he had recommended, he believes it can be safely executed.
"It increases the risk but not substantially," Mullen said. Asked what risk he was describing, Mullen said he was referring to the risk of succeeding in the "overall mission." He added, "It's a manageable risk."
Many Democrats had urged Obama to pull out U.S. troops faster, while other lawmakers _ particularly Republicans _ have taken the opposite view.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told Mullen at Thursday's hearing that he fears the Obama plan "will significantly undermine" the goal of transferring full responsibility for security to the Afghan government by the end of 2014.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the committee's top ranking Democrat, endorsed the drawdown as "modest" and said that taking 33,000 U.S. troops out while adding more than 120,000 Afghan security forces limits the risk. He said it would be more risky for the U.S. to stay too long.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.