With security and economic conditions in Afghanistan already in dire straits, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said yesterday that the situation there would probably only worsen next year.
"The trends across the board are not going in the right direction," the chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, told reporters. "I would anticipate next year would be a tougher year."
Mullen said Afghanistan was likely to continue what a nearly completed intelligence assessment called "a downward spiral" unless there were rapid, major improvements. Those improvements include curbing Afghanistan's booming heroin trade, bolstering district and tribal leaders to offset a weak central government in Kabul, breathing life into a flagging economy and stemming the flow of militants who are carrying out increasingly sophisticated attacks from havens in Pakistan.
Mullen struck a pessimistic note when asked whether it was likely such reversals would take place.
"Both the trends and the status specifically of where we are on those other things right now would indicate that the trends are going to continue," he said.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan appealed yesterday for more NATO help to attack heroin dealers whose thriving trade is blamed for bankrolling the widening insurgency against the pro-Western government and international forces.
Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak made the appeal at a meeting with his NATO counterparts against the backdrop of spreading violence that has sparked doubt about whether Western forces can win the war against the Taliban.
"We've asked NATO to please support us, support our effort in destroying the labs and also the interdiction of the drugs and the chemical precursors that are coming from outside the country for making heroin," Wardak told reporters after the meeting.
Wardak's appeal follows lobbying by the United States to persuade allies to hit back against the insurgency by striking against the drug lords who are estimated to provide up to $100 million a year to the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies.
"If we have the opportunity to go after drug lords and drug laboratories and try and interrupt this flow of cash to the Taliban, that seems to me like a legitimate security endeavor," said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Most allies agree, but Gates complained that some allies were balking at the plan for NATO to take on a task currently the responsibility of Afghanistan's fledgling police force.
NATO's top diplomat said he was optimistic the 26 allies will agree when the meeting resumes today.
"I hope that tomorrow morning ministers will be able to come to some form of a conclusion," said Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
Mullen's sobering forecast comes as a draft report by American intelligence agencies has cast serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise in the Taliban's influence there, and as the Bush administration has initiated a major review of its Afghanistan policy.
Part of the review will address increased troop levels. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top American commander in Afghanistan, has said he needs as many as 15,000 combat and support troops beyond the 8,000 additional troops that President Bush had recently approved for deployment early next year.
But Mullen underscored a point he has made repeatedly in the past: The military can be only one part of the solution in Afghanistan.
"We've got to impact pretty significantly, pretty fast on the poppy issue," he said, citing a scourge that by some estimates accounts for 50 percent of Afghanistan's economy and pours $100 million a year into the Taliban's coffers. The drug business has developed from poppy-growing to include more lucrative heroin refining and smuggling.