Mullen Fears War Stresses are Growing

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WASHINGTON - Stress on U.S. troops from repeated combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan is "extraordinary" and may be worsening even as fighting eases in Iraq, the military's top officer says.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Adm. Mike Mullen expressed hope that the strain will be relieved gradually as the Marine Corps and Army expand the pool of available forces.

The Marines, for example, created an additional battalion this fall and plan to add another by February, Mullen said. That will allow them to "feed the fight as well as relieve the stress," he said.

The Army, while also growing, will take longer to put additional combat units into the pipeline for fighting wars, he said.

When he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a little over a year ago, Mullen made much of his concern that stress on the force - and on troops' families - could undermine military readiness.

Since then, improved security in Iraq has opened the door to a withdrawal, or at least a slowdown in troop rotations there. But at the same time conditions in Afghanistan have worsened and commanders there are calling for substantially more troops. Thus, slack in Iraq is being taken up by the push into Afghanistan.

In the interview in his Pentagon office, Mullen made clear that he remains concerned about stress, but stopped short of calling it a crisis.

"We see extraordinary stress and pressure there," he said, quickly adding, "We're not about to break" the force.

He was asked whether he has seen any easing of stress in recent months.

"I still think it's probably about where it was - it may be a little worse," he said. "What is hugely different in the force though, is the resilience and the skip in the step" of troops who feel they have seen success in Iraq.

Also working in favor of the force was the Bush administration's decision last summer to reduce maximum combat tours from 15 months to 12 months. Mullen said he does not see that being reduced below 12 months, in part because he believes most commanders think their troops are most effective when they have a full year to execute their mission.

Many Army units get only one year at home between Iraq or Afghanistan deployments of 12 months or longer. Mullen wrote in a directive to his staff this week that the military must move "deliberately and prudently" giving units two years off for every year they spend on the war front.

Mullen is not the only one worried about the strains. Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star Army general who recently visited Iraq, said in a Nov. 10 trip report that there simply are not enough U.S. troops to maintain a robust presence in Iraq while also building up forces in Afghanistan.

"The likely strategic outcome will be a more rapid forced drawdown than desirable in Iraq in order to enhance combat power for Afghanistan," he wrote. "It will be a tricky balance, but in my judgment we will pull this off successfully" and Iraq will stabilize, he added.

Pentagon officials, including Mullen, have consistently rejected timelines for pulling troops out of Iraq, saying any withdrawal must be based on security conditions in Iraq. At the same time, military leaders have said they need 15,000 to 20,000 more troops in Afghanistan - including four more combat brigades.

There are now 151,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 32,000 in Afghanistan. One Army brigade of about 3,500 troops originally scheduled to deploy to Iraq this fall has been diverted to duty in Afghanistan in January, and Mullen said he supports efforts to send even more to Afghanistan in 2009.

Mullen, who is halfway through a two-year term, said he has no reason to believe he will not remain after President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January. "We all serve at the pleasure of the president. I'll serve as long as he wants me to," he said.

While stressing that he is carrying out the orders of the current president until Jan. 20, Mullen said the military is prepared to execute an accelerated withdrawal from Iraq if ordered by Obama.

"I've been listening to the campaign, and I understand," Mullen said. "And he has certainly reinforced that since the election, so from a planning standpoint, we are looking at that as wel