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WASHINGTON – Reports of counterinsurgency strategy’s demise have been greatly exaggerated – at least, they have according to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

On Thursday, Mullen said President Barack Obama’s drawdown in Afghanistan did not represent a tacit admission that the administration had given up on counterinsurgency operations in favor of the so-called “Biden Way,” as some pundits have suggested.

“I don’t agree with it at all. This is still a counterinsurgency, it’s focused on the people, its strategy hasn’t changed,” he said, in a lunch with reporters of the Pentagon Press Association. “And I just don’t sign up to it at all.”

For years, some critics have questioned counterinsurgency operations, which require sending tens of thousands of U.S. troops to occupy foreign populations and transform their governments, economies and societies.

In 2009, Obama ordered a review of how to renew the Afghanistan War and some in the White House pushed for what became known as the “Biden way,” a vastly smaller, highly-targeted counterterrorism approach aimed at capturing or killing key leaders of terrorist organizations and insurgent cells threatening the U.S., as was favored by Vice President Joe Biden.

Instead, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, war commander at the time, was given an additional 30,000 troops, surging the U.S. presence to nearly 100,000 forces in Afghanistan.

Mullen said the decision withdrawal of that surge did not equate to a withdrawal from counterinsurgency, even if counterterrorism operations increased.

“The CT piece – it’s always been a piece of this (counterinsurgency strategy). I mean, you just can’t pull them apart. And, in a campaign there will be varied emphasis on parts of it over time, but overall the strategy hasn’t changed at all.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in his first press conference en route to Afghanistan on Friday, seemed laser focused on ramping up targeting missions in Afghanistan and beyond, now that the U.S. was “10 to 20 key leaders” away from “strategically defeating” al-Qaida. That’s counterterrorism.

“The more of these key leaders, like Awlaki, Zawahiri and others that we can go after, the more we undermine those that have an operational capability to work with the Haqqanis, to work with the TTP, to work with other militant groups that threaten our forces and that threaten this country.”

But Panetta also said success in Afghanistan is tied to transitioning security to Afghans, through continued training of their military, police and local militias. That’s counterinsurgency.

In other words: both.


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