WASHINGTON — The situation in Afghanistan is "serious and deteriorating," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said Sunday, as the Obama administration awaits an assessment by the new U.S. commander there and a possible request for more troops.
Mullen also expressed concern over recent opinion polls indicating that for the first time a majority of Americans do not think the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting.
President Barack Obama has described the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the central front against international terrorism and has pledged to give it all necessary resources.
With violence again on the rise in Iraq, Obama faces pressure from the public and within the Democratic Party to provide a fuller explanation of his Afghanistan strategy. Support for more troops has been strongest within Republican ranks.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who just returned from Afghanistan, said the commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is under "great pressures" from "people around" Obama to reduce his estimate of troop needs.
Mullen and retired Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, acknowledged widespread allegations of fraud in last week's Afghan elections. But they described the election as an important step toward what Eikenberry called a "renewal of trust" by the Afghan people in their government.
Eikenberry and Mullen spoke on CNN's State of the Union and NBC's Meet the Press. McCain appeared on ABC's This Week.
With Afghan President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah both claiming victory, "we're not really going to know for several more weeks exactly where do we stand in this process," Eikenberry said. Official results are not due until Sept. 17; a mid October runoff will be required if no candidate won more than half the vote.
In Iraq, where bombings last week killed at least 100 people, "the key is whether this is an indicator of future sectarian violence," Mullen said. "And certainly, many of us believe that one way that this can come unwound is through sectarian violence."
Future deployments to Afghanistan, where the U.S. troop presence is expected to reach 68,000 by the end of the year — including 21,000 that Obama authorized this year — depend in part on the rate of withdrawal from Iraq. Remaining troops in Iraq total 130,000 and a sharp decrease, to 50,000 or fewer, is due after Iraqi elections in January. Under an agreement with the Iraqi government, U.S. troops are to have departed by the end of 2011.
Since the bombings, senior military officials said, the Iraqi government has requested stepped-up U.S. intelligence, including increased overhead imaging. Many of those resources have been transferred to Afghanistan under orders of Gen. David Petraeus, who is in charge of both war theaters as head of the U.S. Central Command.
Overhead surveillance platforms, including aerial drones, are split between the two theaters, with 70 percent located in Afghanistan and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, said one official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss intelligence on the record.
While American attention has focused primarily on the fight in southern Afghanistan, many senior U.S. military officials have considered that they need to step up the fight against Jalaluddin Haqqani and other insurgent leaders in mountainous eastern Afghanistan. They believe that a greater U.S. push there, combined with pressure from Pakistani troops on the other side of the border, could grind down the insurgent groups.
Military officials believe Haqqani has suffered setbacks because of Pakistani army pressure and is vulnerable.
"In the east, we have an opportunity," said an adviser to the U.S. command. "The Pakistanis have done damage to the Haqqani network."
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of forces in the east, told reporters traveling with U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke on Sunday that Haqqani "is the central threat" in the east and that "he's expanded that reach."
NATO Commanders said Haqqani, who formerly centered his attacks on Afghanistan's Khowst province, had been advancing farther afield.
U.S. forces are suffering their highest death toll of the eight-year campaign, with 166 killed this year, says the independent Web site icasualties.org.
Information from the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post was used in this report.