The top U.S. military officer on Thursday visited the front lines of the war in Afghanistan, where he advised troops to "focus on the people of this country."
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made his first stop at a small base where U.S. forces have taken heavy losses since arriving in August. The Army's 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry has suffered 21 killed and 40 wounded — out of a group of roughly 800 — in the short time it has been deployed.
But troops have also made inroads against Taliban supply lines in the critical Kandahar province.
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Mullen told the troops that the way to win is to focus on protecting major population areas and ensuring that Afghans can move freely in their own country.
"We can tactically win, but if we're killing local civilians were going to strategically lose," he warned. "I hope more than anything you will be able to focus on the people of this country. That's what this is all about."
Mullen said the southern region of Afghanistan, a traditional Taliban stronghold, "is absolutely vital to our national interests because of the risk that still exists here."
The brigade commander, Col. Jonathan Neumann, said his soldiers have begun to get better tips from the locals and are learning how to find and avoid deadly roadside bombs.
In the brigade's first 100 days on the ground, Neumann said, it counted more than 300 "enemy engagements," including improvised explosive devices and direct and indirect weapons fire. But the brigade has not hit a roadside bomb in about a month, he said.
Morale in his unit remains high, Neumann said: "There hasn't been a necessity to call a time-out."
Mullen later flew by helicopter to Camp Nathan Smith, a small base in Kandahar city. He talked with five local tribal leaders, who told him that corruption at all levels is crippling the country.
The August elections proved that people were losing confidence, one leader told Mullen. He said 2,000 people in his district participated in national elections five years ago, but only 50 turned out in August.
"We have to start delivering results now," Mullen acknowledged. He also assured the leaders that U.S. forces do not plan to stay any longer than needed and want to turn over responsibility for security to local Afghan forces as soon as possible.
The tribal leaders also made a pitch for a hydroelectric dam to go along with one the U.S. built here in the 1950s. Mullen made no promises, but said he'd see what he could do.
Mullen was making one more hop Thursday, to a very small outpost called Patrol Base Jaker, before returning to the Kandahar air base.
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