Adm. Mike Mullen

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addresses the way forward for the U.S. in Afghanistan. The press briefing was largely an acknowledgement of American progress in the region, though Mullen was cautious to understate the difficulty the U.S. will face as it prepares for its July deadline to begin withdrawing combat forces. (Photo by Peter Larson/Medill News Service)

WASHINGTON — The nation’s top military officer said Wednesday the growth and development of Afghan national security forces is progressing more quickly and the result is a much-weakened Taliban.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told reporters at the National Press Club the good news is Afghan citizens themselves are taking a larger and larger role in the fight.

“The enemy is being pushed out of population centers, he’s being denied sanctuary and he’s losing leaders by the score,” Mullen said. “His scare tactics are being rejected by local citizens. All the while, those very citizens are taking back their own towns and villages, building schools and roads, harvesting alternative crops and in general contributing to a growing sense of safety in parts of the South.”

Mullen delivered an update on strategy about six months before the U.S. is set to start the withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan. But the July deadline is not the end of American work in the region, Mullen said.

At a recent summit in Lisbon, NATO endorsed the goal of fully transitioning security responsibilities to Afghan forces by 2014.

Mullen said he is also encouraged by new announcements from the Afghan Ministry of Defense. The ministry reported this week that the Afghan army grew by more than 3,500 soldiers in December, bringing its total to more than 149,000 troops—an increase of nearly 50,000 over the previous year.

A year ago the U.S. faced a similar situation preparing to begin drawing combat forces out of Iraq. The administration made its August deadline – and seven years after the initial invasion television network crews taped the tanks rolling out of Baghdad.

Leaving Afghanistan will undoubtedly be different, said Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He agreed with Mullen that the time horizon for Afghanistan is realistically 2014, not July.

The issue in Afghanistan, Donnelly said, was the order in which the U.S. tried to advance. He said early American efforts at economic development were premature, considering how unstable Afghanistan still was at the time.

“There’s a sequence to these things,” Donnelly said. “Not that economic and political development aren’t important, but if you introduce them into unstable security situations, it might actually make things worse.”

Several leading U.S. diplomats have popped up in the Middle East in the past few weeks. Much of Mullen’s most recent review of strategy in the region comes from a visit he made to Kandahar Province at the end of December.

Vice President Joe Biden also made an unannounced, one-day visit to Islamabad Wednesday, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Yemen Tuesday, the first visit by a secretary of state to that country since 1990.

Mullen confirmed that after review President Barack Obama’s surge strategy continues to prove effective on the ground, opening up further space for the U.S. to move forward with non-military operations as well.

“All the troops the president ordered in are on the ground,” Mullen said. “More civilians from our State Department and other agencies are spreading out across the country, and our allies continue to send more trainers and more combat forces.”

As July nears, Mullen said the conflict is likely to become even more violent. The U.S. and its coalition partners suffered more than 700 casualties in Afghanistan last year, making 2010 by far the deadliest year since Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001.

“As difficult as it may be to accept, we must prepare ourselves for more violence and more casualties in coming months,” Mullen said. “The violence will be worse in 2011 than it was in 2010 in many parts of Afghanistan.”