For months, American commanders have considered sending as many as 20,000 additional troops to quell a Taliban uprising in Afghanistan. Mullen's latest estimate – the highest to date by any senior official in the Bush administration – puts the Afghan surge on par with the American troop surge in Iraq.
The upper end of Mullen's estimate would increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 31,000 to more than 50,000, augmented by a sizeable contingent of NATO forces. The approach is in line with President-elect Barack Obama's promise to stand up more troops in Afghanistan, as he's standing them down in Iraq.
"Afghanistan is where the war on terror began, and it is where it must end," Obama said as he introduced his national security team on Dec. 1. "And going forward, we will continue to make the investments necessary to strengthen our military and increase our ground forces to defeat the threats of the 21st Century."
Mullen said the extra troops are just buying time for Afghanistan to improve development and stabilize its government.
"It isn't going to make any difference after those troops get here if we add more troops, if we haven't made progress on the development side and on the governance side," Mullen said.
Yet Mullen also indicated the Afghan surge isn't likely to go any easier – especially in the nation's volatile East and South – than did the surge in Iraq.
"When we get additional troops here, as we will, I think the violence level is going to go up," Mullen said. "The fight will be tougher because there will be places we are in the fight that we know we need to go to, we just haven't been yet, in order to secure the people."