Blaming the previous Bush administration for "a culture of poverty" that had starved the US campaign against Taliban, the top US military official says America is still digging its way "out of a hole" in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"I'm digging myself out of a hole in Pakistan and in Afghanistan," Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Washington Times in an interview published on Thursday.
"So there's an argument to be made that I haven't gotten to year zero yet with respect to that long-term relationship, and then that gets reflected in how the people look at this. Which I understand completely," he said.
Mullen, who has visited Afghanistan 10 times, did not disagree with an assessment by Gilles Dorronsoro, a South Asia analyst, saying the Taliban has become more effective and sophisticated in recent years. He said the US has 12 to 18 months "to start turning this thing around".
It was crucial to gain the trust of the Afghan people, who have endured 30 years of conflict since the Soviet invasion, he said noting many Afghan citizens and officials have expressed concern that the US will abandon the country again as it did in 1989 after the defeat of the Soviet occupation.
"That trust was badly broken when we left [Afghanistan] before and it was badly broken in Pakistan ... when we sanctioned them [over their nuclear programme]," he said. "It's going to take a lot of time to develop."
"I liken it to somebody who has been starving for a significant period of time and all the sudden you put all the food they need in the world there - they're just not going to come back overnight," he said.
"What I do see and have seen over the last two or three trips is something that I call a 'culture of poverty' and it isn't just that we've under-resourced it - we've under-resourced it for a significant period of time," Mullen said.
He said a strategy devised since President Barack Obama took office is intended to reverse these negative trends. "We now have a strategy which is a civilian-military campaign plan, a civilian-military strategy."