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Adm. Mullen: Iraq War Affects Deployment in Afghanistan

July 22, 2008 at 6:15 PM EST
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Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, whose words have been parsed over the past weeks as the presidential campaign focuses on foreign policy, discusses the success of the surge and his opinion that troops would have to be withdrawn from Iraq before added to Afghanistan in a significant way.
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JIM LEHRER: And to our Newsmaker interview with Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Admiral, welcome.

ADM. MIKE MULLEN, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: Thank you, Jim. It’s good to be here.

JIM LEHRER: First on what the two presidential candidates had to say today. Do you agree with Senator McCain that setting a date for withdrawal would endanger progress in Iraq?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: I think it’s really important to continue to base our judgments on conditions on the ground. I was just over there two weeks ago myself with all the commanders, and essentially that’s a message that they give to me and it allowed me, actually, to assess what’s going on.

And I actually found the security remarkably improved from my expectations. I knew it was better. And we have been able to withdraw these five brigades of the surge, from the surge. And we’ve done it based on conditions on the ground.

And right now, the mission I have from the current commander-in-chief is to continue to evaluate that. And if we are able to sustain this kind of improvement in security, I’d have expectations that this fall I’d be able to make recommendations to President Bush that we can continue that withdrawal.

JIM LEHRER: Major withdrawals in the fall?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, I think, again, it would depend on how conditions continue to evolve. And we’re trying to get to a point where we continuously assess this.

And, in fact, when you talk with General Petraeus or General Dempsey down at the Central Command and others on the ground, I mean, it’s a constant assessment. And there’s battlefield geometry, where we move troops around based on the conditions. And so to say that it would be specifically major, it’s just too soon to say.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Obama uses terms like “timetable.” President Bush uses terms like “time horizon.” What do you use? What do you military folks use?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, again, in my current job, my mission is to continue to evaluate conditions and to give my best advice to President Bush, and I’ll continue to do that.

I think having a discussion about time horizons and having the aspirations associated with that kind of goal means, more than anything else, that we are committed to bringing our troops home. We all want that to happen. And at some point in time, it will.

Strategy in a political season

Admiral Mike Mullen
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman
This is a political season, this is a huge decision for the country, and pay attention to it. But right now, I'm working for the current commander-in-chief and will continue to do that.

JIM LEHRER: The Iraqi government, as you know, has been very firm the last few days. They want U.S. troops gone by 2010. Do you have a problem with that?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, I actually have seen the Iraqi leadership, Prime Minister Maliki and his spokesman, specifically, as well as talked with General Petraeus as recently as this morning. And they haven't specifically said -- they've hedged that statement since they made it.

And, again, we're in the midst of negotiations right now, very important negotiations for our strategic framework agreement. We've got United Nations authorities which run out at the end of the year.

And, actually, I think that the discussions about these negotiations, even the public pronouncements, are indicative of a burgeoning democracy, politicians in Iraq who aspire in their sovereign country to take control. And so I watch these certainly with great interest. And I'm confident that we'll reach the agreements that we need to continue to operate there.

JIM LEHRER: In the final analysis, though, who's going to make the decision? Who's going to call the shots about when U.S. troops go, the prime minister and the government of Iraq, or the president or to-be-president of the United States?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, I think, actually, it would be a combination of both. I think certainly the president of the United States is very engaged in this with Prime Minister Maliki, has been for a long time, and that will continue to be the case.

And so I -- my sense is it would be a combination of that, once these negotiations are complete, for the kind of framework and memorandum of understanding that we need for the future.

JIM LEHRER: Would you have a problem serving under a President Barack Obama who is on record and would implement a 16-month timetable for withdrawal?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: I'd have no problem serving under any president. And, clearly, we're going to have a new president in January. And who that will be will be determined, obviously, by the American people.

And I'll get missions from whoever that president is, and I'll give him my best military advice. I'll get direction from him, and I'll carry that out.

JIM LEHRER: However -- well, I won't say "however." I can let you say "however." Is it possible for you and your fellow and sister military commanders to avoid being involved in the debate right now between candidates for president of the United States about issues like Afghanistan, as well as Iraq?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, I think it's really important for the military to remain neutral in this political season. And in maintaining that position, again, we carry out the mission that we have right now, which is given to us by our commander-in-chief. And we'll continue to do so.

And so certainly recognize, not just who the candidates are, but recognize that this is a political season, this is a huge decision for the country, and pay attention to it. But right now, I'm working for the current commander-in-chief and will continue to do that.

JIM LEHRER: But bottom line is, if the new current commander-in-chief says, "Out in 16 months," you would implement that?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Absolutely.

Afghanistan could use more troops

Admiral Mike Mullen
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman
So we've got our troops committed right now, either preparing there or coming back. And until we get to a point where we reduce that commitment, we won't have significant additional troops to add to Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: With no -- now, Afghanistan. Senator Obama has used the term that Afghanistan -- the situation there is "precarious and urgent." Do you share that?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: I think it is. It is urgent. It is one where the violence is growing.

It's actually a combination of things. And certainly, in some ways, it's gotten worse, but the results there -- I really use the term "mixed."

And the reason I say that -- I was just there and with the commanders on the ground. And I'd been there in late February, early March with the same unit in a very tough part of Afghanistan, to look at a couple of villages in this valley that these troops couldn't go to, because they would have gotten shot. And as recently as two weeks ago, now they can go into these villages freely.

We've added troops, Marines in the south and Marines in the west. They've actually made a difference, and they're making progress.

We've got serious challenges on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. We've got insurgents which are flowing there. We've got more sophisticated attacks occurring.

So right now it is mixed. And I am concerned. We don't have enough troops there. I've said that over many months. And in that regard, we need to flow troops there as soon as they're available.

JIM LEHRER: Why don't we have more troops there, Admiral?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, we are very committed to -- with a significant number of troops in Iraq. We are in a cycle that deploys them at a certain rate. They're out for about as much -- they're gone for 12 or 15 months, and they're back for about that period of time.

We're in a very significant rotational cycle. We're at a time where we're building the Army and the Marine Corps over the next couple of years.

So we've got our troops committed right now, either preparing there or coming back. And until we get to a point where we reduce that commitment, we won't have significant additional troops to add to Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: So troops have to be withdrawn from Iraq before troops can being added to Afghanistan in any sizable way?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: In any significant manner, that's true.

JIM LEHRER: Ten thousand troops is what you have been -- you have said, right, that that's what's needed?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Roughly, right now, it's about 10,000, or three brigades, the first of which is a training brigade, because we've got to train the police. And the second two would be combat brigades.

JIM LEHRER: So, meanwhile, what happens in this urgent, precarious situation? We just wait for the badness to continue?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, no, actually it isn't just badness, because there -- as I said, there is some...

JIM LEHRER: It's a mix.

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: There has been some progress. And I've talked with -- again, talked with the commanders there, General Dave McKiernan, who is the overall four-star commander, as well as General Schloesser, who's the U.S. Army two-star commander.

And, again, they're making progress. And both of them have said to me personally in the last couple of weeks that, while they're concerned, by no means are we losing in Afghanistan.

Surged worked, with Sunni awakening

Admiral Mike Mullen
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman
The five brigades there that were the additional surge brigades, made a huge difference and I would argue, in the last 12 months, put us in a position now that not many of us would have imagined we could be 12 months ago.

JIM LEHRER: But if it were up to you, would you send 10,000 troops to Iraq -- I mean, to Afghanistan immediately?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: My priorities, again, given to me by the commander-in-chief are focus on Iraq first. It's been that way for some time. Focus on Afghanistan second. And then look to build some dwell time, some time at home for our troops who've been on these many deployments.

And those priorities continue to exist. And that's really how we are addressing the challenges that we have.

JIM LEHRER: But so there's no concern that things are necessarily going to get much worse in -- in other words, we can afford to wait, is that what you're saying?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, clearly, we are watching it very carefully. We are concerned about the increase -- the improvement in the sophistication of the attacks. We are concerned about specifically the border. And we can address that right now.

Specifically, we need Pakistan to put more pressure on that border. And in that regard, there's a lot we can do right now, but it's not just a matter of waiting. There's still progress to be made. And the troops on the ground in Afghanistan are making a difference.

JIM LEHRER: How do we get in a situation like this, Admiral, where we made commitments that require troops on the ground, but we don't have enough troops to meet them?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, I think, clearly, the commitment that we've had to get to Iraq, the five brigades there that were the additional surge brigades, made a huge difference and I would argue, in the last 12 months, put us in a position now that not many of us would have imagined we could be 12 months ago.

And it provided the security that allows the politics to start to occur, which has happened. It's allowed the economy to start to move in the right direction. And so it's the commitment there, and it's a significant number of troops, and that's been our priority.

And I've agreed with that priority, given the conditions that we had on the ground in Iraq a year ago. And it's been very successful.

And now I think it's time to, you know, to look at these continuing conditions. And if they continue to -- in Iraq, if they continue to improve, that will put us in a position to move troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that it wasn't just the surge, it wasn't just the addition of the 20,000 more troops, it also had to do with what the Sunnis did in Anbar province that's caused this reduction in violence and made things so much better?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: I do. It's been a combination of things. It's been the Sunni -- the awakening in Anbar. It's been what we call the Sons of Iraq, those Iraqis who have now provided or are helping provide for security.

It's been the development of the Iraqi army, which has been significant, and the Iraqi police, which has been part of this, as well. It's been the -- I was in Sadr City recently. And the change there is truly remarkable, as well. I marched into a place that just a few weeks ago we couldn't go.

So that question has been partially answered. The change in Basra has also -- led by, quite frankly, a prime minister who I thought took a pretty bold step and succeeded in providing better security there.

So it's been a combination of things, but, more than anything else, I think the underpinning of that has been the surge and the security that provided for the opportunities that are there now.

JIM LEHRER: You favored the surge beforehand, correct?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: I did.

JIM LEHRER: If you didn't, would you have spoken up?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: And on basis do you remember -- was there a lot of debate internally within the leadership of the military about...

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: There was a considerable amount of debate about it.

JIM LEHRER: And the decision was made by the president?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: And the decision was made -- and the recommendations were made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the chairman, right up -- who was my predecessor, General Pete Pace, and the decision was made by the president.

Military options in Iran remain

Admiral Mike Mullen
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman
While I certainly would be very concerned about a third front in that part of the world, I wouldn't say that it's not possible. We do have reserves, a strong Air Force, a strong Navy, and so that option is always there.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Admiral, I take it from what you're saying that anybody who thinks there is a military option on the table for Iran is off-base. There's no way in the world the United States could fight another war with Iran, a third war right now, is there?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, I'm very pleased with the recent discussions which have taken place. I'm very concerned about the nuclear weapons development for Iran and the destabilizing influence it has and they have in that part of the world. And I strongly endorse continued pressure, diplomatically, financially, economically.

And, clearly, the military options are there. And while I certainly would be very concerned about a third front in that part of the world, I wouldn't say that it's not possible. We do have reserves, a strong Air Force, a strong Navy, and so that option is always there and I think it always needs to be there.

JIM LEHRER: But is it realistic to think that there is a viable military option for the United States?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, the concern I have, in fact, is that a military option on the part of anyone potentially takes a pretty unstable part of the world and adds to that instability. And I worry about the unintended consequences of that.

Is it possible for us in the United States? It is possible. The concerns are those that I've expressed.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Admiral Mullen, thank you very much.

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Thank you, Jim.