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Mullen on Afghanistan: ‘We Have Not Set a Withdrawal Date’

December 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In an interview with Jim Lehrer, Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen discusses President Obama's plan to send an additional 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan and a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.

JIM LEHRER: Now to our interview with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I talked with him moments ago, right after he came back from those meetings with the troops.

Admiral Mullen, welcome.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Good to be with you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: What was your major message to the troops today?

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Well, these two units, the one at Fort Campbell, the 101st, and some additional units there, as well as the Marines down at Camp Lejeune, they are the ones that will, in great part, lead the 30,000 that go in, although it will be timed over many months.

And I wanted to do two things. One, I wanted to be as clear as I could about what our mission was, in that we have the president having made this decision. We’re now off to execute it — and, secondly, to answer any questions they might have.

And I have found, in all these town halls I have done for many years, their ability to get to the quick on key questions. And I always learn from that as well. It was to engage them. I have spent a lot of time in Washington lately, particularly with this decision and the debate that we had.

And I have always found it important to be as close to them as I can be, and particularly for the ones who are going to have to go carry out this mission.

JIM LEHRER: Was it difficult for you to stand up in front of these young men and women and talk about the possibility of casualties and what the various vulnerabilities and all that, as you did, today?

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Well, it is it is very difficult, but it’s something I feel very strongly about.

I think that we, in America, need to face the real possibilities here. I felt that way throughout these two conflicts, that we need to be very realistic and very transparent about it. It is a tough fight right now. It’s going to be tough over the next year.

And we are going to lose people. I have also found that, engaging soldiers and Marines, that they understand that. They have friends they are losing now. And so they clearly do know what the possibilities are.

And, yet, all of us work hard to make sure there isn’t one, if that’s possible.

JIM LEHRER: One of the Fort Campbell soldiers asked you, straightforward, what is the most — the biggest vulnerability that the troops, the U.S. troops, are going to have when they get on the ground?

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Yes. And I think I answered there were two.


ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: One is the IEDs, these explosive — improvised explosive devices. They’re clearly…

JIM LEHRER: Those are scary.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: They are. And they are — they’re local. They’re — essentially, all the materials that are being used by the Taliban are in Afghanistan.

And they are big. And we have had some real challenges with them. I mean, we’re working hard to get ahead of them, that being one. And then the other one I talked about — and this goes back to civilian casualties, the — what McChrystal changed when he went there, focusing on that, focusing on the people, and that, tactically, we might win a fight, but, if we lose civilians who live there, it doesn’t make any sense that they would be for us.

JIM LEHRER: You emphasized to both groups, to the troops, that they need to study the culture of Afghanistan. They need to know who these people are and care about them and all of that.

That was a big point to you.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Well, I learned that, actually, throughout my naval career. I have been in many countries, and learned that it is just a lot easier to understand other people’s problems and other people’s views if you are listening to them and you understand a little bit about their culture.

And, in these wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been absolutely critical. And that’s a lesson we learned in Iraq. The identical requirement exists in Afghanistan. Obviously, it’s a different culture. And, so, studying the language, understanding their background and what they care about and really connecting with them in that regard is really going to be important.

JIM LEHRER: You — a young Marine asked you, admiral, do you honestly believe 30,000 troops will do — 30,000 more troops will do the job?

And you said, “I honestly do.”


JIM LEHRER: Why did you answer — why did you say that?


And we have been through a long debate here over the last many weeks. And the requirements are laid out there. What is really important about those 30,000 is, the vast majority of them will get there by the middle of 2010.

And we will get some troops there quicker than even General McChrystal had asked for originally, and that, in combination with expectations coming from our NATO allies — again, 42 other countries are in this fight with us — that we will have some 36,000, 37,000, 38,000 additional troops.

And we believe that that is enough to turn this around, to reverse the momentum of this insurgency.

JIM LEHRER: But you told the troops, quite candidly, that, right now, we’re not winning the insurgency, right?

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: No, we haven’t been. This has been — and I have said this publicly for some time. I mean, the insurgency has gotten better and better since 2006.

And, by that, I — and so, for us, it’s gotten worse and worse. The level of violence was up in 2009 almost 60 percent from 2008. And nothing’s going to change there unless we turn, specifically turn that around. And that’s really the effort.

JIM LEHRER: And you said more than once that, 18 months, it’s not necessarily a withdrawal date. It is a date we either do it or we don’t.

Is that right?

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Well, July 2011, obviously, that’s been a date…

JIM LEHRER: Big date.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: … that has been broadly discussed since the president rolled it out in his speech.

And my view of that is, that’s a really critical date. It is a target date for us. It’s a date that it’s very clear we will start to transition the security responsibility to the Afghan security forces, and thin out, and start to draw down some of our forces.

But we have not set a withdrawal date. There is no specific number of forces. It could be a very small number, or — and it could be a large number. And, actually, the date, while some have seen it as arbitrary, it wasn’t arbitrary at all. It was a date that we in the military focused on, because we think we need to turn this thing in about two years.

And, in July of 2011, the Marines that went into Helmand Province and have made such a difference so far will have been there for three summers. We will know whether this thing is going to be successful or not by that time.

JIM LEHRER: You mean, it’s — it will be that definitive, you think, between — in 18 months to 24 months?

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: In July of 2007 — or…

JIM LEHRER: You will know?

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: We believe we will know.

Now, we can’t be perfectly predictive. Everybody wants to be. We can’t be. But those of us in the military believe we have got to turn this around in this 18 to 24 months. And we think we have got the right strategy, the right leadership, and now the right force levels.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s what prompted this Marine to say, will 30,000 troop do that, 30,000 more troops do that? That is what he — that is what he was responding to.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Understood. Understood.

And we believe — yes, we believe, in the military, that absolutely it will. And that’s the mission that the president has given us, and General McChrystal, General Petraeus, myself, and others believe that we can execute that and succeed.

JIM LEHRER: You also mentioned several times in both groups about Pakistan. You, in fact, included Pakistan in the overall mission. Explain what you mean to that — about that.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Well, Pakistan — when the president rolled out his strategy in March of this year, one big difference from the previous strategies was, this is a regional strategy. So, it’s not focusing on Afghanistan alone or Pakistan, but the region.

And in fact, we shouldn’t forget that the main goal there is to eliminate these safe havens for al-Qaida and make sure that they can’t return to Afghanistan or Pakistan in the future.

Pakistan’s a sovereign country. They have taken significant steps in the last year. They have taken significant casualties as recently, again, as today, where there was another bombing in Lahore. They’re taking this threat to themselves very seriously.

So, the long-term view is, we would look for a partnership with Pakistan and Afghanistan in a stable region, and to have that long-term relationship be one similar to what we have with other countries.

JIM LEHRER: But not put U.S. troops in Pakistan?

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: No, no. There’s no — absolutely no provision, nor — or no discussion of putting any U.S. troops in Pakistan, save the support troops that we have. There, we have got troops, a small number of troops, training, at the Pakistani government and Pakistani military request, as they address this fight, but outside that kind of training support, no other troops.

JIM LEHRER: But that border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan can be handled without U.S. troops going over to the other side?

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Yes. Well, it — actually, it has to be.

I look at this, strategically, over the long run that it’s the pressure brought from the east, if you will, on the western border of Pakistan and the pressure in Afghanistan that will eventually allow us to get at and eliminate those safe havens.

I also believe that Pakistan’s future will in great part be driven by what kind of country Afghanistan is, stable or unstable, and that a stable, supportive government in Afghanistan will be very helpful to how Pakistan looks at its future and the decisions it makes.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Admiral, you’re comfortable — you asked — you were asked a lot of questions today by PFCs, and corporals, among others, about overview policy, politics and all that sort of — you are comfortable doing that?

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Always, yes. They — and, actually, I find, as you probably — as you obviously saw in looking at the questions, they always ask great questions.

And it’s — they are oftentimes much broader than just the specific focus area that I might be interested in.


Admiral, thank you very much.