obama's war
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Interview: Adm. Mike Mullen

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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since October 2007, he's advised the national security teams of both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He was chief of naval operations from 2005-2007 and also served as commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and NATO Joint Force Command Naples. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 1, 2009.

“Afghanistan has been terribly underresourced. … I recognize it's the eighth year, but in many ways we're starting anew.”

If you could, give me your security assessment for Afghanistan.

... It's serious and deteriorating. I focus that on a much better insurgency on the part of the Taliban, conditions that have gotten better for them since about the '06 time frame, the last three-plus years.

One of those summers, actually, they suffered some devastating leadership losses. And what's instructive to me -- and I think that was in '07 -- it was how fast they came back in '08. So a tough group, a tough fight.

They have intimidated the people. They aren't all leaving and going across the border to Pakistan anymore. They enjoy even space in Afghanistan where they are free to both train and rest, etc. So it's just a much tougher fight, much more sophisticated.

For about the last year, when I visited troops over there, they've talked about improved tactics. I saw it in small-unit tactics last year up in the east, had the same discussion as recently as a month ago with some of our Rangers who were operating in the south. ...

Where are they getting that capability from?

It's a warrior mentality in that part of the world. It's something they've learned. They've watched us clearly over the last several years. They have been able to train relatively freely, even in the winter and in the safe havens in Pakistan, and they've improved. They're adaptable, tough fighters, and in that regard they've had a significant downward effect on the security for the people. And they know what they're doing in that regard.

Can we beat them?

Not yet. We can beat them from a combat standpoint. ... But in the end, this isn't about us, outside forces, the United States and coalition forces beating the Taliban. This is about the Afghan people. Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal, who's the brand-new commander [of U.S and NATO forces] over there, has made this the central focus since he's been there, security for the Afghan people.

And as in any insurgency, eventually the strength is generated through the people, and they turn out the insurgency. And that's what's got to happen here as well. But it's not just the military piece, because there's a governance piece. There's a corruption piece. There's an economic-development piece, all of which have to play. But to get those going you've got to create a level of security where those other legs of the stool, if you will, can start to produce.

These concepts of counterinsurgency and full-spectrum kinds of applications of forces and resources, these have been around for a long time. Why is the U.S. just arriving at the conclusion that we have to apply counterinsurgency?

I'm not sure we're just arriving. We knew this in Vietnam. We left it behind, and then we relearned it in Iraq. And I think I have a great sense of urgency about Afghanistan. We don't have a lot of time, and we need to move and start to turn the insurgency around fairly rapidly. I've said over the next 12 to 18 months -- that's to provide the security baseline.

And we've learned tremendous lessons from Iraq. We're the best counterinsurgency force in the world right now. We didn't get it exactly right in Iraq early as well, but in the time of the surge, '06, '07, we became that counterinsurgency force.

And so now our forces, which are moving from Iraq to Afghanistan, know that. And in fact, those lessons are critical to this time factor, because we don't have a lot of time to learn in Afghanistan with respect to how do this. I believe we know how to do it. We know what the key elements are. It's a question of moving forward and executing.

And again, it's not all about the military side. One of the strengths of President Obama's strategy, which we rolled out at the end of March, it's a civilian military campaign. He's appointed Ambassador [Richard] Holbrooke as a special representative [for Afghanistan and Pakistan]. We've got a new ambassador [Karl Eikenberry], who's working very closely with Gen. McChrystal. So it is that team that must move forward. And those pieces are just getting laid in, as we speak, executing that strategy.

You said we don't have a lot time. What do you mean?

... This is our eighth year of war, and I recognize that. We've pressed our forces, and they've been magnificent. And in many ways they're both exhilarated because they've succeeded in Iraq and turned it around, and at the same time tired, deployed many, many times.

Clearly we've invested a lot here. And yet this has, in Afghanistan, has been terribly underresourced for years. We are just starting to lay the resources in. I recognize it's the eighth year, but in many ways we're starting anew. And so it's that combination of length -- significant length of time that it's been underresourced -- as well as understanding what we need to do now, what it's going to take to resource it and then execute it.

Public opinion is turning against the war in Afghanistan. Does that matter?

The public support, certainly for our men and women in uniform, is vital, and certainly for anything that the president undertakes is critical as well. I'm a Vietnam veteran. I was here when there was no public support, not just for the effort in Vietnam, for the mission in Vietnam, but for our men and women in uniform.

The American people have stood side by side by our men and women in uniform in these two conflicts, and I applaud that, and I pay an awful lot of attention to that. I'm aware of the polls, which are turning as we speak, and understand that that's part of my sense of urgency in recognizing that.

That said, I've got a mission the president has given me, and we are executing that mission as rapidly as we can execute it. And in that regard, that's what we intend to continue to do.

Is it responsible to send more troops to fight and die when the majority of American people are against the war?

I think that's a question for the American people to answer, and they elect representatives to answer that question. My responsibility is to carry out the mission that President Obama has specifically given me, rolling out this strategy. He's made it a very high priority, and we're executing that strategy right now.

There's a split within the White House. There is some ambivalence in the White House about staying in this effort.

I think in any war effort there's always going to be various views, and I certainly understand that, coming from a country that actually cherishes that debate. And so I've said before and I'll continue to say, I think the debate is very healthy. We want to get the right answer here. ...

That said, we're in the middle of ... starting to lay in the resources that the president has approved in this new strategy. ... It's important that the strategy be resourced in order for us to execute it. ...

One thing I've heard over and over again on the ground, in Afghanistan, from soldiers to the top commanders, was that the message being given to the Afghans was that, "We're here to stay this time; we're not leaving." Do you think the American people have bought that?

... I've spent a lot of time in both Afghanistan and its neighboring country, Pakistan, and this is a strategy that focuses on the region, ... two distinct countries, two sovereign countries, but very much linked in many ways.

And when I go there to Afghanistan or Pakistan, the question both asked -- and if it's not asked, implied -- is, "Are you staying this time?," because we left last time, in 1989 in Afghanistan, and we sanctioned Pakistan from 1990 to 2002. So I think it's a fair question. ...

This strategy is focused on defeating Al Qaeda, the ... very solid and growing linkage to the Taliban, so that in Afghanistan there's not the possibility that we could create another safe haven from which Al Qaeda and its affiliates could strike as they did before. ... And in the long run, I think partnerships with both those countries, as we have throughout the world, is very important.

What credibility do we have given that we've abandoned them twice?

I think our actions speak much louder than our words. And the only way that we can build that credibility is through our actions and through the fact that we sustain the effort: Focus first and foremost on the Afghan people; focus on the Pakistan side; focus on that relationship and support. And it's going to take some time to do that.

You could argue that we've got a relationship with Afghanistan, which is starting over again as well. It's a few years old. We could say 2001 or 2005. You could argue that it started over again in 2002 in Pakistan.

It's going to take us years to build that relationship. That doesn't mean combat forces on the ground for years. But the question you asked is one that, are we going to support them across many areas, not just military -- economic, the whole development, education, the kinds of relationships we have with so many other countries? That, to me, is the question they're asking, and only time will answer that.

And hard to sustain that effort if the political support for that war is eroding?

Sure. I don't disagree. It is hard. But I mean, these challenges are hard. We live in an enormously challenging time, and all the problems are hard. And I also believe that they're not problems that we can just ignore or walk away from. ...

It takes the fullness of our government, the fullness of the international community to address these. The United States isn't the only country in Afghanistan. There's some 42 countries engaged, 42 countries who have made decisions to provide military and security forces or assistance, to provide economic assistance, to provide people on the ground across a full range of capabilities. That speaks enormously to me of both the importance and that we're not in this alone, nor can we do this alone.

There are a lot of people now saying that the United States needs to come home, can't afford the effort, and that there are better ways to protect ourselves from attacks from Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group than nation building abroad.

I recognize, again, that's part of the debate. Where I am, I certainly know that that terrorist leadership is there; Al Qaeda is there. They still plot regularly. They are a very serious threat. I see the intelligence which supports that.

They're in Pakistan?

They are in Pakistan. They are taken good care of by the Taliban. Pakistan is their safe haven now. And who's to say that that won't occur again in Afghanistan should extremists take over that government, based on the previous recent history? I'm certainly not one to say that. That threat is real. We have to continue to deal with that.

Is nation building the best way to go about preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven?

It's very clear to me that we're not about bringing Afghanistan forward to build a democracy like the one we have here. That said, it is a democratic system that has been put in place in recent years. They just had elections, and the results of those as we speak today are not even final.

From my point of view, those are very positive steps that we will be impacting on things that support a nation moving forward diplomatically, economically, militarily, governance-wise. But it is not our intent to build that nation.

It's a friendly government?

It is.

Is that not enough?

... There are many things that from many nations' perspective have to improve in terms of governance. In my travels over and interactions with principals at every level, from district to subdistrict to provincial to the national government, the Afghan people are very frustrated by the fact that their government at every level is not delivering them goods and services.

It's corrupt?

And there is an enormous amount of corrupt[ion] there, which has to be addressed. ... I'm not one to say it can't be addressed, because I think it can. It is going to take some time. And in that regard it's where many people are focused.

There is a view that the governance threat, or the lack of governance, is every bit the threat that the Taliban are, and we've got to essentially address that just as effectively as we do the security. That said, we can't do it without an improvement of security.

There are a lot of corrupt places in the world. Is it the military's job to clean up that corruption?

Again, this is a whole government approach, I think because we are operating at the village level; we're operating at the district level. Certainly we see that and are involved in it, and we have a substantial number of people.

But it's not the military's job alone. It extends well into the governing side, the capabilities that we bring from other agencies in our government and, in fact, other countries who can do this as well.

Do you worry that the military is being asked to drive out of its lane?

In that regard we've been driving out of our lane certainly since Iraq, and some might argue even before that.

Are you concerned about that? Is that mission creep?

I am concerned about it. But we [have] very capable young men and women that are wearing the uniform. They are doing things they never imagined. Some of them routinely, when I ask them about this, they're excited about that, with no expectations that they'd be engaged in running cities or creating agencies. They're excited about it because they can see the long-term sustaining piece, and it's a necessary piece of it. We can do that. ...

So I'm not overly concerned about that. It's become a very real part of who we are. And I would look in the long term to hand that off to other agencies, but right now it's a requirement where we are present, in particular in Afghanistan.

I was down in southern Helmand, and I saw Marines that were being asked to be diplomats, social workers, often really didn't know quite what their role was.

I've seen our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen do this in ways throughout my career. I mean, I'm a Navy guy. I've been in countries all over the world. There's always been outreach in terms of assistance of various projects when I've traveled.

And certainly it's a requirement where we are right now. And I think there's a difference between maybe not knowing what their role is and what they're executing, because in terms of execution, they've been magnificent. And they've been doing those things that are required.

I didn't see a lot of Afghans in Helmand accompanying the Marines.

Afghan military?

Afghan military.

I think that's fair.

Where are they?

We've been training them. There are some 110,000 or so that we've put into units. Gen. McChrystal has come in and said we need to accelerate their growth and in fact look at expanding those. And I think what you see is a shortfall that just, in our training capacity, so far has not been able to meet that need. We know that need is there.

I get asked oftentimes about what's our exit strategy from the military standpoint. And the exit strategy is to train the Afghan army and military and Afghan police so that they can provide for their own security.

Gen. McChrystal has made that a priority, and we need to do that as rapidly as we can. It's been a priority. We're going to try to accelerate it so that they can take over their own security. I think the fact that just we haven't raised that number yet to a level where we can deploy them to where you were in the south alongside the Marines is evidence of that.

Why the push in Helmand? What's the importance of Helmand?

There was a time, a few decades ago, when Afghanistan actually grew its own food, fed its own people and exported. It [Helmand] is, in fact, the center of the agricultural potential for Afghanistan, and that agricultural system has been devastated over the last 30 years.

People think of it as a place where poppies are grown. ...

Right now, essentially, it is growing poppies and feeding the narcotics world at an enormously high percentage and price. And in fact, the profits that are associated with that are feeding the extremists hundreds of millions of dollars a year which comes from this.

And strategically what we need to do is turn that around so, in fact, that valley, that breadbasket produces products for the people that not just feeds them but also provides for them from an income standpoint. And strategically that's where we're headed.

We've had a failed strategy in counternarcotics over the last seven or eight years. It has very recently changed. When I say very recently it's really just been a couple of months. We know what we have to do. It's going to take us a while to execute that. But I fundamentally believe that's possible.

Now, that's a tough fight, because you've got drug dealers, you've got criminals, obviously you've got extremists, all of whom are surviving off this poppy production and in fact both paying and intimidating the farmers. Again, addressing that challenge is going to take some time to get it right. But from an underpinning future strategy standpoint, it really is the right way to go for the country.

I want to talk a little bit about Pakistan. You had a meeting in July of last year with [Gen. Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani. You went there with [Deputy Director of the CIA] Steve Kappes and you laid out some evidence?

Yeah.

Tell me about that meeting.

I've been to Pakistan, I think it's 13 times ... in the last 18 months. Principally it's to develop a relationship with their military and certainly with their leadership and Gen. Kayani, who's the chief of the staff of the army, who's the most important military person in that country. And I've worked that very, very hard.

When I went to meet with him with Kappes, he and I laid out some very specific areas that we thought needed to be addressed to both the military, the intelligence and the political leadership. We had a series of meetings.

You laid out the ISI's [Inter-Services Intelligence's] involvement with the militants that were based inside Pakistan?

We spoke to, clearly, the ISI's relationship with various militant groups. And I said then and I would reaffirm now that it's my belief that the ISI, which has structured itself strategically in a certain way over many years and is very focused on security for its own country and with which we have a very good intelligence relationship for years, on many levels, that in the long run, the ISI needed to strategically shift its direction.

And that, I believe, is going to happen when Pakistan feels a whole lot better about its security than it does right now. And a part of that is relationships that the ISI has with various militant groups, and have had for some time.

They've gone after some of the militants that they perceive as threats to them, people like [Pakistani Taliban leaders] Maulana Fazlullah, Baitullah Mehsud?

Right.

They assisted you in providing intelligence, but they have not yet gone after those militants who are coming across the border, running operations against U.S. troops?

So what's happened in the last year in Pakistan, from my perspective, is a much more focused and visible recognition of the extremist threat that they had inside their own country. They've lost a lot of citizens. They've sacrificed a lot of soldiers' lives in this effort as the extremists created more and more challenges for them.

My view is they now believe much more fervently that they have a serious threat, and over the last year, they have started to address that. And the focus on Mehsud and his tribe right now is a great example of that.

But what evidence is that that they're going to go after [the] Haqqani [network] and [Mullah] Omar?

The focus of my discussions with Gen. Kayani and others has been exactly this, among other things; that there is clearly a need to do that as well.

What does he say?

Well, the fact of the matter is that the Pakistanis see India as a significant threat that isn't going to go away. So you've got a commander of forces in Gen. Kayani who has got two different fronts. He's got the Indian threat to his east, and he's got the terrorist threat to his west.

He's learning counterinsurgency as we went through. He's rotated a significant number of forces off that eastern side into the fight. And there are some limits in terms of his ability to both rotate and train and address these two things.

I've made it very clear to him what my concerns are, and he has an overall operational plan to do this. We would have him do it much more quickly. Patience isn't necessarily our strength. He is doing this in a very deliberate way. And, you know, a significant measure for my relationship with him and also him specifically is generally he lays out a plan and he executes. He tells me what he's going to do, and then he does it.

What is his plan to go after [the] Haqqani [network]?

I'm not going to talk about the specific details of any kind of military plans. ...

We have a new policy to pursue counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. What's the new policy in Pakistan?

The Pakistan [policy] is to engage, again, across a full spectrum of economic development, security, governmental-relationship kinds of issues. So a great example is, as we speak today, there's a bill being considered by both House and the Senate called the Kerry-Lugar bill [Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009], and it's a billion and a half a year for Pakistan.

That's about $30 per Pakistani citizen a year.

OK. But what's most important about that is it's actually seeking to have a five-year plan so that they know we're there for more than one year.

And even since 2002, it's been year to year in so many ways. So our policy is a long-term, sustaining relationship across a full spectrum of capabilities with a country that I believe we need to have that kind of partnership with.

posted october 13, 2009

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