The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said yesterday that he returned from Afghanistan this week reassured that U.S. and NATO forces remain on track there, but also concerned about the synergy among terrorist groups in the region.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen made the comments yesterday as part of an interview with David Sanger, New York Times chief Washington correspondent, at the inaugural Aspen Security Forum, part of the Aspen Institute, in Colorado.
Mullen said his trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel was scheduled before the fallout from a magazine article on Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal that led to the general's resignation as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
"Because of what happened," Mullen said, referring to McChrystal's removal, "it was a trip of reassurance. We'll have a new leader out there very quickly, and we also have a very able deputy there now" in British Lt. Gen. Nicholas Parker. "The strategy hasn't changed, nor has our focus," he said.
Mullen met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who he said was reassured that the leadership transition will be smooth. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, is in the confirmation process to replace McChrystal.
"I wanted to make sure we are staying focused on the mission, and I report back that clearly all the people I saw were," Mullen said of his trip.
Mullen said McChrystal's resignation is different from removals of military leaders under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and even the 2008 resignation of Navy Adm. William J. Fallon as head of Central Command, because it was not based on policy differences. Although he never heard McChrystal speak negatively of civilian leaders, Mullen said, his resignation was important in light of the article, which included passages in which McChrystal and members of his staff were portrayed as dismissive of some civilian administration officials.
"This goes back to the 1770s," Mullen said. "It's such a fundamental principle. We have enormous challenges now, but that's not an excuse in any way, shape or form for any of us to not recognize the importance of the civilian control of our military."
As for operations in Afghanistan, the chairman said he returned with increasing concerns that terrorist groups are operating more closely with one another, not just in Southwest Asia, but also with men charged in recent attempted terrorist attacks in Detroit and New York.
"I'm increasingly concerned about the synergy among terrorist groups in that region and their expanding desire to kill as many Americans – and not just Americans – as they can," he said.
Mullen acknowledged the length of the nearly decade-long war, but emphasized its importance.
"There aren't any of us who don't want to see this end as soon as we can," he said. "But, coming back from this trip, I am increasingly concerned about the terrorist threat in the region. The war in Afghanistan was something very badly resourced – under-resourced -- for a number of years. We're just getting to a point where it is resourced, and the government and corruption issue [in Afghanistan], as well as security, is comprehensively being addressed."
In the long term, Mullen said, the solution to terrorism is more about the global economy than military operations.
"You can't kill them all," he said of the issue of dealing with extremists and terrorists. "We've got to get to a point where 15-year-old boys pursue a more positive way of life than putting on a suicide vest." That's a long way off, Mullen said, adding that a long-term solution needs leadership from the Muslim community to stand up against the desecration of their religion by terrorists.
In the short term, Mullen said, operations in Kandahar are ongoing, and results won't be apparent until the end of the year. Operations there will ramp up after the remaining one-third of the U.S. surge troops are in place later this summer, he added.
The NATO campaign that took Marja in Helmand province from the Taliban earlier this year underestimated the ability to set up a new local government there, the chairman said. But while security remains a challenge in Marja, he added, "steady progress" has continued, and schools and bazaars are open. Mullen said he has supported from the beginning Obama's stated timeline of July 2011 to begin drawing down in Afghanistan, because it creates a sense of urgency in the Afghan government to take control. "A lot is going to happen between now and July 2011," he said.
By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service