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Adm. Mullen On New Afghan Strategy


SIEGEL: More now on Afghanistan from Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Welcome.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: As we just heard Jackie Northam reporting, a key element here is framing this as a strategy concerning not just Afghanistan, but also Pakistan, so I want to ask you about this idea of holding Pakistan accountable. Does that mean that the U.S. wants to hold Pakistan accountable to go after the Taliban, whom they've been reported to be assisting covertly?

Adm. MULLEN: Well, I think it broadly - it means broadly that holding Pakistan accountable for the totality of the challenge, which includes al-Qaida. Al-Qaida leadership resides in the western border of Pakistan, a place called the FATA, clearly the Taliban are there, as well. And focusing on Pakistan in a way that I believe we haven't in the past, which is this 1.5 billion non-military aid per year for a total of five years.

So the - one of the most difficult challenges in this region, and indeed in actually executing this strategy, is going to be the strengthening of our relationship with Pakistan. We were without a relationship for 12 years. There's a trust deficit I think we've got to fill. But they are absolutely vital to a success, in terms of getting at this threat.

SIEGEL: But is there a deficit of will on the Pakistani side? That is, Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader of Afghanistan appears to be operating openly in Pakistan now.

Adm. MULLEN: Sure.

SIEGEL: Should taking him down be a test of Pakistani intentions?

Adm. MULLEN: Well, certainly I think, you know, taking Omar down ought to be -is the focus of the entire strategy here and we need support from Pakistan.

SIEGEL: They're on board with us?

Adm. MULLEN: They clearly are - I think, I mean, as the president pointed out, the Pakistanis have lost thousands of citizens in 2001. They've lost well over 1,000 soldiers in this fight. They've sacrificed greatly, and they've committed a lot. So I've worked hard, I've traveled there many times over the last year. I've worked hard, particularly with their military leadership, to make sure we have common goals, to make sure we understand each other, to develop a relationship which really focuses on this threat. And I think that the Taliban insurgency kind of threat that exists in Pakistan is an existential threat to the current government of Pakistan.

SIEGEL: You believe that and do they believe that?

Adm. MULLEN: I do believe it.

SIEGEL: They perceive it the same way that the United States does?

Adm. MULLEN: I have seen it evolve over the last - certainly over the last year, as more and more Pakistani citizens have been killed, yes.

SIEGEL: Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to the region said today that a bright line in Pakistan is that Pakistan says no foreign troops in Pakistan. So if there are targets within Pakistan, if al-Qaida is within Pakistan, what does that say about the U.S. role in going after them over there? Is it drones and air strikes?

Adm. MULLEN: Well, it's - I think I agree with that bright line. It's a sovereign country and that's where the partnership and the long-term commitment is so important and that we do that with them and through them. And the Pakistani military has been very active on the west coast, on the western border this year, much more so than they were in previous years. General Kiani, who is their chief of staff of the army, has assigned some top people to run the frontier corps and in some of his senior military positions, and they started to really make a difference.

Sometimes where we differ, though, is we differ on timeline. I think we all recognize the severity of the challenge. It's going to take some time to get at this and doing it with him, I think, is a strategy that can succeed.

SIEGEL: But what is the U.S. doing with them if indeed U.S. troops are not welcome on Pakistani soil?

Adm. MULLEN: Well, first of all, President Obama's commitment to the long-term strategy. Secondly, and I assume Richard Holbrooke talked about this, the regional approach here. It's not just Pakistan or just Afghanistan, the region also includes India. We've got a small number of trainers to train their trainers to get at this threat. That's been very positive so far.

We're working to support them with equipment that they need to fight this fight and, again, developing that military to military relationship, which is so important to so many countries and clearly needs to be very robust in Pakistan.

SIEGEL: We heard a judgment on this program a couple of days ago from David Kilcullen, the Australian counterinsurgency expert who's advised General Petraeus. He said winning in Afghanistan is possible but by no means certain. He thinks it'll take three to five years to turn things around, and we could expect heavy combat in the first year and a half of that timeframe. Does all that sound about right to you?

Adm. MULLEN: One of the things is the president has approved additional troops, both 17,000, as well as the 4,000 today, we need those troops to stem the trend of violence in Afghanistan. And with that, it's going to come an increased level of violence and an increased level of casualties. But what it speaks to is the need to provide security for the Afghan people. And I believe in all this, in Afghanistan, that the Afghan people are the center of gravity.

I think that clearly, I think he has got it right, that this is a huge challenge. I think it is winnable. It's going to take some time and it's going to take a comprehensive approach which is what the president has put in place.

SIEGEL: Do the new troop levels that President Obama has ordered, do they make this no longer an under-resourced war, or will U.S. commanders possibly a year from now say we need more troops? This isn't enough.

Adm. MULLEN: Well, it's hard to say whether a commander on the ground is going to say a year from now. I think, you know, a significant part of this strategy, which is new, is the commitment to and resourcing the civilian side. This is a civilian military strategy that's got to be put in place. And that President Obama has approved the troops that General McKiernan, who's the commander on the ground, has asked for in 2009.

And one of the things that the president said today, and others have as well, is we're going to create our benchmarks, we're going to assess ourselves and find out where we are at the end of the year, see how the strategy is working and adjust it. And I think that's, you know, that's the time that for 2010 the question comes up about additional resources or not.

SIEGEL: Back in late 2001 and 2002, the war in Afghanistan was very personalized. We were going to get Osama Bin Laden.

Adm. MULLEN: Yeah.

SIEGEL: I mean that was how this was put to people. How important is that?

Adm. MULLEN: I think, you know, getting the leaders of al-Qaida would have a, you know, would have a very, very significant effect, but it isn't going to win it. Al-Qaida is actually morphing, it's spreading not just here, but in other regions, in places like Yemen and places like Somalia and other places in Africa, and not just spreading, but also continuing to threaten many countries and planning to do that, which is what's going on right now.

So I think it's important, but it's not going to win it. I think al-Qaida, as the President said today, has to be defeated in its entirely, not just take off the leadership, although that would certainly have a significant blow.

SIEGEL: So has to be defeated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also elsewhere is what you say.

Adm. MULLEN: I think so, yeah, in the long run.

SIEGEL: Admiral Mullen, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Adm. MULLEN: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.