Mullen: 'Tough Fight' In Afghanistan Under Review

Adm. Mike Mullen i i

Adm. Mike Mullen (right), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accompanied by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, attends a news conference at the Pentagon on June 18. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Adm. Mike Mullen

Adm. Mike Mullen (right), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accompanied by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, attends a news conference at the Pentagon on June 18.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Top Pentagon officials are reviewing how the Obama administration's new strategy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan is working — and whether they will need to send even more troops to Afghanistan.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Sunday in Europe with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who Mullen says is preparing a formal assessment.

"He's looking at assessing the president's strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Mullen says. "What he's found is it's a very tough fight, probably tougher than he thought it would be."

In the coming weeks, he will use that assessment to make recommendations to the president.

Mullen tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that the mission must shift to ensure the security of the Afghan people, and that will require more than troops. Mullen says it means more civilians are needed to build local governments and institutions.

"It would be city management kind of capacity, it would be agriculture capacity — it would be, you know, the kinds of things that we just haven't had there," Mullen says. "As you look at trying to create not just a secure environment but governance, in order to provide for the people — and the government doesn't do that right now in Afghanistan — as well as development, to see if we can get the economy moving in the right direction."

A transcript of the interview follows:

Steve Inskeep: Now, it's interesting that you mention that, because I would imagine if you think about U.S. Agency for International Development or some civilian contractor putting an expert in city government or city finances in a small town in Helmand province, the first question that guy's going to ask is: "Who's protecting me? Who's securing me?" That creates a demand for more troops, too, doesn't it?

Adm. Mike Mullen: Well, Steve, I was just there a couple weeks ago, and I was with the Marines who had just gone into Helmand. And one of the things that I found there that ... actually was very positive were the civilians who were arriving right behind the Marines, in what was a very, very difficult environment from a security standpoint. So I've seen civilians move in pretty quickly, and they need to do that. We don't have yet the civilian capacity that we need, the numbers that we need, and we expect to generate a considerably larger number of them in the next several months.

When you say the fight is turning out to be tougher than expected, is the basic problem, or one basic problem, the classic counterinsurgency problem of a military that can take any ground, but once they move away, they no longer hold it? The holding part or the building part of that formula that the military uses — that's the tough part?

Clearly. Clearly, you've got to be able to hold it. And this is a country that's been basically at war for almost 30 years, a people who are tired of war. In fact, in some ways, they're sitting on the sideline to see if, in fact, the security that gets created is going to be sustained so they can get on with their lives.

I've got to tell you, I was in Afghanistan shortly after the fall of the Taliban, at the end of 2001, early 2002, and also thought that I had encountered people who were tired of war and thought that it was going to be a relatively easy peace for that reason. Here we are, eight years later, and there's still enough people that somebody is finding to fight you.

There's no question about that. One of the reasons that it's a tougher fight is because it has been under-resourced. The Taliban has gotten much better, and we've seen that since 2006 — significant increases in capability and sophistication each year over the last three years, even a year in which they lost a lot of their leadership internally — 2007 — they came back the next year.

NBC News, just this week, broadcast some video of Marines working in Helmand province, in the southern part of the country, and one of their jobs was to sweep up riverbeds — dry riverbeds — that the Taliban had been using as various kinds of supply routes. And a captain, Zack Martin, is quoted saying, "For us to clear something out and leave and go clear it out again six months later is just clearing the weeds." Seemed to be some frustration there about being able to hold what they gain.

Well, I clearly can't speak to that specific captain's frustration. I can tell you that, from the commander's perspective, that the Marines that we've added, the troops that we're putting there are now put in so that they can actually hold the territory that they have to hold.

Has the strategy changed so much in Afghanistan that I should think of this almost as year one of a war, instead of year eight of a war?

There is a newness to this, because it's a fresh strategy, fresh people. We've learned lessons from Iraq. ... The sense of urgency here is very important to move as rapidly as we can. I think we've got to start to turn this thing around within the next 12 to 18 months. I think we know how to do it. We've got the resources currently this year laid in to do that, and we've got leadership that's focused on it.

What are the reasons both in Afghanistan and here that you need to do it within 12 to 18 months?

Because I think the trends are going very much in the wrong direction. The Afghan people are tired of this, and my sense is that it's been eight years, and it's got to start moving in the other direction.

Do you raise the question with yourself sometimes about whether it is wise to pursue this war at all in this way in Afghanistan?

In terms of what I do in this job, my job is to provide the best military advice and carry out the mission the president has given us, given me to do. I joined the Navy, the military, in 1968, so I come from, my first war, was in Vietnam. And I'm very much aware of both the times, the issues and the challenges of that time. So that's a backdrop to me. That said, this war at this time, focused on defeating al-Qaida, making sure that Afghanistan does not return to a safe haven so that the kinds of attacks that were perpetrated on U.S. citizens and others around the world — where over 3,000 of our citizens died — cannot recur. So that's what I'm really focused on. The policies that are associated with that, certainly the debate, obviously that all gets rolled up into what the president decides he wants to do. And it's been pretty clear that he is very focused on this particular war right now, and so am I.

Although Leslie Gelb, foreign policy specialist, and any number of military people from time to time have asked for this to be looked at again, and essentially said: Afghanistan is a remote country; it's not as strategic as it looks. The real fight is in Pakistan. We've got a government that's reasonably friendly in Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan is not perfect and never will be; why keep trying to make it better? Our real interests, they argue, lie elsewhere.

I've spent a lot of time in Pakistan, and I agree that the Pakistan piece of this is also a real challenge. Interestingly enough, Steve, when I go there, both to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the question that is there both directly and indirectly oftentimes is: Are you staying or are you leaving this time? Because we've left before, in both those countries. I think it's important that we have a sustained relationship with both these countries, and I think stability in that part of the world is absolutely critical. And the leadership of al-Qaida resides there in —

Resides in Pakistan —

Resides in Pakistan. But the reason that the strategy that the president has put together is Afghanistan and Pakistan is it's both countries — in fact, it's the region. I don't believe that we can get at al-Qaida by just focusing on one country or another. It's the regional approach and, in fact, I think, a sustained relationship with both countries that will allow us to do that.

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