Transcript: Interview With Adm. Mike Mullen The outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff talks to Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about Pakistan's links to militants, Afghanistan's future, the impact of budget-cutting on the U.S. military and other topics.
NPR logo Transcript: Interview With Adm. Mike Mullen

Transcript: Interview With Adm. Mike Mullen

Full transcript of Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep's interview with Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Steve Inskeep: I want to begin by asking about what everyone has been talking about the last several days. Why now? Why did you make that statement now?

Adm. Mike Mullen: Well, the -– certainly, the Haqqani network that everybody's talking about has been one that we've been concerned about for a long, long time. And it was really sort of the sequencing of recent events from the InterContinental Hotel to the bombing of one of our bases the other day to the embassy, and that the strategic linkage that the ISI has had for a significant period of time, and, really, through the ISI, the Pakistani military, and, in that regard, the, you know, general support from the Pak government. And it is that linkage that I felt for a long time has to be broken.

And I don't expect it to -– they can't turn it off overnight. I'm not asserting that the Pak mil or the ISI has complete control over the Haqqanis. But the Haqqanis run that safe haven. They're also a home to al-Qaida in that safe haven.

Inskeep: On the Pakistan side of the border?

Mullen: On the Pakistani side of the border.

And I am losing American soldiers. The Haqqanis are killing American soldiers. And from that perspective, I think it's got to be addressed, which is the reason I spoke to it.

Inskeep: The Pakistani foreign minister said to us earlier this week, of course there are links that our intelligence agency would have with these guys. Your intelligence agency has links with militants. But you used the word "proxies." You said groups like the Haqqanis were acting as proxies of the Pakistani government. What do you mean in this specific context of these raids that you're talking about?

Mullen: I mean that the ISI specifically has enough support for the Haqqanis in terms of financial support, logistic support -– and actually, sort of free passage in the safe haven -– and those links are part of what enable the Haqqanis to carry out their mission. And the Haqqanis are focused on doing as much damage in Afghanistan as they possibly can, having the American and coalition troops leave and, at a — at a higher level, being able to essentially take over that battle space in ... Paktia and Khost. And that's the -– you know, that's the highway to Kabul. So that's one of the reasons that it's -– you know, it's a -– it's such a critical area to focus on.

And I just think those links have to be -– have to be broken. And if they're broken and they can't -– I don't believe they can be broken overnight, but if they're broken, I think that fundamentally changes the viability of that safe haven and the overall strategy.

Inskeep: Are the Haqqanis in your view acting out of the will -– acting out the will of the Pakistani government at the direction of the Pakistani government?

Mullen: I've talked about them supporting it. When Gen. Kayani and I have talked about this in the past, he's not a big fan of the Haqqani network. It's a very lethal, very virulent insurgent terrorist group that you just can't – you just can't walk up to and eliminate. So it isn't anything that could be done anywhere close to overnight. We talked about how to do it in the past, and that's really up -– from my perspective, that's really up to the Pakistanis to figure out.

Inskeep: Let's explain for people that Gen. Kayani is the chairman of the –- is the chief of army staff in Pakistan.

Mullen: Correct. He's the most powerful military man in Pakistan.

Inskeep: The closest counterpart to you.

Mullen: Correct.

Inskeep: You've had many, many meetings with him over the last several years. You're said to have a good relationship.

Mullen: I do.

Inskeep: You've just said he doesn't like the Haqqanis, and yet Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, which is under him, in your view, is supporting them. Is ISI out of his control?

Mullen: When I -– no. I don't believe that. In fact, I believe it's within his control. And if I could just -– you asked about proxies. When I went to Pakistan in 2008, one of the things that I spoke to the political and military leadership about was this whole issue of supporting insurgent groups or proxies. And another one that, quite frankly, historically, has been support has been LeT –- and LeT, basically, originally created to focus on the challenges in Kashmir, yet -– which is in the -– on the eastern side of Pakistan.

Inskeep: This is Lashkar-e-Taiba we're talking about here.

Mullen: Lashkar-e-Taiba. And they are now actually spreading west. But it's another -– it's part of the strategy, from my perspective, that is there to enhance the security of the country. That's how it is thought about there. I –

Inskeep: You're saying the Pakistanis think of these groups as weapons that they can use at some point.

Mullen: Clearly to ensure that their security is going to be improved.

And you spoke earlier, Steve, about what Foreign Minister [Hina] Khar said, which is, certainly contacts are understood. But this is more than contacts. And we've spoken to that -– I've spoken to that many, many times, not just with Gen. Kayani, but with lots of other people. And it is the intensity, the severity, and, quite frankly, for me as a senior military officer in America, the fact that it is so intently focused right now on killing Americans that I felt it necessary to speak up.

Inskeep: Given that, in the last few days, there seem to have been a few officials walking away from your statement, do you want to re-word anything that you said last week?

Mullen: Not a word.

Inskeep: You phrased it the way you want it to be phrased.

Mullen: I phrased it the way I wanted it to be phrased.

Inskeep: And given the strong reaction in Pakistan, not just from the military but among civilians where people briefly seem to be talking as if they thought they were going to war with the United States, is that the reaction that you wanted?

Mullen: One of the challenges of the -– of this relationship is that, first of all, we need it to be sustained. And I met with Gen. Kayani a week -– about 10 days ago, and we both agree on that. It's a very difficult relationship. It's had its ups and downs. We're in a very tough period right now, literally this year, going back to the Raymond Davis issue, obviously the bin Laden raid, certainly -– and certainly this issue now, the embassy attack in Kabul, etc.

But I think we -– and we've been able to work our way through even these most difficult issues I think in part because we've had a relationship that has included an awful lot of engagement and an ability to talk to each other and discuss the issues.

It's always not going to go well. But there have been parts of it that have gone well and are going well right now. I mean, the coordination across the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, between our forces and the Pakistani military, has never been better. We are -– the ISI and our intelligence agencies — are sharing information and rounding up some significant players with respect to terrorists, for example. So there is a -– there is a sharing and a -– and a -– and a desire to work together that I think we have to continue to focus on and try to sustain for the future.

Inskeep: Because when I heard your testimony, you mentioned engagement. When I heard about your testimony last week, I almost felt like you were telling people that all your efforts at engagement with this country had failed, that they hadn't worked out.

Mullen: Well, I made a conscious decision very early in this tour that it was important to engage, in particular, Gen. Kayani –- back to his being the most important military officer in Pakistan, and I, as the senior military officer in America -– and the desire to have a relationship, which isn't unusual, quite frankly, for me and lots of other countries, and so –- and recognizing, there's a -– there's a rich and, in ways, spotted history between our countries, and particularly between our militaries. I mean, when you listen to them, which I try to do, try to understand their problems, how they view the world, what their interests are, where they overlap, and you look back throughout their history, they would tell you, we abandoned them -– or we didn't support them in '65, we didn't support them in '71; we left in 1989. And so there's a huge trust deficit. And it's probably bigger than I realized.

And so back to your point about the demonstrations, etc., we're not very popular with the Pakistani people, and we -– America is not. And I think that -– those demonstrations that you speak to are a reflection of that. And the trust deficit is huge. I'm just one that believes we need to continue to work on it and, if we don't, the longer-term dangers of not having a relationship and not trying to close this gap far outweigh what we're going through right now.

Inskeep: What options are available beyond continuing to engage, continue to talk? Is there anything else you can do to –

Mullen: Well –

Inskeep: -– to move things in the direction you want them to go?

Mullen: From the United States' perspective, there's a broad range of strategic parts of this relationship. It's not just all about military or about al-Qaida or about the Haqqanis. There's an important economic relationship, an important financial relationship, important development relationship and obviously a security relationship.

It's also a regional issue; it's not just about Pakistan or just about Afghanistan. I think there are regional responsibilities that we all have to try to stabilize that part of the world so that it -– so that it can start to move in the other direction. And right now, admittedly, the relationship's in a very tough spot, but we've recovered from tough spots before, and I'm confident we can do that.

Inskeep: Would you want your successor or successors to do something differently than has been tried over the last several years?

Mullen: Well, I think my successor is going to have to make up his own mind what he's going to do and how he's going to do it.

Certainly we have engaged the Pak mil –- the Pakistani military from the ISAF point of view. I mean, Gen. McChrystal did it, Gen. Petraeus did it, Gen. Allen is doing it. From the CENTCOM point of view, Gen. Mattis has done that -– in fact he was there as recently as a few days ago; and certainly from the chairman's perspective.

The military is a very important organization in that country, but it shouldn't be the only organization that we engage. Engagements with the civilian leaders, engagements with the economic leaders, engagements in the region -– I've said for a long time: I think unlocking Kashmir, which is a very difficult issue on the Pak-Indian border, is one that opens it all up, and I think -– I believe we have to continue to try to, all of us, figure out a way to work that as well.

Inskeep: Does Gen. Kayani want to make peace with India –- a durable peace with India?

Mullen: In many discussions I've had with him, he would much rather have a stable, peaceful environment on both his borders than the one he has right now.

Inskeep: Because the military is seen as an obstacle there, as you know very well?

Mullen: Well, that's certainly a view. You asked me about what he -– what he feels, what he believes and what he –- what we talk about. I think that's the longer-term view, is peace and stability on those two borders, which is –- which is what would present opportunities to have a growing economy, forward investment, you know, a stable country moving in the right direction.

Inskeep: Let's remind people that you also testified last week about Afghanistan.

Mullen: Yeah.

Inskeep: And you said something that I want to learn a little bit more about. You said that the military part of the mission, to the extent it can be separated from all the other parts of the strategy, the military part of the equation is working well. But then you spoke with concern about the other parts of the strategy –-

Mullen: Yeah.

Inskeep: -– about the politics in Afghanistan, Pakistan and everything else. Aren't the other parts of the strategy the ones that will finally determine what happens in Afghanistan?

Mullen: Absolutely. I think there's –- that, in terms of overall risk, while certainly the military side of this, there certainly is risk associated with the next couple of years.

We've made tremendous improvements. If you look at where we were a couple years ago in Helmand and Kandahar and where we are right now for the security -– from a security perspective, we're in a much better place –- not perfect, still have challenges. But all that does -– and I've said this many times -– the military side of this is just a necessary side of it. It's not sufficient. There's got to be decent governance at the local level –- in the local villages, local districts, in the provinces; there's got to be –- there's got to be resources that flow to those provinces and people; and we've got to get to a point where the Afghan people trust their own government.

And that speaks to governance, it speaks to corruption, and corruption is still a huge challenge. There's -– certainly the goal is not to eliminate all corruption, but the Afghan people have to feel as though they're working for a government that's working for them, and too many of them right now don't feel that way.

The other piece is -– high-risk piece is -– are the safe havens in Pakistan that have to be eliminated. And without significant movement in all –- in those other areas that I've mentioned, then the military by itself just isn't going to be enough.

Inskeep: If I remember correctly, you said it was unlikely, on the path that we're on, that Afghanistan would have a legitimate and less corrupt government before the year 2015, which is a meaningful thing to say since the goal is to have troops out, by and large, by 2014.

Mullen: Well, the goal of -– I mean, the goal right now -– and I'm actually pretty optimistic about this –- is to have the Afghans in the lead –-

Inskeep: (Inaudible.)

Mullen:– by the end of 2014 –

Inskeep: I'm sorry; yeah.

Mullen: -– in terms of their own security. And if you look at where we were two years ago, in terms of their development, numbers, skills, quality, retention, attrition both in their soldiers, their army and their police force, we're in a much different place.

We've put structure in place there. We've got schools the -– they -– we've – their literacy rate, which was a huge concern, has improved significantly, while at the same -– and while at the same time, they're out in the field now, after this training, a -– the vast majority of operations are joint operations. So we're –- the coalition forces and the Afghan forces, they are leading some. Their special forces are better.

So we've made an awful lot of improvements and, over the course of the next two or three years, while we take out the 33,000 over the course of the next year, they're going to put in a lot more forces than that. So I actually, from that standpoint, I'm more optimistic than I am pessimistic.

Inskeep: Is there likely to be a legitimate and reasonably stable and less corrupt government in 2014 when you want Afghans in the lead in Afghanistan than there is now?

Mullen: What I -– (cough) -– excuse me -– what I would hope for, at that point in time, is that we're clear -– that we've taken significant steps in that direction and clearly there's a trend. What I worry about is if there isn't, that even with the security conditions dramatically improved, we will not have a government that's in touch with its people and that the people trust. And, in the end, that's not going to work.

Inskeep: Given that you have made considerable progress against militants who directly threaten the United States, starting with Osama bin Laden -–

Mullen: Yeah. Yeah.

Inskeep: -– but continuing right on, is the fight still worth the cost?

Mullen: From my -– that's a -– that's not a, from my perspective, a question for me to answer. Certainly, I mean, the president's made a decision: This is what we're going to do. And that's a question that needs to be answered by the American people.

From the standpoint of being able to execute it, looking at the progress, getting to a point where we don't leave them hanging, as we always have done in the past, and only by virtue of planting that seed, you know, grow something down the road, 10 or 15 or 20 years later, that's worse than when we left it, I think it's a very important mission to undertake, incredibly complex. And certainly clear outcomes, while I can -– while I can understand them intellectually, seeing them at this point is very difficult.

Inskeep: Seeing the outcomes is difficult?

Mullen: Yeah, because of the -– because of where we are. I would liken this to the time, when I came in as chairman, which was at the height of the surge in Iraq. It was very -– I mean, we have these goals, but it's very difficult to see a clear path for sure to getting there –- and yet, look where we are. So I'm confident the strategy's right, we got the right people, the changes that have been made are correct. It's now – it's in the execution.

Inskeep: On both sides of that border?

Mullen: Absolutely.

Inskeep: Let me ask about another issue, admiral. Of course, near the end of your tenure, "don't ask, don't tell" ended inside the military. It's just been a few days, but has anything surprised you about the change that has wrought in the military?

Mullen: Actually, so far, no. I mean, we're eight days into the change, so it hasn't been very long.

But I have enormous confidence in our people, our leadership, our standards, our discipline, and I want to give great credit to the service chiefs and the service senior enlisted advisers who work this training in all their leadership, down to the trenches, in every single service over the last seven or eight months and came back with, you know, the unanimous recommendation that they were ready to go. The training was very effective and, I mean, we were not out there trying to change everybody's view. But we do understand what's acceptable behavior, we do understand what the standards are, and we are a disciplined organization.

And so we are into execution; we're into the second week and, so far, I've got no negative feedback. There haven't been any incidents. In fact, the -– you know, after the initial significant publicity associated with that change, it's been pretty quiet. And I believe that it's -– while it's a major change, the message I get from the troops in the field and the deck plates on ships is we got a lot of other things on our plate, a lot of other things more important. We need to move on.

Inskeep: What parts of that change are still unanswered in your mind?

Mullen: The question I get is about benefits. And there are some benefits, clearly, that are -– that accrue to the change which has already taken place, and there are other benefits which are brought up which are directly tied to DOMA, which is the Defense of Marriage Act, which is a law in the country -– and we follow the law. And until -– if and when that changes –- I mean, we'll follow whatever law is out there. Right now -– so there are benefits that DOMA has tied up by virtue of what -– the details that it specifically lays out and so until that changes, there's not going to be any change to the benefits.

Inskeep: You felt that it was a moral issue to treat gay soldiers in the military the same as others.

Mullen: I felt it was an integrity issue. I felt it was an issue that was driven, you know, inside an organization that values integrity, which has been bedrock to me since I was a midshipman in the '60s, and I could never reconcile the fact that integrity is one of our values and yet I would ask thousands to show up to work every day and in some cases die for their country and then have to lie about who they were.

So it wasn't –- for me, it wasn't overly complex –- a very difficult issue, I understand that, about an issue that, one, I think now is behind us and, two, is a very positive change in terms of –- in terms of our people. To me, we are all about our people. And this to me was -– had nothing to do with sexual orientation from the perspective it's –- I mean, our -– the views or our regulations or the laws about our people should have nothing to do with sexual orientation. It should have everything to do with who they are and their ability to serve and make a difference. And that's where we are.

Inskeep: Could that issue of integrity also be brought to bear on these related questions or questions that flow from the decision having to do with gay marriage, having to do with spousal benefits -– treating people equally?

Mullen: From my perspective, the major issue with respect to integrity had to do with the need to cover up your life with -– lie about who you were, lie about your personal relationships, constantly –- as a way of life. And to me, that's fundamentally different from whether benefit A, B or C should be given to certain individuals.

Inskeep: Is there some personal story that you heard during your many years in the service that made you feel so strongly about this issue?

Mullen: No, I mean, I've –- one of the reasons that I'm still in the military –- or I stayed in the military -– is because I think the military has been a place where certainly people could improve, advance, and were treated fairly. So in fact, engaging them, understanding that, caring about them has been part of my life since 1968 when I was commissioned. If there were personal stories that helped me with this, it were those individuals who actually left the military and talked about their lives in the military along the lines of what I said in terms of having to lie about who they were every single day.

Inskeep: Couple of other questions, admiral, and I'll let you go. I know your time is short and I could ask for a long time about budget matters.

Mullen: Don't do (that ?).

Inskeep: I'm just going to ask a -– (laughter) -– but let me -– let me ask this: You have already helped direct the military into a position where you're prepared to reduce the increase in spending over the next decade –- considerable savings, hundreds of billions of dollars in savings. The military, after you leave it, will face the possibility –- the prospect of hundreds of billions of dollars more as soon as this supercommitee, for example, comes to a decision or does not. Can the military take it?

Mullen: If the decision -– I think we have to pay our fair share. I've been pretty clear about saying that I think that the No. 1 threat to our national security is our debt. And we've got to get our arms around that and head it in another -– head it in the right direction –- that we have to pay our fair share of this.

But this is not the '70s; this isn't the '90s. This is a -– this is a time where there are still many threats out there in a very uncertain world. And if I were just to go back a few months -– if I go back to the Arab Spring and the changes associated with that, to the continued turmoil in the Middle East –- if I look at Iran and North Korea, if I look at a growing China, if I look at counterterrorism, cyberspace, and I look –- and I've got a force that is very stretched and stressed after 10 years of war. We just have to be careful.

If we get to $1.2 trillion or which -– or some number like that — that we've got to remove over the next 10 years, we're going to be a lot smaller, we're going to have to do a lot less, and particularly if this sequester part of the log essentially occurs –

Inskeep: If the supercommittee doesn't reach a decision.

Mullen: The supercommitee -– yeah, does not do what it's supposed to do and a sequester goes into effect, the way that gets executed, it affects almost every single account. So it -– from my point of view, it has a very, very strong chance of breaking us. And in the world we're living in right now, I think that would really be dangerous.

Inskeep: Breaking you -– what does that mean?

Mullen: It means eroding training and readiness. It means not being able to modernize, it –- because of the way it hits every single account. So it will break programs and it has great potential to dramatically hollow out the force and do it very, very rapidly. So I'm arguing for -– certainly we're tasked right now with finding over $450 billion in savings over the next 10 years. I think we can do that. There's risk associated with that. It's very hard but it's manageable. I think if we double that, we'd be in trouble.

Inskeep: The last thing I'm going to ask you, admiral, here we are, almost on your last day on this job. Have you had even a moment in recent days to think about your first days in the Navy? And what do you remember, if anything?

Mullen: Well, what I remember is what actually -– what drives me today is the great people that I was around, the young -– back then, it was young men who were 18, 19, 20 years old, off to war in Vietnam that I didn't really understand, in a place I didn't really know –- enormously complex -– but focused on what I was trying to get done. And in 1969 when I went there, it was an unpopular war at a very unpopular time in our country for lots of reasons, not just the war.

So that in -– that formed a lot of the framework for me as these wars have occurred –-

Inskeep: What were you trying to get done? What was your job?

Mullen: Back then?

Inskeep: Yeah, sure.

Mullen: I was -– more than anything else, I was the anti-submarine warfare officer, but on the gun line in Vietnam I was a watch officer, essentially -– typically on for four hours and off for eight hours endlessly. We had five-inch manual guns that -– well, we fired so many runs -– rounds out of those guns that they literally would melt –- these five-inch steel guns -– they would turn bright red as if you were looking at a coal in a barbeque.

And it was just -– it was just relentless time after time after time, supporting soldiers and Marines ashore, in my case, up around the DMZ for weeks at a time. So it was intense. It was -– it was dangerous. And at the same time, it was an execution of what the president was telling us to do, and from that standpoint that's what we did, and we did it as well as we could.

Inskeep: Adm. Mullen, thanks very much.

Mullen: Thanks, Steve.

Inskeep: I could ask you 50 more questions but I'll stop. Did I miss anything important you want to get at or -– get anything particularly wrong?

Mullen: Yeah, there's one story -– there's one story that's really opening up right now that you didn't ask me about.

Inskeep: What's that?

Mullen: I can't tell you. (Chuckles.) No, I'm kidding. (Laughter.)