Q&A: US Admiral Michael Mullen

The US’ most senior military officer talks about Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Admiral Michael Mullen says US troops in Afghanistan are not an occupying force [GALLO/GETTY]

Admiral Michael Mullen is the most senior military officer in the US. As chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under both George Bush, the former US president, and Barack Obama, the current US president, he sits at the strategic helm of two of the world’s most ambitious and controversial wars.

Josh Rushing, the presenter of Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines programme, asked him what US military strategy looks like in the Obama era.

Al Jazeera: Afghanistan is where empires go to die. Why do you think it is going to be any different for the US?

Michael Mullen: Well, we’re not an occupation force and it’s up to us to make sure that message is loud and clear.

We learned a lot in Iraq about counter-insurgency, and security is vital if we’re going to be able to make improvements in things like governance and development.

I mean I know that we’re not committed certainly in the long term in terms of taking over the country or becoming an occupation force or anything like that.

I think our actions need to be focused centrally on the Afghan people and to make sure that we’re able to train their security forces so that their security gets better and in the long run their lives gets better and their government is able to deliver goods and services to them that they clearly aren’t doing right now.

So you’re not an occupying force. What you’re saying is that you don’t have a long-term plan to stay in Afghanistan like maybe the Soviets did before. But isn’t that exactly a contrary message when you look at the insurgency and how you have to convince the people that you’re not pulling out any time soon so that they can trust you as opposed to say the Taliban?

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Well, I think certainly we need to start to turn the security trend around here in the next … 12 to 18 months because the trends over the last three plus years have been going very badly in the wrong direction.

And it’s my hope that we will have a long-term relationship with … Afghanistan; a military to military relationship, an economic relationship, a cultural relationship that doesn’t involve the presence of any kind of substantial force.

But between where we are now and getting there, there’s an awful lot of work that needs to be done. And again the focus is on this insurgency and I believe we’ve got the strategy right to counter that and then to build not just our forces or coalition forces, … [but] build the Afghan forces to be able to provide for their own security.

And I’m hopeful that with what we’ve learned in Iraq that we’re able to accelerate applying that here because our force is so capable of doing that and I think our government has learned how to do that as well.

How do you say you are not an occupying force in Afghanistan?

I think over time you really turn the security over to the Afghan forces. And I recognise that the perception can be that we are [an occupying force].

Well if you look at it, the US removed the government there eight years ago, put troops in and now the troops are going to be twice as much before the end of this surge, I think, than at any point before.

Well there’s no intent to have the troops be any larger than that needed to really counter the insurgency. There’s no strategic intent to increase the size of the force to be any bigger than that.

I recognise that it’s much larger than it used to be but that said the insurgency has grown, they’ve gotten tougher and really in order to turn that security situation around these are the forces that we need.

Was the US an occupying force in Iraq?

It was seen to be at one point in time.

I would certainly [say] at this point in time it’s not the case.

Most people believe that and if you look at what has just happened … when we’ve moved out of the cities all over Iraq, I think that message is loud and clear. And we’re clearly on a path right now in accordance with the agreement we have between [the] US and Iraq to remove all forces by the end of 2011.

Do you have enough troops in Afghanistan?

I have enough troops … I have enough troops arriving this year to meet the needs of the commander …. There’s an operation that has started … [recently] particularly in the south where we’ve been under-resourced and the fighting has been tough.

We haven’t had enough troops there to hold once we clear. We do now and I really believe that. And most of the fighting has been in the east and the south and I think we have the troop ratio about right.

General [Stanley] McChrystal, the new commander there, is … reviewing what his requirements are and will in his 60-day assessment come back with what he needs overall.

But, right now overall I’m comfortable with the troops that we have there and the ones that are due to show up a little later this year.

The marine commander in the south, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, has been in the press recently and it sounds like from his perspective, that he doesn’t have enough troops there.

Again, General McChrystal hasn’t indicated in any way, shape or form, that he’s not satisfied with the troops there.

Also coming off from General Nicholson is the idea that this is a different mission, different than Iraq – counter-insurgency.

It’s more about winning the trust of the population than it is about killing mainly the Taliban in that area. I know that’s an important message to get to the people who live in Helmand where the operation is going on.

But if you’re the people in Helmand, you see they’re sending 4,000 US marines, the fiercest of the US armed service, and as I’ve read in the paper, two US state department diplomats or officials. I wonder if it looks like someone there to help in their perspective.

Mullen says gaining the trust of civilians is key in Afghanistan [GALLO/GETTY]

Well, in my most recent visit – which was a couple of months [ago] – I was concerned … [by the] number of civilians we had in all the south, which by recollection was 13, and we need a lot more capacity there than we have.

And I know that the state department under Secretary [Hillary] Clinton has started to generate that capacity and I think we will see those numbers increase to the hundreds by the end of this year and the beginning of next year.

We can’t do it quickly enough. This is not just a military operation. Military isn’t going to win this thing. We can provide the security but the civilian side of this really has to kick in and development and governance and those things that we also know are so important.

And I think that message to the Afghan people is a very important one as well.

Why isn’t the state department and USAID down there in Helmand right now?

Probably the biggest reason is just because of the security. You know we’re going to have to create an environment that isn’t completely secure but more secure in some of the toughest fighting areas before we get civilians there.

But I know they’re lined up to come and I’m comfortable that as soon the security situation will allow it they’ll be there.

Following up on the same idea, there has been a lot of talk about whether the war in Afghanistan is counter terrorism or counter insurgency. Counter terrorism is about killing the perceived bad guys. Counter insurgency is about winning the trust of the populace.

A new commander has been recently brought in. You mentioned General McChrystal – his background is in joint special operations. Again it is from a very kind of trigger-pulling, operational part of the military. It seems like a curious choice if the pitch is this is more about counter insurgency.

Well, I have great confidence in General McChrystal. We need great leadership. He worked directly for me last year. I knew him in Iraq when he led our special forces and I think his statement in his confirmation testimony says it all when he talked to the measure of success and the future is really going to be how many Afghan civilians we protect not how many enemy [we] kill.

Clearly, there aren’t enough US troops to hold the whole country of Afghanistan so you pour in a lot of US marines in Helmand and the Taliban pops up somewhere else.

We just had a producer up in the Kundan province. The Taliban there – and we have it on film – they’ve set up road blocks, they’ve shut down girls’ schools, they’re charging a ten per cent tax on the people. They seem to be in charge of the province.

Is it if you were to pull all the troops out and send them to Kundan that they would be back in Helmand? How do you deal with that?

Well, I think very clearly the toughest part of the insurgency is in the south and in Helmand which is why we have the marines there. And again we haven’t had enough forces to be able to hold once we cleared an area.

Certainly the possibilities that you describe are there but most of the Taliban have been focused very much on the east and in the south.

Also you know the south is where the heart of the poppies are. You know it’s a big income resource for the insurgency as well. So we think that’s the significant effort. That it could pop up somewhere else in the country, certainly is a possibility.

General McChrystal and I talked about this before he left to get that kind of assessment to see what he thinks he’ll need in the future. But at this point, the heavy focus is [in the] east and [the] south and I haven’t seen any indication that it’s going to come up heavily in some other part of the country.

You don’t get the sense that the Taliban will just fade away and pop up somewhere else?

I can’t be predictive about what they’re going to do. I think clearly they’ve been focused on the east and south and they’ve got other pockets throughout the country, especially that we’re aware of out west. But I haven’t seen them in the kind of density that we see them in the east and the south.

Is it a US mission or goal to defeat or destroy the Taliban? Or do you see pushing them into the political process as a goal?

I think at some point long-term they become part of the political process. That said, I don’t think that that’s near at end. Not unlike other insurgencies where that routinely happens at some point in time. That’s certainly not around the corner from what I can see right now.

How do you see that process happening – will the US be open to negotiating and communicating with the Taliban?

Well I think that with any insurgency, and certainly the Taliban is an example, you have a hard core group that you’re never going to turn around. And they’re going to either have to be killed or captured or somehow eliminated and then you end up the vast majority of the rest of the insurgency, in this case the Taliban, and they in some point in time … either put their arms down, they come into the process, they look at other opportunities that they just don’t have right now.

And the specifics of exactly how that’s going to happen or when that’s going to happen I think are yet to be determined but overall, I think that’s the path.

So in principle, the US is open to negotiating with the Taliban?

I’m not going to talk about how this is going … certainly at some point in time … I would look to see that kind of interaction, but I think it’s very early to say that at this point.

If you don’t push them somewhere else in Afghanistan, don’t you risk just pushing the Taliban back into Pakistan which seems to be a worsening situation with the growing internally displaced person (IDP) camps?

Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by fighting in the Swat valley [GALLO/GETTY]

One of the things that has happened in Pakistan in recent months and weeks is the Pakistan military – really in response to the people of Pakistan – [and] the government of Pakistan [have] taken the threat against them very, very seriously.

So the pressure that will be brought on the Taliban specifically by the Pakistani military is important and that … movement from both the east and the west in the long run will have an effect.

And in fact, our major goal in that area right now is … to disrupt and defeat al-Qaeda whose leadership resides in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

But again, that’s going to be something that over time the pressure’s going to have to build and I think that it is a pressure from both sides that will eventually get at that threat.

Haven’t we seen this before though with Pakistan? Where it looks like they’re co-operating with the US for a while but then it seems like they give the Taliban some room to grow? It seems like Pakistan plays a bit of both sides where as long as the threat is there, then they’ll continue to get more US attention, money, support and weapons.

When I go to the region, one of questions that’s both in Afghanistan and Pakistan is are you staying with us this time or are you going to leave again? And in fact, we’ve left both those countries historically.

And my message is that we are here with you and we’re here for the long run. And I think [that in the] long run, the potential for that kind of double game which has been played in the past starts to get reduced.

But I don’t think it will go away overnight. There’s a huge trust deficit that has been generated over time and I think that’s a deficit that we’re going to have to work hard to close on. And that is in support of both those countries.

Do you have more faith in the government of Asif Ali Zardari, the current Pakistani president, in that regard than in the government of Pervez Musharraf, the former Pakistani president?

Well I’m not going to talk politics here. My engagement with Pakistan has principally been with military and specifically with the chief of staff, General Kiyani. I’ve worked on a very strong relationship with him. That continues, I’m in frequent contact with him.

And I think that the Pakistani military – under the leadership quite frankly of the civilian government there – has taken some significant steps in addressing this growing threat that they’ve got in their own country.

Indeed, we sometimes forget that there’s actually been well over a 1,000 Pakistani soldiers who’ve been lost in this fight. You know they’ve sacrificed a lot as well.

So that’s really my principal contact. And how the politicians work on this, certainly is something that our political leaders are engaged with the political leadership of Pakistan.

You believe the al-Qaeda leadership is in Pakistan?

I do.

Including Osama bin Laden?

I do.

Are US troops in Pakistan?

I’ve said that we don’t have any US troops … we have no US combat troops in Pakistan. We have had trainers there for a significant period of time to train their trainers which is [an] ongoing support function that is actually moving in the right direction.

So special forces troops are in Pakistan training their trainers?

Some of our troops there are special forces and some of our troops there are general purpose troops ….

I spoke to General Scowcroft and he gave an interview on Fault Lines and he said that the US drones in Pakistan were actually hurting efforts there by creating some of the distrust among people about their feelings towards the US. Do you see it the same way?

Well I don’t speak to the specific operations of what we’re doing and what we’re not doing. I will say that it’s really important that we work hard to fill this trust deficit which comes from years ago.

In fact, … we as a country sanctioned Pakistan in the early 1990s and it lasted well into the 2001/2002 time frame and we’re still recovering from that. And it’s going to take a while for us to do that. I think we need to do all we can to build up that trust between the two countries.

Can you solve Afghanistan without solving Pakistan first?

I’m not sure I would sequence it but … it is one of the reasons that I think the strategy that President Obama has laid out is exactly right.

That this is a regional strategy. It’s not one country or another. These are two sovereign countries very much interlinked in many ways. And I think the border represents that and it’s a very, very complex … environment and history.

That’s why I think the regional approach … [and] special representative Holbrook’s focus on the civilian side … is so important.

It seems like you have a real challenge with refugee camps in Pakistan. The US can’t go and help there because there are such low approval ratings from the people in Pakistan. But without the US helping there have been a number of organisations that are extremists that are providing the charity and the help. Its like a fertile recruiting ground for anti-US sentiment that you can’t quite reach out and touch.

Pakistani soldiers guard IDPs suspected of links with the Taliban [GALLO/GETTY]

Well, actually the US has contributed more than anybody else in terms of relief … several hundred million dollars and we watch this refugee and IDP challenge very closely.

And it is significant and I would never want to underplay that and it needs to resolved and needs to be well led by the Pakistani government. And there are lots of organisations that are assisting in that regard.

But the other thing [that] struck me throughout this crisis is the expectations that it would be exceptionally bad and get worse. And they’ve got a very capable general officer in the Pakistani military who is leading this effort, who has got significant experience from the earthquake relief. And despite predicting that it would be a disaster and get nothing but worse, it has actually gone better than a lot of people expected.

And that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a challenge and that we all don’t need to be pitching in because I think we do. And in particular as the monsoon season arrives out there, we need to pay attention to that and get these displaced citizens back in their homes.

What do you think about the close – and some people say too close – relationship between the Pakistani ISI (intelligence service) and the Taliban?

Well one of the things I have learned in my frequent visits to Pakistan over the last year – I’ve been there almost a dozen times – is again that it is another extraordinarily complex relationship. And it’s one that I’ve spoken very publicly about.

I believe that in the long run the ISI has to change its strategic thrust which has been to foment chaotic activity you know in its border countries. And I think in the long run … and that has been a Pakistan view to its own survival and its own security. And I think in the long run that’s got to change.

Pakistan is the one who gets to vote on that not everybody else.

It’s frequently discussed and I have those discussions. And yet the ISI has also served … some very positive intelligence needs both in the country and certainly between our two countries.

So, I think it’s something we keep discussing, keep looking at. In the long run, its about the security for Pakistan and better security in the region for both those countries.

What do you mean when you say they’ve had a strategic thrust – the ISI has had a strategic thrust to foment choas in bordering countries?

What I mean is that they have clearly focused on support of … historically of militant organisations both east and west. I mean that’s been a focus of theirs in Kashmir historically as well as in FATA. And I think … that fundamentally has to change.

And there are discussions which have been ongoing in respect to that and the leadership recognises that and there is a big challenge dealing with that based on what their history is and what they need to do for the future.

Regarding Iraq, you had mentioned before that to give a timeline for a pullout might create instability in a place where you have achieved stability. Very recently, there seems to be some high profile attacks which might be proving true what you predicted. Are you still concerned about that as the US has been pulling out of Iraqi cities and will continue to pullout of the country until 2011?

I spoke with General Odierno earlier this week – violence levels in Iraq are the lowest they’ve been …. Yes there have been a handful of very tragic high profile attacks but overall, General Odierno and his commanders on the ground are comfortable with the pullout from the cities.

I have an expectation that certainly violence could spike. We know the enemy – al-Qaeda in particular and some of the extremists in particular – are focused on the fact that we’re now out of the cities, but we’re well integrated in terms of the ability to respond with the Iraqi security forces.

We’ve been working on that for a significant period of time. And in fact, as General Odierno says we’ve been pulling out of cities over the last eight months.

So I’m confident that we have it about right. I recognise this is a time of some vulnerability and increased risks. And at the same time I think that we and the Iraqi forces are ready for that.

Where is al-Qaeda on your list of priorities and threats around the world?

As far as I’m concerned, it’s at the top of the list.

And you know that al-Qaeda is in FATA so why is the US not in FATA?

Because FATA is in Pakistan and Pakistan is a sovereign country and we don’t go into sovereign countries.

So was Iraq and Afghanistan.

And we don’t go into sovereign countries unless we’re invited in …. Afghanistan was a country from which the al-Qaeda leadership struck us and we responded.

But couldn’t al-Qaeda strike the US from FATA?

Certainly they could. That’s why the top objective of the current strategy is to defeat al-Qaeda.

The Bush administration seemed to view the US relationship with the rest of the world through a military lense. I’m curious if that seems to be different with the Obama administration. So how do you see the military’s relationship with the rest of the world vis-à-vis foreign policy under Obama?

Well I’ve spoken for a long time [about] the need to take a more balanced approach in terms of the military and the civilian capacity of our government and the expeditionary aspect, meaning the deployability aspect of that capability and I think we disseminated that very badly in the early 1990s when we downsized our military and we downsized a lot [of] our government capability. I mean [the] state department is a good example, USAID is another good example. And we need to bill that back up as result of that.

We’re living in a world now where it really takes both. I haven’t seen anywhere quite frankly where there are exclusively military solutions, which speaks volumes to me about the need to have a civilian side and a military side of this which work together and we’ve got to build that capacity up in the world that we’re living in now.

Back in the Helmand province, how long do you expect US troops to stay?

Mullen says the US has 12-18 months to turn things around in Afghanistan [GALLO/GETTY]

I don’t have any specific time frame. What I’ve said about time frames is I think that in the next 12 to 18 months, certainly through the good weather of 2010, certainly we’ve got turn this security situation around in Afghanistan.

I’m very focused on that right now and I think how that goes and how we’re able to sustain the successes that we’ve enjoyed in the eastern side of Afghanistan will speak to what the long-term plan will be.

And of course between Iraq and Afghanistan, you have Iran. You said it would be very destabilising for region if Iran had nuclear weapons – why?

I believe that Iran’s strategic objectives continue to be destabilising in the region. If I were to go back to Pakistan … with nuclear weapons next to another state India that has nuclear weapons.

And one of the biggest concerns I have with the development on the part of Iran of them having nuclear weapons is other states in the area then they decide that they need them.

And I think in the long run that’s very destabilising for the region and for the world.

If you look at their perspective, Russia with nuclear weapons, China nuclear power, the US is on their western border in Iraq, they’re in Afghanistan on the eastern border, Pakistan on the other side of that, Israel another nuclear power – it seems like everyone has them but them. Why should they, from their perspective, not want or even say that they need nuclear weapons?

Again, I’ll let them speak from their perspective. I just think that the addition of another country in that region, particularly Iran, who feeds terrorism in Lebanon, who feeds it in Gaza, who supports terrorist groups and has that kind of vision of the future who has a stated objective on the part of [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, [the Iranian president], to eliminate Israel is very dangerous for the region and for the world and could clearly result in continued expansion of other countries with nuclear weapons.

It sounds a lot like the argument going into Iraq, connection with terrorism, the possible weapons of mass destruction, kind of the nexus of fear, sounds like the same argument. Is it a bit of the boy who cried wolf?

No, actually I’m not going to say anymore than what I’ve said.

I worry a lot about Iran’s destabilising capability as evidence in what they’ve done both in Iraq and what they do to support terrorism and certainly what their stated objectives have been. And adding a nuclear capability to that would really be dangerous.

Do you see North Korea as a threat to the US?

Potentially. Absolutely.

Not just its allies? But the US itself?

Well, actually really [in] two ways. We’ve got very strong relationships with allies in the region. South Korea as well as Japan and others. I think stability in that part of the world is very important and destabilising that part of the world isn’t just bad for the region but bad globally.

Secondly, North Korea continues to develop these ICBMs – these ballistic missiles – and eventually if they were to develop a nuclear weapons capability, it could extend to threaten us.

Source : Al Jazeera

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