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The Admiral’s View

Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen Discusses the War and the Military

Adm. Michael Mullen graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1968 and went on to command three ships, a cruiser-destroyer group, the George Washington Battle Group and the 2nd Fleet/NATO Striking Fleet Atlantic. He became chief of Naval operations in 2005, and in 2007, he was sworn in as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mullen sat down with Roll Call Executive Editor Morton M. Kondracke and CongressNow Managing Editor George Cahlink earlier this month to discuss the challenges he faces as the nation’s top uniformed military officer. Mullen firmly rejected the idea that the armed forces have been “broken” by the strains of two wars, but he was candid about the pressures faced by the military and its personnel.

Mullen was frank about the continuing challenges in Iraq — and growing needs in Afghanistan. He also discussed the Iran situation and the threat posed by that country as well as the Congressional debate over war funding.

ROLL CALL EXECUTIVE EDITOR MORTON M. KONDRACKE: First a couple of Iraq questions. Why are we fighting so hard in Sadr City? What is the strategic purpose of this?

Well, I think, more than anything else, it’s being guided and led by Prime Minster [Nuri al-] Maliki, which I’m pretty encouraged by. And I think it’s an extension of what he did in Basra and his stated intent that militias have to go away, and that’s where the militias are, and he’s made it pretty clear that’s his intent. And, we want to support him in that regard, and I choose my words pretty carefully about what the United States is in, because we really are in support. We clearly have joint security stations on the outer outskirts of Sadr City, and we’ve gotten in some pretty stiff fights with respect to what we did during the Basra operation as well as now. But this is, by and large, Iraqi-led, and we are supportive of what the prime minister is trying to do.

ROLL CALL: Is Moktada al-Sadr now Iran’s man in Iraq?

MULLEN: I’m not sure. Sadr clearly has a great deal of influence, and he has been able to both declare and sustain this cease-fire, albeit, it has had spikes and questions over whether it would be sustained or not. But it seems like … when Sadr speaks, those who follow him listen. … He’s clearly supported by Iran.

ROLL CALL: He lives in Iran!

MULLEN: Well, he [has] spent a lot of time in Iran — there’s no question about that. But I’m not convinced that Iran even thinks that he’s their guy. From my perspective, Sadr is somewhat of an enigma to me, as I think he is to many others, and I’ll use Basra as an example — it was really a political reconciliation that diminished that fighting when it did. And, it isn’t clear to me exactly where he’s headed based on either what I’ve seen or how he’s acted.

ROLL CALL: Is the purpose, do you think, of Iran’s activities [in Iraq] simply to drive us out and to upend the Maliki government? Or, what do you think their purpose is?

MULLEN: Difficult to know. Specifically in terms of where Iran wants to go, I believe Iran wants a weak Iraqi government that they can have a lot of influence over. I believe they want to make it as difficult on the United States as they possibly can, for as long as they can, and those two objectives drive an awful lot of their actions.

CONGRESSNOW MANAGING EDITOR GEORGE CAHLINK: Let me turn to Congress for a moment. We’ve seen a sort of a shift in Congress from focusing on troop withdrawal to really going after now some of the reconstruction money for Iraq. How would that impact what the U.S. is trying to do over there, if they do succeed in cutting some of these reconstruction dollars?

MULLEN: Certainly it makes sense to me, the discussion that both sides are having, to have the Iraqi government bear more of the financial burden of what’s going on in Iraq. And, that, in fact, the Iraqi government has recently provided close to $300 million. … I’m encouraged by that. What I have been concerned about is the capacity for the Iraqi government to literally spend the money. So if we go through some kind of transition where they are funding these very important projects, is that we not lose the pace and that we not create significant delays in execution, because so many of the projects are so important to returning cities and townships to an ability to sustain themselves. To providing the kinds of jobs that are out there, that need to be out there for a healthier Iraq, both our economy, as well as population.

CONGRESSNOW: How much do you think the Iraqis can take on? How much do you think they should take on?

MULLEN: Well, I think they need to take on as much as they can. I don’t have a figure in that regard. They have a substantial budget reserve, and there is a growing agreement, that they need to pick up as much of the burden as they can.

ROLL CALL: What’s left of the Sunni insurgency and al-Qaida and other elements [in Iraq]? How would you quantify that?

MULLEN: Well, al-Qaida has been diminished significantly, but it still has significant traction. And I think we’re going to have to pay attention to al-Qaida for the foreseeable future, though probably the center of gravity for al-Qaida right now is Mosul, and we are progressing through Mosul, not unlike we did with al-Qaida in Baghdad. But, I don’t expect al-Qaida to go away.

ROLL CALL: The Sunni insurgency is over?

MULLEN: Well, it has been dramatically reduced, but I would describe it as continuing to be fragile, and we haven’t reached a point where it is irreversible. So, in that regard, I wouldn’t say it’s over, or, potentially that it’s over for sure.

ROLL CALL: You have, from time to time I believe, said that you would not rule out direct military action against Iran. Under what circumstances might we do something like that?

MULLEN: I think it’s really important that we bring as much pressure [to Iran] diplomatically, politically, financially and as well as militarily. And I would not want to be predictive about what we would do. I really don’t like to speculate with that. But I’ve been constant in, I think Iran is a significant negative influence in that part of the world. I think it reaches well into Iraq. We’ve talked about that reaching into Afghanistan in ways that surprise some people, because the Taliban are not necessarily their friends. And clearly if you reach across the entire region, if you look at what they’re doing in Lebanon, with Hezbollah and Hamas, and they are the single biggest state sponsor of terror in the world. And, in that regard, they are, and will continue to be, a significant problem. And I think that we can’t — not just the United States, but the region and the international community — just cannot ignore or just hope Iran’s going to go away. And that doesn’t even speak to their, I believe, their intent to develop nuclear weapons.

ROLL CALL: Have we had any success on any front in restraining their ascension to power?

MULLEN: It has made it much more difficult because they’re so well-resourced, because of the hegemonic views of the leadership and the fact that they have been supported by either regions or countries in the world, and from an ability to continue to do that, they are not strongly opposed. I just haven’t seen a lot of pushback on their progress.

ROLL CALL: Let me just ask a couple questions about the [Iranian] nuclear problem. Is it militarily feasible to destroy or significantly reduce their nuclear weapons capacity, militarily? I mean, various people have said that they’re so deeply buried, and they’re so hidden and so scattered, that they couldn’t be taken out.

MULLEN: Broadly, it is possible. But it’s a significant military challenge.

CONGRESSNOW: I want to turn to Afghanistan. You had testified that you were deeply concerned about Afghanistan, but at the same time, you said you weren’t sure what you could do there in terms of sending more troops because of the demands of Iraq. I’m curious — what would you ask Congress for in terms of Afghanistan? Is it money? Is it personnel? Is it more equipment?

MULLEN: The biggest constraint I’ve got with forces available for Afghanistan is the deployed forces in Iraq. Now, it’s very clear that Iraq is the No. 1 priority for us right now, and should forces become available down the road out of Iraq, then very likely, the second priority would be to send them into Afghanistan. … We’re actually in pretty good shape this year, because we’ve added about 3,500 Marines, but they’re only there temporarily. They’re on a seven-month deployment, so there will be need for more forces down the road. But they’re not going to be available … unless we come down from the current levels that we’re in in Iraq. And, as far as that support is concerned, I appreciate over the years that Congress has been a terrific supporter of funding the troops for the needs that they have. That said, in the end, Congress has provided the money for which I am really grateful.

CONGRESSNOW: There was some talk about including language [in defense legislation] that would force the military to shift its focus to Afghanistan to make that more of a priority. Would that help you?

MULLEN: That’s got to be set by the president [and] the leadership in the country. … I’m still in a position where Iraq’s the No. 1 priority, and that’s where I’m putting my troops, where I don’t require as many, and then I move them to Afghanistan.

ROLL CALL: How do you assess the current state of play in Afghanistan? Are we losing? Is it stalemate? What’s the situation?

MULLEN: Taliban is resurgent. They lost an awful lot of battles last year on the field. And in losing in that regard last year, they’re moving to more violent techniques, which brings on the IEDs, the suicide bombers, to create that kind of violence. Where we were a year ago versus where we are right now — it’s more violent. We are also, with more troops on the ground, expecting more contact this year. [Particularly] in the south, because that’s sort of the most violent area. We expect that. And, the overall — while there certainly are differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, at the high level, it is a counter-insurgency. We have to have enough troops there to not just win a battle, but to hold the turf and to provide the sustained security at the same time we’re building the Afghan security forces.

And we’ve actually done a pretty good job building the Afghan ground forces. … The police are behind, but that’s starting to come as well. All that takes time, and it’s going to take some time to do that. And I have expectations for a pretty tough fighting season this year, starting now, really through when the weather doesn’t permit it anymore. But we were very successful last year in the east. We needed more forces in the south — that’s where the toughest fighting is. We’ve got more forces there, so we’ll see.

But Afghanistan is underpinned by an incredibly poor economy. To compare Iraq and Afghanistan is night and day. I’ve used the figure that the gross revenues in Afghanistan this year — I mean, Iraq’s got some $50 [billion] to $60 billion in surplus, and the entirety of Afghan’s revenues this year are $675 million or $700 million. So it’s going to take a long time. I don’t expect an overnight success in Afghanistan. I think it needs to be persistent. We need to stay with them. I’m optimistic about a positive outcome, but it’s going to take some time.

ROLL CALL: How many more troops would you like in Afghanistan, than we and NATO have now?

MULLEN: It’s probably 10,000 to 12,000 more at this particular point.

CONGRESSNOW: Next week Congress is [going to take up a supplemental]. … How quickly do you need that? Do you need them to get that done before the end of the month?

MULLEN: We need it very badly before the Memorial Day recess. We stop paying soldiers the 15th of June. And we have precious little flexibility with respect to that. And not too long after that we stop paying the other services. And I would think the inability to pay our soldiers would — clearly that creates incredible strengths and difficulties with us, as well as I think, a lot of other people.

The other thing that happens is, all of the financial institutions in the Department of Defense, anticipating or not anticipating when this gets solved, they start contracting, they start reserving, they start trying to make so we wouldn’t be letting any new contracts. We wouldn’t be putting ourselves in a very good position to execute for the rest of the fiscal year. … It makes it extremely difficult to execute the day-to-day business of the Pentagon without knowing the money is coming. So if you are unpredictable with being able to get this, it creates great uncertainty, and that makes it very difficult to do every day what we do for a living.

CONGRESSNOW: Is $108 billion the minimum that is needed in the supplemental [for 2008 war costs]?

MULLEN: The $108 billion is a good number, as far as I’m concerned.

ROLL CALL: Could you go lower than that?

MULLEN: $108 [billion] is what’s been asked for, and we’ve been pretty vigorous and rigorous about scrubbing that requirement, and I’m pretty comfortable with that.

ROLL CALL: Are the U.S. armed forces “broken” because of the strains of Iraq, in terms of recruitment, in terms of re-enlistment, and whatever happened to the plan to enlarge the size of the military?

MULLEN: It’s not broken. I believe the Army — ground forces in general and armed forces in particular — are the center of gravity for our military right now. They have borne the burden. They are the most stressed. But they are not broken. What I have found is they are remarkably resilient. They have a spring in their step in Iraq, which I didn’t see few months ago because of the success of the surge. But the step that was taken by the president to reduce the deployments from 15 [months] to 12 months is a huge step.

Anecdotally, I was with a brigade commander that had just gotten back in December, and I was with him about six weeks ago, or eight weeks ago, out at Fort Carson. And he just got word that his next deployment, instead of being at 12 months, was going to be in 18 months. They started lining up around the block to re-enlist, because the extra dwell time that they got. And that was before we reduced the length of deployment.

Retention is good — the numbers in the army, when I go from brigade to brigade are staggering in terms of brigade commanders re-enlisting — not 100 percent of what their goal is, but 150 [percent] or 200 percent. But I don’t want to say that it isn’t strained or isn’t stressed. It is.

It’s a very delicate balance, and it will continue to be. I grew up in the ’70s, in a military that was broken. We’re not anywhere close to that. But that line is invisible. We’re a lot closer to it than we were a few years ago, though I don’t think I’m standing next to it right now. The biggest concern I have right now is if we cross it, it’s 10 to 15 years to recover. So I never want to get there. That’s why constant focus on this is so important. This is the best military. And I will have been commissioned 40 years in June. This is the best military by orders of magnitude, of any that I’ve served with over those 40 years. We’ve got to make sure they’re taken care of.

ROLL CALL: What about enlarging the size of the military?

MULLEN: It is being enlarged, and it gets back to force availability. The Marine Corps have grown from 175,000 to 202,000 — but they’re not going to reach that until 2010. The Army is growing from what was 480,000 or 485,000 when this war started to 547,000. And it’s the same thing. They’re not going to get there until 2010 or 2011. That growth is really important, but it isn’t creating capacity that I can reach to right now to send to Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s why these next 24 months … are so important, and it’s all part of this delicate balance.

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