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Adm. Mullen on U.S. Mideast Policy

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fresh from Moscow for a military-to-military relations visit, is at the National Press Club. I didn’t know his Naval Academy class also included Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), Oliver North and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. Anyway, here are some highlights of his overview of where the Obama administration is at on the Middle East.

“We’re at a point now in Iraq where the violence level is down, in fact dramatically so … We’re on our plan to support our drawdown” that will start “really, significantly” in 2010; most troop levels will stay level at around 131,000 to 120,000 until early next year.” My expectation is that we will draw down rapidly” to get to 35,000 to 50,000 by August 2010, when we “transition our forces, totally” to an advisory and not combat mission. He doesn’t really say much about dangers in drawing down aside from saying that any transition carries risk.

Afghanistan. Yesterday was one of the U.S.’ bloodiest days in the war. “The people of Afghanistan… are the center of gravity,” Mullen says, and troops need to create the space for “governance… at the local level… engaging tribal leaders.” Strategy is “really a regional strategy” to include Pakistan, where Mullen shuttles back and forth endlessly. He praises the Pakistani military. “Clearly, the top priority with respect to that strategy is to defeat al-Qaeda, whose leadership resides in the FATA, the tribal areas in western Pakistan.” Some see the counterinsurgency strategy on display in Afghanistan as a kind of Tokyo Drift away from that; Mullen doesn’t address the issue.

Iran. “In my view, they continue to move forward on the nuclear weapons development plan,” destabilizing because “the beginning or the extension of a nuclear arms race in that part of the world.” So he’s “encouraged” by Obama’s decision “to have a dialogue” with the Iranians “despite the window of opportunity narrowing.” He declines to talk about the election but reiterates that the Iranian regime is a state sponsor of terrorism and a destabilizing force in itself.

“I’m very concerned about the stress and the pressure that our people are under,” Mullen continues. Harkens back to his Vietnam experience, says “I have found in this eighth year of war… the American people have been spectacular in support of our men and women in uniform.” Worried about the suicide rate “particularly in the Army” though it’s “up in all our services,” as well as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Touch them where they need support,” Mullen urges citizens who want to help wounded veterans.

Doesn’t talk about North Korea. Praises a peaceful “rising China” though he asks for “clarifying that strategic intent” as China continues expanding its military. Mullen urges being “preventive in nature” in Latin America by understanding Latin America through its citizens’ eyes.

Question time. Ah! North Korea’s denial-of-service network attack. “This is an issue of growing concern,” Mullen says. Praises Robert Gates’ 2010 defense budget for investing in preventing cyber attacks. “That’s something we all need to be concerned about.” Doesn’t answer whether the Defense Department was affected by the North Korea attack.

When will the Afghanistan war end? Why believe the troop buildup will help? “I don’t think there are any silver bullets,” he says. “It’s been an under-resourced effort.” He wants to apply the lessons of counterinsurgency in Iraq to Afghanistan “not that it’s a one-to-one” comparison, but “we have the best counterinsurgency force in the world” now. “We are now resourcing it to the needs of the commander on the ground … combined with the civilian team.” In other words, no answer. “My expectation is that we will have a long-term relationship with Afghanistan… the best number I can give you is that we have to start to turn the tide with the Taliban in the next 12 to 18 months.” Punts on “an assessment of duration” until after that. He’s encouraged by “building civilian capacity there… there’s focus on development, there’s focus on agriculture, their economy writ large.” I’m not really sure what he’s talking about on that front

Biggest threat troops face in Afghanistan? “IEDs, the improvised explosive device really have become more advanced over time.” Interesting that he focused on an enemy platform rather than, say, loss of popular Afghan support for the mission, which Gen. Stanley McChrystal said would be “strategically decisive” for the war effort. With regard to troop deaths, “We are gonna spike. … Those numbers are going to go up.”

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