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American Forces Press Service

Chairman Calls Strategy Year's Greatest Challenge

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 10, 2010 – Executing the president’s strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan presents his biggest challenge, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told CNN host Fareed Zakaria today.

However, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said he sees progress being made in both countries.

“In December, we recruited to an exceptionally high number for the Afghans’ army specifically; so much so that the [Afghan] minister of defense had to stop recruiting mid-month because he was well over what the system could absorb,” the chairman said. “That’s a good sign.”

Mullen indicated that an increase in pay for Afghan security forces might have been part of the reason behind the recruiting success.

While security force numbers are up, problems still exist within the Afghan government. Tribal elders claim endemic corruption on all levels. Significant steps need to be taken to deal with this issue, Mullen said, noting that President Barack Obama has spoken to the need for Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his leadership to address the problem.

“These same elders said to me that they were embarrassed that the United States soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines were dying for them,” Mullen said. “They appreciate what we’ve done, but they really want to lead the effort.”

The situation in Pakistan also seems to be shifting, the chairman noted. He’s met with the head of the Pakistani army about 20 times.

“He just finished his ninth campaign over the last year, year and a half up in South Waziristan,” Mullen said. “I spent all day in Swat, flew from South to North, and where a lot of us thought Swat was a year ago and where it was headed is … completely reversed.”

The United States’ relationship with Pakistan is absolutely critical, Mullen said. His many visits are part of an effort to rebuild trust lost as the United States has a long history of supporting the country, but also has left it “hanging several times,” he said. Mullen said the visits help him understand, through the eyes of the Pakistanis, what the country’s challenges are.

The interview also addressed al-Qaida, the group’s tie to Yemen and the “Christmas Bomber.”

Yemen has made improvements, Mullen said, despite facing internal challenges that include a rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and a battle with al-Qaida.

“I don’t understate both the challenges internal to Yemen, as well as the need for the international community to support and help with respect to how we address this in the future,” he said. “And this al-Qaida threat is not going away. It’s going to keep coming at us -- and I don’t just mean us the ‘United States,’ I think ‘us’ internationally -- until we take steps to finish it off.”

Mullen’s words come in the wake of a suspected attempted bombing by a Nigerian man with alleged ties to al-Qaida in Yemen. He was a passenger on a Northwest Airlines flight into Detroit Metro Airport on Christmas Day.

The United States has not taken a more aggressive approach in Yemen, which is thought to have a “few hundred al-Qaida members,” according to intelligence reports, out of respect for the country, Mullen said. That estimate is higher than that of the number of al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

“It’s a sovereign country,” he said. “We have great respect for the president there in terms of his judgment, in terms of what he needs to do this, and right now as far as any kind of boots on the ground there, with respect to the United States, that’s just not … a possibility.”

The reason for the combined force of 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops on the ground in Afghanistan, despite the smaller number of al-Qaida, is to make sure the Taliban doesn’t return and create a permissive environment where al-Qaida could return and flourish, Mullen said.

Iran, and the effort to ensure it doesn’t develop a nuclear weapon, also will prove a challenge, he noted.

“When I speak of leaving all options on the table [for dealing with Iran], certainly it includes the potential for military options,” Mullen said. “But I’ve also been very vocal on the need for the diplomatic, the political, the international focus here, to generate enough intensity and motivation on the part of the leadership of Iran not to consummate this threat.”

Iran’s success in creating a nuclear weapon would prove destabilizing for the region, possibly creating a regional nuclear weapons race, Mullen said.

Mullen also touched on relations with Russia and China during the interview. Both present challenges for the United States.

With Russia, the challenges are not simply military-to-military, but between the two countries, he said. “I think they are a country that we need to continue to engage and understand and be realistic about what the possibilities are,” Mullen said. “I’ve spent a fair amount of time working on the new … nuclear weapons agreement that hopefully will be put in place here in the next few weeks or months.”

As for China, those relations may be more than critical, he said. “None of us believe that a conflict with China is going to be productive in any way, shape or form,” Mullen said.

He indicated the president and China’s leader have taken steps that signal a desire to work together.

Mullen also briefly commented on the United States' strategy in Iraq.

"We will continue to come out of Iraq after the elections that are now set for March 7 and that appears to be on a good glide scope," he said. "I was just in Iraq and confirmed that."

The number of troops on the ground in Iraq is on schedule to be reduced to 50,000 by the end of the year, he said.

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