Admiral Mullen sets a high bar for continued US combat in Afghanistan

Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has set a high bar for continued US combat in Afghanistan — at least if we intend to win (whatever that means in this context).   He also has some interesting (and encouraging) things to say in this interview about our military forces.

Excerpts from the Transcript of a Leadership Breakfast with Admiral Michael Mullen at the National Press Club on 4 November 2009, posted at

  1. About the war in Afghanistan
  2. About the Long War
  3. The key to sustaining our military
  4. About post-traumatic stress disorder

I urge you to read these excerpts.  There is some scary material here.  Red emphasis added.  Links to additional material appear at the end.


(1)  About the war in Afghanistan

James Kitfield: We know now that our partner is going to be Hamid Karzai for another 4 or 5 years. There is obviously – in classic counterinsurgency doctrine, the importance of the government to delivers services and linking the population to their government and taking them away from support for the insurgency is critical.

Given all that we’ve learned about him over the last months – about the corruption, claims that his brother may be involved in the drug trade, et cetera – how confident are you that we have a legitimate partner over there? And what do you want to see out of him specifically to show that he has crossed some paradigm where he is going to take this corruption seriously?

Mullen: Well, I think he has to take ownership for his own country first of all. Secondly, we are extremely concerned about the level of corruption and the legitimacy of his government.

One of the three legs of the stool is to have a government. You have to have governance. And it is not just in Kabul, it is not just the central government. And I don’t expect we are ever going to have a situation where there is quote, unquote, “strong central government” in Kabul.

But Kabul historically – or Afghanistan historically – has had a central government that’s functioned. We have to have governance there but we’ve also got to have it in the provinces, in the districts and the sub-districts.

And the people of Afghanistan – what they want is they’d like goods and services. They’d like support from their government and they’ve been without that for some time. So there is huge frustration there, and the legitimacy needs really needs to be in the eyes of the Afghan people. That’s really critical. And we know that certainly is, at best, in question right now and, at worse, doesn’t exist.

And so I think it’s really important for President Karzai to take steps to ensure that his government at every level is seen as legitimate. That means good governors; that means good local politicians; that means good agencies and institutions which provide for their people; and he has got to take significant steps to eliminate corruption. It is far too much endemic in too many areas.

He’s got to take concrete steps to eliminate corruption. That means that you have to rid yourself of those who are corrupt, you have to actually arrest and prosecute them, and you have to show those visible signs. And those would be, in my view, great positive indicators to the Afghan people that he was taking that seriously. And we all believe that has to happen. And if we don’t get a level of legitimacy and governance, then all the troops in the world aren’t going to make any difference.

Timothy Clark: Let me ask one more question about Afghanistan. You made a pretty strong statement just now about the need for the Karzai government and other institutions out in the provinces to get their act together and establish a better system of governance. And you’ve talked about law and justice, local governance, civil administration.

Is there anything we can do to make it happen? Or are we totally dependent on Karzai and both his willingness and his ability to make these rather substantial changes throughout the country?

Mullen: Well, I think principally it’s going to be up him. I mean, he’s a duly elected leader in a sovereign country. And so, as I indicate, I think he’s got to take ownership for this and make it happen.

Now, clearly – and it is not just about the United States – we, the United States, have a very effective ambassador in Kabul. And he is joined at the hip with our ICAF commander, Gen. McChrystal, and we are engaged with the Afghan leadership all the time.

And President Karzai has got some very capable ministers in defense and interior and others, for example. So it’s not to say that there is no way ahead here, but in the end I think it really is up to him in embracing this need and taking the significant steps that need to be taken from a leader’s position in order to move ahead.

Clark: And is there a time that you can see on the horizon where we will know whether or not he is actually doing this?

Mullen: I think it will be evident pretty quickly.

Clark: Let me as the last question here. You talked a little bit at breakfast about how you felt that Afghanistan had been under-resourced in many dimensions and intellectual in other dimensions, and perhaps you could just talk about that a little bit by way of explaining what we need to do in Afghanistan, in addition to the surge of troops, to really get a viable situation over there.

Mullen: Well, there is clearly not just a military solution here. The military is a necessary part of this but it is not sufficient. There has to be some level of governance and there has to be some level of development.

(2)  About the Long War

James Kitfield: Are you at all worried that there is a disconnect there, that how the military is perceiving the threat environment and the strategic environment is somewhat different from the body politic, which is kind of a little more insular or isolated?

Mullen: No, actually I don’t think we’re that far apart in that regard. The term you use is an era of persistent conflict. Most of us in senior military positions believe that we are in that era. I don’t see, in the immediate future, a time or a place where we would be committing another 100,000 troops to some other part of the world.

That said, since over the last, what, many decades, we’ve been pretty lousy at predicting what we were going to do wherever we have gone. And so, I think we have to have a robust enough force to be able to respond and have that force be flexible and adaptable, and by and large expeditionary, including the Army.

So I wouldn’t expect – and I’m trying to look out beyond Iraq and Afghanistan and understand, what are our military requirements beyond the current fights that we’re in, and what does that mean for our training and for the kinds of capabilities and the kinds of people and the kinds of skills?

But most of us believe we’re going to need to be out and about in the world, and we shouldn’t be in a retrenchment mode. And I do have a concern about a place like Somalia, that it could become a safe haven. I do have a concern for a country like Yemen, where the same thing could occur.

And there are other places in the world that we’re certainly trying to support in a way that is preventative, and that takes us being there, whether it’s the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines or the Coast Guard. It takes us being there, even in a very small way, to help train and support militaries from other parts of the world.

So hopefully we can be also engaged with our State Department brothers and sisters in that environment and that we can prevent the outbreak of conflict as opposed to have to respond once a conflict occurs.

Kitfield: But no easy way to retrench from this fight – withdraw from this fight?

Mullen: I think the world that we’re living in right now is going to call for us to be engaged – not alone, because we can’t do this alone – with many of our friends in places all over the world. And I don’t just mean in a fight but in ways that both respond but also hopefully prevent fights from breaking out.

(3)  The key to sustaining our military

Mullen: … As I look to the future of our military, I think, if I could – if I could choose how to look in a way that would sustain our military, under any conditions, it would be to make sure we keep the right young men and women in, particularly those who have been through so much combat, seen so much, and that if we get that right, it will virtually guarantee our military’s success in the future.

(4) About post-traumatic stress disorder

Clark: Post-traumatic stress disorder, there are statistics that are showing that there’s a lot more than one thought before on how you’d handle that.

Mullen: I think from a post-traumatic stress and then the other signature of these wars is this traumatic brain injury, mild or serious. And on the traumatic brain injury, we are, I think, in the early stages of really understanding the impact of it.

And what I worry about is these are – as more than one neurologist has told me – these injuries are different. This is not like a football head injury or a boxing head injury. It is the catastrophic aspect of this explosion, which just affects the brain differently. And we are just learning about that. So they are different and also it is very clear the sooner you treat them, the better the outcome’s going to be. So there needs to be a real sense of urgency here, and there are an awful lot of people involved in that. And I try to support what they’re doing as much as I possibly can.

The PTS thing is also one that is of great concern, and it almost starts with the stigma issue, which we have to continue as leaders to break down because it’s hard to say, I need help. And it too often gets used against you. And so actually what Deborah and I see in our travels is we talk to spouses – she more than I – who have PTS-like symptoms, and we’re starting to see that, and some of them have been afraid to ask for help for fear that it would impact on their active duty member’s career, as well.

So we’ve just got to break that down and make it acceptable to ask for help in what is by-and-large something that is a temporary condition that, again, if it’s addressed quickly, its effects can be greatly minimized. So all of leadership, military and actually civilian, is focused on this, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

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11 thoughts on “Admiral Mullen sets a high bar for continued US combat in Afghanistan”

  1. Very interesting Fabius. A couple of immediate reactions:
    1. It is very easy to say, “[Karzai] has got to take significant steps to eliminate corruption.” But how exactly is Karzai supposed to do that, in the real world? His whole position has been to be a weak leader of a dependent government. As described in this NYT article(“Karzai in his Labyrinth“, New York Times, Aug. 4, 2009), he keeps his state from tearing itself apart by giving something to every power base… the Shiite fundamentalists, the heroin dealers, the “Northern Alliance”. Given these realities, that he basically exists because its easier for everyone to have some kind of “leader”, how can Mullen expect Karzai to make radical change?
    2. Sounds like Mullen is thinking about lots of new wars in the future, which is chilling.
    FM reply: Perhaps they expect Karzai to eliminate corruption by an act of will, applying the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics.

  2. Mullen: “I think it will be evident pretty quickly.”

    How quickly, i wonder. And what would be the signs to look for?

  3. Maybe those sixty and eighty hour weeks are not as efficient as we thought. “Split-Second Decision Making Negatively Affected By Sleep Deprivation“, Medical News Today, 17 November 2009 — Excerpt:

    Sleep deprivation adversely affects automatic, accurate responses and can lead to potentially devastating errors, a finding of particular concern among firefighters, police officers, soldiers and others who work in a sleep-deprived state, University of Texas at Austin researchers say.

  4. We are going to be out and about the world….Yemen….Somalia. He should take a look at Southern California to Texas. The military is bloated with endless technologies as rewards for keeping their mouths shut as our national strategy disintegrated with the creation of OPEC. Another decade of what we have now will result in an upheaval and possibly military rule. Mullen is a decent and intelligent guy compared to some of the idiots who have graced that job in recent decades, BUT WE NEED AN UPHEAVAL IN CONGRESS, THE PENTAGON AND STATE DEPARTMENT.

    President Obama is an amateur, intelligent, learning his job. It will take three years, it always does, and then what? We will be well into the next phase of economic collapse with no fiscal tools. It is way later than we think.
    FM reply: As so many people have noted, if the military is so great at nation-building why not send them to our inner cities? Or dysfunction States, like Louisiana.

    As for Obama, it was obvious during the election he lacked the experience for the job. Like Governor Arnold the Terminator, we elected him anyway. Hope is not a strategy. First we need an “upheaval among the American people — the first step to reform.

  5. According to Wikipedia , there are 2 million Afghan refugees left in Pakistan , who should leave by 2012 ; and a million in Iran , who are supposed to leave now . The UN has already repatriated 5m back to Afgh ; but also to the West .
    I suggest our troops stop training the Afghan police and army in Afgh , and concentrate on training those in the West . Then repatriate a two- million strong , ready-meal government , – army , police , air force , politicians , civil servants , doctors ,teachers etc – westernised , well nourished ,vaccinated ,white of tooth . Just add water .

  6. A fall guy is a person used as a scapegoat to take the blame for someone else’s actions, or someone at the butt of jokes. One placed in the position of fall guy is often referred to as “taking the fall”. In the film industry, a fall guy is a form of stock character. (wikipedia)

    Karzai? Eikenberry? Obama? The CIA?

    Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
    Catch a tiger by the toe.
    If he hollers let him go,
    Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
    My mother told me to pick the best one,
    And you are not it!

  7. >We have long been assured that any proposals for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan were never “on the table.”

    Because the switch is not in place.

    If he’s smart he’ll go for negotiations with the Taliban, hand over everything under the cover of complex negotiations and secrecy and leave. It’s basically what happened in Iraq in the end. Meanwhile a pantomime of military toughness parades around outside.

    Hell if the rubes buy it twice in a row it could become the new American way of war.

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