Mullen Lays Out Progress, Challenges in Middle East
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 7, 2010 Stability in the greater Middle East remains the highest security priority for the United States, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen spoke to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he also addressed the terror challenges facing Yemen.
The chairman said he has been concerned about the situation in Yemen for years. “We’ve engaged with their military, we’ve been engaged in terms of support, and Yemen is a country – along with Somalia – that I have been concerned with for some time in terms of becoming the next safe haven for al-Qaida,” he said.
Mullen praised the Yemeni government and military, which the U.S. military supports with training and equipment, for their actions against al-Qaida.
Even with increased U.S. support, the chairman said the likelihood of large numbers of U.S. forces being needed elsewhere in the U.S. Central Command region – including Yemen – is very low.
Mullen spoke about his recent trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said he was encouraged by the response of local officials in Iraq. In the past, Iraqis wanted to talk about security, “now they wanted to talk about development and investment,” Mullen said.
That change occurs as Iraq heads into national election scheduled for March 7. Following the elections, the United States will begin pulling out a significant number of troops, Mullen said. There are about 112,000 U.S. servicemembers in Iraq today; by August that number is to be below 50,000.
“That is not to say that there won’t be challenges or that it will be easy,” he said. “There are huge political challenges there, we understand that.”
The al-Qaida bombings in Iraq that have killed hundreds of innocent men, women and children, have not set off sectarian or ethnic civil war, as the terror group wants, and that is encouraging, Mullen said. “The government there has learned from these bombings and is moving forward,” he said.
The United States is intensely interested in Iraq and “will not take our eye off the ball” there, he said. “We’re very vigilant there, but I am pleased with the progress.”
The chairman discussed Pakistan and the problems confronting that nation. His visit before the holidays was his 14th since taking office in October 2007.
“It’s speaks to the priority … and the need to continue building a relationship on the basis of re-learned trust, because we lost trust there,” he said. U.S.-Pakistani military-to-military ties were non-existent from 1990 to 2002, and it will take time to rebuild those ties, he said.
Mullen was impressed with the progress the Pakistani military has made in taking on the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat region. The chairman visited the region north of the capital of Islamabad in December with Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani.
The Pakistani military conducted a textbook counterinsurgency campaign in the region, he said. There was minimal collateral damage, the army handled the refugee problems well and the military is reaching out to the people of the region.
“A year ago, it was going so badly in Swat that none of us would have expected this” result, he said.
Mullen told the group that the Pakistani military has taken many casualties during the operations against insurgents in the tribal regions, but they are continuing the mission.
“We are working hard to form a mutual path to eliminate the terrorists … and get at those safe havens where al-Qaida leadership still lives and plans,” he said.
President Barack Obama’s decision on the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy was the right one, Mullen said, and one he fully supports. The plan calls for 30,000 more American troops in Afghanistan and focuses U.S. aid on building governance and infrastructure at all levels.
“I believe we have the right leadership there now, so our main goal over the next couple of years is to execute that strategy,” the admiral said.
Iran continues to be a concern in the greater Middle East. “Iran’s continuing strategic intent to have nuclear weapons would be incredibly de-stabilizing – not least because an arms race in that part of the world is exactly what we don’t need,” he said. Iran is believed to support terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Mullen noted the importance of continuing relations between the United States and Middle East nations. The 12-year gap in relations with Pakistan was incredibly damaging to U.S. interests, he said. With Iran, there has been no relationship for 30 years.
“There’s a lot of concern, potential and … focus that needs to be sustained in that part of the world,” Mullen said.