Chairman Tackles Tough Issues at Virtual Town Hall
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 10, 2011 Civil unrest in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, Somalia piracy, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and North Korea’s nuclear posture were among the topics Navy Adm. Mike Mullen took on during a virtual town hall meeting that will air March 14 on the Pentagon Channel.
Questions came in to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from service members, spouses and veterans who posed them online via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Skype.
Mullen taped his answers yesterday in a session that marked the third edition of the Pentagon Channel’s “Ask the Chairman” program, which began in 2009.
“What happened in Egypt really started in Tunisia, and is an incredibly rare and significant change,” Mullen said in response to a question from Spc. Steven Wolf of the Army National Guard.
“We’ve had a long-term relationship with the Egyptian military. We continue to stay in touch with them, and they’ve done the right thing as they move through a time of incredible change after a long time of no change whatsoever,” the chairman added.
Over a week that began Feb. 20, Mullen visited U.S. troops and military and government leaders in seven Persian Gulf nations.
“Every country in the region is concerned [about the recent political turbulence],” the admiral said. “We have to be careful to discriminate between countries -- make sure we don’t broad-brush this and apply solutions equally in every different country.”
Mullen said he believes the current unrest in some Middle East and North African nations “is fundamentally about the internal challenges that many of these countries have” in recognizing that their citizens seek a better way of life, including freedom and economic opportunities.
The United States is “very focused” on the situation in the Middle East and North Africa and recognizes the outcomes are uncertain, the nation’s top military officer said.
“The landscape is clearly changing and we certainly look to stay engaged in this critical part of the world for the extended future,” Mullen said.
Navy Reserve Cmdr. Peter Dunn asked whether the military could be more effective against increasingly violent incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia if the activities were treated as acts of war rather than as crimes. Mullen said the criminal approach to the “growing concern” of piracy presents challenges, but that the United States is on the right path in a situation that increasingly is global.
More than 30 nations’ ships are in the area, Mullen said, and many, including Russia and China, have added to the counterpiracy capability.
Mullen said the pirates principally are based out of Somalia, and that for the United States to go ashore in a country is “a huge step.” The pirate activity “is a criminal regime” that is getting better at what it does, he added.
“It really is a crime,” the admiral said. “I don’t see it as an act of war in any way, shape or form. … It’s a very complex problem that we continue to try to work together with as many nations as we can.”
A question submitted via Facebook by Gerald David concerned Pakistan and how that government might be persuaded to be more forceful in engaging internal terrorist threats.
“I’ve traveled to Pakistan over 20 times to work on establishing a relationship of trust with the Pakistani military,” Mullen said. “We left them for 12 years -- from the early 1990s to about 2002 -- and we’re working on reestablishing that trust.”
Trust is critical not only between U.S. and Pakistani militaries and intelligence agencies, the chairman said, but also between the citizens of the two nations.
“We abrogated that in the 1990s,” he said, “and so we’re working hard to re-establish it in a very dangerous part of the world where there clearly are an awful lot of terrorists.”
Mullen said he’s always mindful of the thousands of service members that the Pakistani military have lost and the tens of thousands who have been wounded.
“They’ve sacrificed greatly to support their own citizens in Pakistan and they’ll continue to do that,” he said. “They’re working with us much better than they have in the past, but they do have significant internal terrorist challenges. … We’re working hard to come together in a much more integrated fashion to focus on the terrorist threat that affects both of us.”
A question about global strategic threats involved North Korea and the steps being taken in the United States to protect against nuclear aggression. Mullen said that although North Korea is “a very difficult challenge,” other nations in the region are dependable allies.
“We’ve had a relationship with the Republic of Korea in the south for over 60 years, and I find that relationship to be exceptionally strong,” Mullen said.
The United States also has strong relationships with Japan and Australia, and growing relationships with the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“There’s no question that the leadership in North Korea has acted irresponsible at times. They are very provocative,” Mullen said. “But … the Republic of Korea’s President Lee [Myung-bak] has made it very clear that he is going to respond to provocations in the future.”
Mullen said he worries because some estimates indicate that North Korea will have a nuclear capability in a few years “that they can put on an [intercontinental ballistic missile] and actually reach the United States.”
The international community “needs … to take steps to ensure that the provocative behavior ceases and does so in time to avoid any provocation that could include the use of nuclear weapons,” Mullen said.