By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 18, 2007 - The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today he is firmly committed to allowing conditions on the ground in Iraq to dictate his future advice. In an interview, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen -- who isin Iraq leading a USO Holiday Tour to entertain U.S. troops in seven countries – noted that the first of five surge brigades has left the country, with all five slated to leave by July if events proceed well.
The number of combat brigades – or their Marine equivalents – will drop from 19 to 15.
The surge is working, and incidents of violence have dropped across the country, Mullen said. The people of Anbar province, a Sunni area once dominated by al Qaeda, have made common ground with Marines and soldiers, and are working against the terrorist group.
Ninevah province once needed a division to maintain order. Today there is a U.S. Army battalion and two Iraqi divisions. "A lot of events occurred that couldn't be predicted," Mullen said. "Clearly, where security continues to get better is a good thing. Trying to be predictive at this point is all conditions-based. Conditions on the ground will determine how the redeployment will occur. Events on the ground could still drive it one way or the other."
Mullen said he wants to see a sustained period of improvement before making any decisions about coalition troops in the country.
"I don't have a set time, but a sustained period of time before I really accept that, 'Yes, a sea change has occurred and we will take these steps,'" he said.
With hope being generated in Iraq, there is a comparable rise in the expectations of the American people, he said. "Those expectations will be what they are; they won't be expectations that I'm trying to manage," he said.
At every stop of the USO tour, Mullen meets with troops from all services. He said he does this to get a feel for what they confront, how they are coping and what suggestions they have.
"I am impressed with their high quality and excellence, and the pride that they have in what they do," he said. "They know they are making a difference.
"What I try to pull from them is what's on their minds," he continued. "Today I had a healthy discussion generated by a young soldier who loved the Army, loved what he was doing, but was very much on the edge about whether he was going to stay and make it a career."
The soldier is concerned about deployments – the number and length. Mullen said he likes Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr.'s discussion of the "thin red line" that the service cannot break.
"A young soldier like that starts talking about whether or not he's going to make that decision many months before he actually makes it," Mullen said. "What General Casey and I and others are trying to do is not cross that line. I think we cross that line when we see our re-enlistment rates go down dramatically. (The soldier) said that he and a lot of his peers are having that discussion."
The meeting put a human face to these decisions for both the admiral and for the soldier. "He helped me better define the problem," Mullen said. "I'm anxious to do that, because then we can address it, and the specifics."
One of the things the admiral said he wants to do with these meetings is to make a human connection between the senior leadership of the military and young servicemembers.
"I want to send the message that the senior leadership cares about them, we care about their families and get that message to those really carrying the burden of service," he said. "The average age of any unit in the military is the early 20s. They are incredible people who are making a difference all over the world."