By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 17, 2007 - Three months after taking the helm of a military that has been at war for six years, Joint Chiefs Chairman Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen said U.S. troops are performing "magnificently," but added that he is concerned about stress on ground forces. "They know they're good at what they're doing. Yet they are clearly under enormous pressure, as are their families. And we've got to (get) that balance right and work as hard and fast as we can to get the cycle time down," he said in an interview.
The Army's 15-month-long rotations are not sustainable and are too hard on troops and families, he said, adding that intervals between deployments are too short, leaving troops little time to train for other missions or spend time with their families.
But at the heart of fixing what ails the U.S. military is fixing first what ails the budding democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mullen said.
In fact, his top three priorities as chairman hinge on the ability to successfully stabilize those two countries, which would free up the U.S. military to reset and refocus, the chairman explained. He wants to develop a defense strategy for the entire Middle East, revitalize the force, and balance military efforts to be prepared for other global risks.
"It's all linked, and at the heart of that is both the need to be successful in Iraq and Afghanistan and do it in a way that relieves the pressure on our troops and on our families," Mullen said.
First he wants to see deployments drop to 12 months, which would give troops an equal amount of time home between rotations, Mullen said. Eventually, he said, he wants to see as much as two years go by between deployments. This will give troops more time at home, but also more time to train for missions other than counterinsurgency.
This needs to happen "as quickly as we can, not forgetting that we still have a mission there, and the mission is the No. 1 priority, and we've got to have the troops there to carry out that mission," Mullen said. "That is going to be based on the conditions on the ground."
Despite recent security improvements in Iraq, Mullen said, he wants to see more proof that current trends are sustainable before coalition troops are drawn down.
"There's a tendency to see a change, which we have, ... and to seize that and say, 'Gee, it's better.' I need to see it sustained across a number of fronts -- particularly where my responsibility lies, which is in the security piece," Mullen said.
For example, Mullen said, he wants to see local sheiks continue to reconcile and connect with the central government of Iraq. He also wants the 60,000-plus concerned local citizens to be streamlined into the overall security force. And, Mullen said, he wants to see the economy continue to grow and government funds distributed within the regions proportionately.
Most importantly, he wants to see violence continue to drop, he said. "We are still tragically losing soldiers on the ground," Mullen said, noting the figure is about 30 a month. "That's still too much."
Still, Mullen cited much progress in the region, especially since the surge of troops this summer.
"Every metric with respect to violence is down significantly since ... the surge has been in place. In addition, we've seen significant reversals of the way it used to be in Anbar and western Iraq. We've seen local citizens stand up there significantly. We've seen local leaders stand up there. We see an economy which is starting to move forward in a positive way.
"But I need to have a comfort level associated with these being sustained over time," Mullen continued. "Obviously, the goal at some point -- hopefully sooner rather than later -- is to have the Iraqi security forces take control of their own homeland in a way that they haven't thus far."
In Afghanistan, progress is "mixed and uneven," he said.
Officials were expecting a resurgence of Taliban forces there this year, and while attacks were up this year, it was less than expected. Mullen said that as many as 6 million children are now in school, up from 1 million in 2001. Also, medical care access and infrastructure have improved.
"So there's been some progress, but there certainly are some areas of concern," Mullen said.
Of particular concern is the country's record-producing poppy cultivation, which reportedly supplies most of the world's opium. Much of the money ends up in the hands of the Taliban. Many farmers are reluctant to stop farming the crop, because it provides an income for their families.
Also, Afghanistan now seems to be experiencing "a classic insurgency," which requires a well-coordinated counterinsurgency strategy that touches upon military, diplomatic, political and economic realms. Forces in the east, mostly U.S. troops, have adjusted their fight with success, he said. But fighting in the south continues to be tough, and funding and resources are more heavily directed to the fight in Iraq.
"In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must," the admiral said in testimony before Congress last week.
"We've made some progress; we've had some setbacks. There's an awful lot of work that not just the military has to do, but across all government agencies, ... treasury to agriculture. We've really got to come together in a way to continues to move this country forward," Mullen said.
Interagency teams that improve security and help local citizens with reconstruction and economic development are key to long-term success in the region, he said. Twenty-five provincial reconstruction teams are operating in the country --- 12 from the United States and 13 commanded by other countries.
Mullen also noted that all U.S. troops deployed around the world -- not just those in Iraq and Afghanistan -- serve to deter global risks.
"I certainly want to send a message to everyone serving around the world about how important their work is," he said. "Our ability from a military standpoint to be out and about, engaged with nations all over the world ... is really important. To the degree we don't do that, I think we increase our long-term risks in those areas.
"This long war ... is going to take persistence and focus and partnerships for the long term."