By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 15, 2008 - The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke about his priorities during a roundtable discussion with military analysts in the Pentagon today. Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen spoke about the short-term and long-term challenges facing the military.
From the start of his term in office, Mullen has made developing a Middle East military strategy a priority. He said the strategic look at the region is broader than just Iraq and Afghanistan; it includes Sunni-Shiia problems, Palestinian-Israeli relations, and the problems presented by Syria, Lebanon and Iran.
"In Iraq, security is clearly better," Mullen said. "I don't just read about it -- I've been there a couple times."
The chairman emphasized that in the long run, security alone isn't going to provide the sort of winning combination needed.
"It's got to be more than that," he said. "The surge continues to provide a window of opportunity there for the other areas that must be developed – economically and well as politically."
He said he is encouraged by the Iraqi parliament passing a bundle of laws concerning a fiscal 2008 budget, provincial elections and amnesty. "All that said, we've still got a long way to go (in Iraq)," he said. "It's fragile."
In Afghanistan, Mullen characterized progress as mixed.
"The insurgency is growing," he said, noting that the president's decision to send 3,200 Marines to the country beginning in March is an indication of the U.S. government's concern.
He said the NATO countries need to meet their commitments in Afghanistan, and that he supports Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' efforts in that regard.
Mullen said he had a good visit with his Pakistani counterpart, Gen. Asfaq Kiyani, last week.
"What is clear to me is the sacrifices that the Pakistani army has made in fighting this war, and I very much appreciate their sacrifices and the relationship we have and we need to continue to nurture," Mullen said.
He said the Pakistanis now understand the danger from Islamic extremists and are working to establish a counterinsurgency effort in the country's federally administered tribal areas.
The chairman stressed that the military is only part of the solution in the war on terror.
"Part of the long, enduring conflict that we are in is going to be tied to winning the ideological war," he said. "I'm a big believer in engagement, (a) big believer in relationships."
Mullen also said he is "concerned about the toll of repeated deployments on the servicemembers and their families," he said, noting that many soldiers and Marines have served several combat tours of duty. "Both service chiefs are consistently concerned, as I am, about the brittleness of their families."
The military is at a delicate balance between the mission and the health of the force, the admiral said.
"I'm anxious to get out of 15-month deployments as soon as I can and get it down to 12 months," he said. "Fifteen months is too long. Part of it for me was I was in the military during Vietnam, when we did one-year tours and that was a long time."
Despite the challenges they tackle every day, Mullen said, the nation's servicemembers continue to perform well, though they could use a break.
"In meeting with the troops on the ground ... they are incredibly good, they are very proud of what they are accomplishing, they are resilient, yet at the same time they are tired, particularly those on the second half of that very, very long deployment," he said.
The chairman said the United States is taking greater risks in other parts of the world to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Part of my responsibility is to look around the world and see what we will be doing in the future," he said. He said the military needs to make sure it continues working on developing new capabilities, not just on being well-versed in current capacities.
Looking to the future, the chairman said, he worries about what happens after operations in Iraq and Afghanistan finish, noting that the ends of other wars led to drastic military downsizing, making it difficult to meet the next challenge that inevitably has arisen.
"What I worry about is any kind of peace dividend after Iraq and Afghanistan – whenever that might be," he said. "We've done that several times; it has always proven faulty. We've dug ourselves into a hole, and we've had to dig ourselves out."