By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 24, 2008 - U.S. military focus in the Middle East has not receded, despite improved security and stability in Iraq and the completion of troop withdrawals there, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here yesterday. "[The Middle East] is the most unstable part of the world," Navy. Adm. Mike Mullen said, "and it's a part of the world that continues to create great uncertainty and great unpredictability."
Mullen spoke to more than 200 people at the Marine Memorial Club here as part of former Secretary of State George P. Schultz's lecture series to the World Affairs Council of Northern California.
About the time notable success in Iraq was being made, violence in Afghanistan erupted, Mullen noted. Security in Iraq has improved, the economy is getting better and political reconciliation is in progress, he said.
Improvements Mullen and Defense Department didn't think were possible as recently as 18 months ago are well underway, including the withdrawal of more than 8,000 troops by February. But there's still a long way to go, the admiral said.
"We talk about [Iraq] as still being fragile and still being reversible," he said. "But there is a durability about [Iraq] now that just wasn't there a few months ago. So much blood has been shed to make this possible. Not many of us thought, even two summers ago, that there was much hope."
The focus has since shifted to Afghanistan, which is an endeavor that Mullen anticipates will be even longer than Iraq in terms of progress. Afghanistan is among the poorest countries in the world, so the development there, in the long run is going to be significant, he said.
Along with Afghanistan's weak economy, the rule of law needs to be established, and there needs to be a growth in Afghan security forces, both Army and police, he continued.
The fast pace and regularity of deployments will remain the same as military requirements in Afghanistan persist, Mullen said. Commanders on the ground have been requesting more troops for months. Ideally, an additional 15,000 would be sent there, but no more than 7,000 are on orders to deploy, he added.
The additional troops are needed to suppress the growing insurgency in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida and extremists "are on the run" in Iraq, Mullen said, but as they retreat from Iraq, they are finding safe havens in Pakistan.
Violence is up in Afghanistan, Mullen said. At least 30 troops in each of the past four months have been killed there. In the previous 54 months, dating back the January 2001, there has only been three months where 30 or more coalition troops were killed, according to www.icasualties.org, a Web site which tallies the number of those killed and wounded in combat.
Mullen explained the growing insurgency in Afghanistan is empowered by the safe havens along Pakistan's border, in which the local tribes there harbor foreign fighters and facilitate their training.
"There's a real problem [in Pakistan]," the chairman said, adding that the issues are evident in the rising attack levels in Afghanistan and the recent hotel bombing in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, which left more than 50 people killed and hundreds injured.
Mullen has spent a great deal of time meeting with Pakistan's military leaders, expressing U.S. concerns for increased pressure along their Afghan border. His fifth and most recent trip was last week where he met with Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani.
During that trip, Mullen said he's encouraged by what Pakistan's Army has been willing to do in the border regions, and that they recognize the threat they face.
"I think Pakistan focusing clearly on the border and the Fatah [region] is important, but I also think it's important to focus on a comprehensive relationship with [Pakistan]," he said. "I've worked hard, many of our military has worked hard on a military-to-military relationship [with Pakistan].
"Having a long-term, dependable and predictable relationship with Pakistan as well as the other countries in that part of the world is important."
Mullen also expressed his growing concern to the council about Iran and its quest to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran is a network state that has the ability to reach out to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamaz in the Gaza Strip, he said.
Iran's pursuit of nuclear capabilities will destabilize the Middle East, and "will undoubtedly generate other countries in the area to feel they will need nuclear weapons to maintain balance," Mullen said.
"It's a very complex part of the world, and it's going to take constant and continuous engagements by every level of government, not just the military," he said. "We're living in a global world, and any instability [in the Middle East] will certainly impact and create instability elsewhere."