By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 24, 2008 - The highest-ranking U.S. military officer often says he learns as much from the troops as he does from commanders. The lessons Navy Adm. Mike Mullen learned on a trip that concluded this week came from the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, who serve in Afghanistan's Regional Command West.
Mullen led a USO Holiday trip to Germany, Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. While the performers were entertaining the troops, Mullen was receiving briefings from commanders and discussing the strategies, needs and complications on the ground. He also was meeting troops and gauging morale.
In Kosovo, Mullen broke off from the USO and returned to Afghanistan for meetings with Afghan leaders and an extraordinary day with U.S. servicemembers in Regional Command West. He then met with Pakistani military leaders in Islamabad.
"Finding out what is really going on when you are as senior as I is sometimes a challenge," he said. "One of the main methods for me is to use a trip like this, which is why I see so many troops. I don't get 100 different people standing up and asserting truths that I don't know. In the totality of the trip, there is a lot I learn about what's going on."
On his second run through Afghanistan, Mullen saw how the military has applied lessons learned, particularly with the Marines of 3-8. The unit's predecessor in Regional Command West was the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, and "they had a pretty rough go" when they first moved into the area, Mullen said.
"We needed to adjust, and we've done that," the chairman said.
Mullen said the trip also helped him understand the challenges to provincial reconstruction team commanders after visiting the PRT in Afghanistan's Farah province. The PRTs work to build governance capabilities and infrastructure in the provinces. Team members work daily with local and tribal officials, but they are there for only nine months, because some of the members of the team are National Guardsmen and the department has a policy of not having reserve-component soldiers mobilized for more than a year. Training and transitional tasks upon redeploying take up the other three months of their mobilization.
"Perhaps it's time to look at rotating in components of the team on different schedules," Mullen said.
Today, the teams come together in the United States for training and move to Central Command together. But that means a wholesale replacement of personnel each time a team shifts. In the Middle East and Central Asia, relationships are key. Under the current program, every nine months a new team has to develop those relationships with local leaders, tribal elders and government officials all over again.
The chairman said he also wants to look at how the teams are configured. Shortages in security personnel mean team members are handling guard duty and force-protection aspects of the mission rather than interacting with local people. "So I'll take that back with me and ask how that could happen," Mullen said in an interview on his way back to Washington.
The chairman also discussed other aspects of duty in Afghanistan.
"We're very short of helicopters, and in a conversation I didn't expect to have with a helicopter pilot, I found how we were allocating shortfalls, and I'm not sure we're allocating them as well as we could," he said.
Morale always is a focus when Mullen travels, and he said he was "particularly impressed" with the Marines of 3-8.
"They were all sparkling and proud to be there," he said. "And it is a ways out there -- 75 kilometers from the Iranian border. But they know what they are doing, and they have the equipment and leadership to do it."
In Kabul, Mullen met with President Hamid Karzai and his defense leaders. "I wanted to express our support directly to the president for our desire to eliminate civilian casualties, for putting an Afghan face on operations and our support to the military," Mullen said.
They also spoke about the U.S. troop increase in 2009. The Afghan leaders all want the increase, he said, and they expressed their support to him. The troops will go into Regional Command East and Regional Command South.
"One of the hot topics is the 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. troop increase," the admiral said. "All expressed their support. We know that 2009 is a big year -- the U.S. administration change. Karzai was extremely thankful for all that President [George W.] Bush has done for the Afghan people, but he still looks forward to working with President-elect [Barack] Obama.
"As happens each time I go there," he continued, "all expressed their gratitude to the coalition, and especially the United States."
Enablers -- those capabilities that allow combat troops and governments to perform -- also were discussed. Mullen said Afghanistan needs more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. At the same time, a drawdown in Iraq means that ISR assets are needed there as the Iraqis take over more and more of the mission.
"There are competing requirements for ISR," he acknowledged, "and we will generate more over the next 12 months, but it is not going to be a simple swap."
More helicopters, medical support, security forces, police trainers and engineers also are needed, Mullen said, and the Afghan leadership is aware of those shortfalls.
When additional forces arrive in Afghanistan, they will allow commanders to institute the "clear, hold, build" strategy that has worked in Iraq, but there will be differences because they are different countries. The Afghan population is mainly rural. Education levels are lower than in Iraq, and the tribes are stronger. Not enough forces are in Afghanistan to hold an area once it's cleared of insurgents, Mullen said, and a plan is in the works to create holding forces.
The chairman said he knew about these issues before going to the area, but seeing the people charged with carrying these missions out is important and gives him additional insight.
"It is tough sometimes for a senior officer to get a straight answer," Mullen said. "But in the totality of the trip, you are able to understand what's going on and draw data."