By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 6, 2009 - Navy Adm. Mike Mullen gave a quick view of the world from his perspective as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during a public lecture at Princeton University here yesterday. Mullen spoke about Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and China and answered questions from the audience of students, faculty and townspeople.
The chairman said his biggest concern remains the greater Middle East, including the Central Asian countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Ongoing Arab-Israeli problems and terror groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are the biggest worries, he said.
Mullen said progress in Iraq is evidence of a transition occurring in the historically troubled region.
"The Iraqi elections this past weekend were a triumph for the Iraqi people," he said. "It shows the nation is headed in the right direction."
Violence is down in Iraq, and government capabilities at all levels are increasing, he said. While some al-Qaida terrorists continue to threaten the country, the group's capabilities there are greatly diminished.
"In the days and weeks ahead, the Iraqi provincial governments will change, and in the weeks ahead, I see the United States drawing down the troops in the country and turning more and more of the responsibility for the nation over to Iraqi leaders," Mullen said.
"The future answers in Iraq lie in the hands of Iraqi politicians and especially in the hands of the Iraqi people," he said.
But if signs are encouraging in Iraq, Afghanistan is another story, Mullen noted. Violence has increased and Taliban shadow governments exist in the provinces. Drugs, tribal jealousies and fighting along the border with Pakistan all play a role in creating an enormously challenging and complex country.
President Barack Obama has some decisions to make about troop levels in Afghanistan, Mullen said. Army Gen. David McKiernan, the NATO and U.S. commander in the country, needs about 30,000 more U.S. troops.
These servicemembers will be deployed to Regional Command East and Regional Command South, the chairman said. Some will be used to protect the populace, while others will help train Afghan security forces.
The proposed plus-up of U.S. troops combined with those of NATO allies will put about 90,000 servicemembers from 42 nations in the country. Mullen said he hopes there will be more troop contributions from NATO allies.
"NATO added 10,000 (troops) last year. We need more," he said. "I'm not encouraged by the track record that there will be significant military additional capability out of NATO."
Mullen said he and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have put a lot of effort into generating more NATO support.
"It's been in many cases pretty discouraging. So we'll see," he said. "They have the capabilities – there's no question about it."
"I believe that NATO's response to the ISAF mission is, and will be, a bell-weather for the alliance's relevance in the future," he said. "So if NATO fails in this, questions will be raised if NATO is relevant for the future."
But the military, alone, won't fix the problems in Afghanistan, Mullen said. Good governance and developing the economy of one of the world's poorest nations is the highest priority.
"We need to see governance develop there and we need to improve security for the people," he said. "The center of gravity is really the Afghan people. We need to ensure they don't think of us as an occupying force."
Economic development also is important, Mullen said. "All the troops in the world won't help," if there is no improvement in both governance and the Afghan economy.
Turning to Pakistan, the chairman said government officials there acknowledge they have a problem with extremism.
The Swat Valley in the country, for example, is now dominated by Taliban groups and the area is not far from the capital of Islamabad.
The U.S. military is working hard to establish relationships with Pakistan, Mullen said. More Pakistani officers are coming to the United States for professional military education and there are opportunities for both militaries to work together.
Continuing his look at global security, he said it is important for the United States to engage with Iran.
"It's instructive to me that even in the darkest days of the Cold War we had multiple channels to the Soviet Union to exchange information," he said. "We have not had that (with Iran) since 1979."
Mullen said Iran is on the path toward nuclear weapons and developing such capabilities could lead to an arms race in the region. "I worry a great deal about proliferation in the region beyond the military capability that could be catastrophic," he said.
The chairman also spoke about China, noting that everyone in the world wants that "huge economic engine" to be a force for good, as opposed to a force for instability.
The Chinese navy recently deployed forces to the Gulf of Aden to work on the piracy issue. "I applaud that," Mullen said. "They are clearly vulnerable through the Straits of Malacca where all their energy goes through. Building a military to protect that makes sense to me. But what I can't get is what their overall strategic intent will be?"
The chairman also spoke of how the U.S. military could help address such challenges as drug unrest in Mexico.
When narco-terrorists controlled much of Colombia, for example, the U.S. military helped train Colombian troops to counter the drug lords. Similar training, he said, could be used in Mexico where there has been a recent rash of drug-related killings.
"We've offered that," Mullen said. "It takes engagement – not high-end military activity."
Mullen also pointed out that the U.S. military provides humanitarian support around the world through its hospital ships and engineer units that help build roads and infrastructure.
The U.S. military recently stood up a four-star command in Africa. The continent has great resources and equally great challenges – genocide, HIV, bad leaders, failing states, Mullen said. "We must pay attention to this vital continent."
Throughout his more than 44 years in the military, Mullen said he has found it is "important that we look at problems through other people's eyes, not just our own. This gives you different choices for how you handle these challenges."