By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
April 24, 2009 - The Taliban's growing strength in Pakistan is frustrating to the United States, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told reporters traveling with him that Pakistani military leaders are very concerned with the progress of terrorists groups inside Pakistan.
Last month, Pakistani civilian leaders worked out a deal with the Taliban that essentially recognized them in Swat – a tourist area north of Pakistan's capital of Islamabad. Lately, the terrorists have begun attacking in Besur, a region only 60 miles from the capital.
Yesterday, Mullen visited military leaders in Pakistan, and discussed the situation in the country with them. He said the discussions he had with Pakistani Army Chief of General Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani were more focused on Swat, where the Taliban already are breaking their deal with the Pakistani government. "It was very clear that General Kayani is very concerned about the Taliban activity," a military official familiar with the talks said.
The United States has continued to offer training and equipment help to the Pakistanis to counter the Taliban threat. "It's safe to say we want them to do more," said the official. "The admiral came back from the meetings very concerned and increasingly frustrated with the situation."
The Pakistani military does understand the seriousness of the situation. While in Pakistan, Mullen observed two Pakistani military divisions going through counterinsurgency training. The two divisions were in the sixth week of a 14-week course. Once done, the units will deploy to the border area. "What they are going to do about Besur or Swat is really a Pakistani civilian decision that hasn't been made," Mullen said.
Nothing demonstrates how interconnected Afghanistan and Pakistan are than operations in Afghanistan's Zabul province. The region is tied together by tribe and family, and the people of the region historically pay no attention to the Durand Line, surveyed by the British in the 1920s, which forms the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Taliban take full advantage of this situation.
"Our focus on the border since we've been here is tied directly to the freedom of movement that the Taliban has, whether it's farther north in [Regional Command East] or here in the south," Mullen said. "That's something that has to be dramatically reduced."
An effort to stem the flow has to involve Afghanistan, Pakistan and the coalition to be effective, Mullen said. "This is the time of year where their influx is considerable, and Zabol, in particular, is a path they use," the admiral said.
Mullen met with the governor of Afghanistan's Zabol province, who has a good grip on the situation despite being in office for less than a month, the admiral said. "I think we can get the security piece right here, and by doing that we can enable the other things that must be done here," Mullen said.
Within the province and Regional Command South there is very broad agreement on what the challenges are and how to approach them, Mullen said. "Clearly, security is a key issue here," he said. "But it's not just security; there are other needs tied to it." Development, agriculture and governance also are part of a winning strategy, he said.
"I'm very optimistic and buoyed by the spirit and the leadership of the provincial reconstruction team, which is very focused on the needs as well," he said. "But the challenges are significant. We know what they are. We have to move forward and execute."
This will mean sacrifice, the chairman acknowledged.
"I saw a sign on one of the [forward operating base] walls today with names of seven American soldiers who lost their lives in this province," Mullen said.
The U.S. troops understand the challenges, and they are "incredibly patriotic, dedicated to the mission and dedicated to each other," the chairman said.
The chairman made it a point to visit the provincial reconstruction team in Zabol to highlight the necessary cooperation among many agencies. The soldiers and federal civilians assigned to the team "are at the heart of what really matters, which is development and really helping the Afghan people," Mullen said. "They are proud and excited about doing what they are doing. It makes me proud and humble to be associated with them and serving with such a great group of people."
Mullen said he thinks of the sacrifices American servicemembers and their civilian colleagues make. He comes to the area of operations, he added, to thank them for their service and "to better understand what we ask them to do, and then do everything in my power to help them succeed in the missions."
U.S. servicemembers understand their new strategy. "What struck me was how much our people understand the execution requirements of counterinsurgency," Mullen said. "I've described it as part of our DNA, and a couple of years ago, that just wasn't the case."
The troops know that success is not just about combat operations, Mullen said.
"They know it's about the Afghan people," he said. "They know it's about information operations and the messaging and getting out in front of the enemy. They are living and breathing it, rather than just studying it and learning how to execute it. That's a huge change for me over the past year."