Joint Chiefs Chairman: Obama's Right on Afghanistan

Aug 07, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

Just as Barack Obama began to shake off his jet lag from last week's big trip overseas, the New York Times today broke news that supports Obama's case for putting Pakistan and Afghanistan front and center in the fight against global terrorism.

On July 12, a week before Obama set off for Iraq and Afghanistan, CIA Deputy Director Stephen R. Kappes met secretly with senior Pakistani officials to confront them about links between Pakistan's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the tribal militants who are aiding the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, according to reporters Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt.

Just about everybody but the Bush administration seems to have known for, oh, I dunno, like 10 years about the links between the ISI and the Taliban. In fact, for reasons of either ignorance, arrogance or both, Bush administration officials, just days after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, actually sent then-ISI chief, Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed, a known Taliban sympathizer, to Kandahar to negotiate the release of Osama bin Laden to the U.S. By the time Special Forces swarmed Tora Bora, bin Laden was nowhere to be found. A few weeks later, Pakistani dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf canned Ahmed, despite the latter's role in running the coup by which Musharraf deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. (Are ya with me so far?)

Fast-forward to July 2008. Kappes's visit was part of a trip he made to Pakistan with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

What a difference a year makes. In June 2007, during the question-and-answer period following Mullen's first public address as JCS chairman, I asked him, essentially, whether the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan had been starved of resources in order to feed the invasion of Iraq.

ADMIRAL MULLEN: Having just been there, I was reminded that Afghanistan certainly is an economy-of-force campaign. ... Clearly, there are great possibilities for additional forces. I don't think the lack of them right now takes the risk to a very high level with respect to Afghanistan, and it becomes that combination of what resources are available to do this.

He went on to chide NATO to "work very hard to meet their commitments in order to provide the capability to continue the campaign there."

Today, Mullen is singing a different tune, as he did to PBS's Jim Lehrer just two days after Obama's Afghanistan visit, proving Mike Tomasky's point that "Obama is substantively right to talk about the strategic importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban have regrouped and al-Qaida is amassed. His successful meetings in Afghanistan reinforce that message."

(Anybody get the sense that a bunch of world leaders and government officials are auditioning for the role of BFF to the next commander-in-chief?)

JIM LEHRER: With no -- now, Afghanistan. Senator Obama has used the term that Afghanistan -- the situation there is "precarious and urgent." Do you share that?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: I think it is. It is urgent. It is one where the violence is growing.

It's actually a combination of things. And certainly, in some ways, it's gotten worse, but the results there -- I really use the term "mixed."

And the reason I say that -- I was just there and with the commanders on the ground. And I'd been there in late February, early March with the same unit in a very tough part of Afghanistan, to look at a couple of villages in this valley that these troops couldn't go to, because they would have gotten shot. And as recently as two weeks ago, now they can go into these villages freely.

We've added troops, Marines in the south and Marines in the west. They've actually made a difference, and they're making progress.

We've got serious challenges on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. We've got insurgents which are flowing there. We've got more sophisticated attacks occurring.

So right now it is mixed. And I am concerned. We don't have enough troops there. I've said that over many months. And in that regard, we need to flow troops there as soon as they're available.

JIM LEHRER: Why don't we have more troops there, Admiral?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, we are very committed to -- with a significant number of troops in Iraq. We are in a cycle that deploys them at a certain rate. They're out for about as much -- they're gone for 12 or 15 months, and they're back for about that period of time.

We're in a very significant rotational cycle. We're at a time where we're building the Army and the Marine Corps over the next couple of years.

So we've got our troops committed right now, either preparing there or coming back. And until we get to a point where we reduce that commitment, we won't have significant additional troops to add to Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: So troops have to be withdrawn from Iraq before troops can being added to Afghanistan in any sizable way?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: In any significant manner, that's true.