A Persuasive Man

Adm. Mike Mullen is an articulate advocate of U.S. policies abroad.

It's too bad Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is not more prominent as a government spokesman when it comes to informing Americans about the challenges we face in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

He is deeply informed, articulate and persuasive about America's role in many parts of the world, most particularly in central Asia, where we are fighting two wars and conducting sensitive talks with nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Mullen has not been particularly available for questioning of late, especially in the weeks since his key Afghanistan commander's recommendation for 40,000 added troops surfaced in the press-a revelation so significant that Mullen said it was more akin to a "gully wash" than a leak.

But he engaged in a 90-minute conversation with me and my National Journal colleague James Kitfield at the National Press Club on Nov. 4, bluntly assessing the shortcomings of the Afghan regime and expressing hope that we can help turn around years of deterioration of that nation's fortunes.

Mullen is supportive of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's ambition to pursue a more comprehensive counter- insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. That plan would require thousands of additional U.S. troops and the training of many more Afghan soldiers and police to help provide security for Afghan citizens. The absence of security, according to Mullen, has given the Taliban opportunities to succeed. Insurgencies "aren't stagnant," he said. "They go one way or another. And right now, they're going in the wrong direction as far as we're concerned." For years, he said, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan has suffered from insufficient funding and diplomatic and intellectual attention, leading to "a culture of poverty," as he calls it.

Mullen said our mission cannot succeed without a stronger and less corrupt Afghan government. Recently reelected president Hamid Karzai, he said, must "take steps to ensure that government at every level is seen as legitimate," with honest politicians at every level, good services and significant steps to eliminate corruption, including the arrest and prosecution of prominent offenders. Whether Karzai can accomplish that "will be evident pretty quickly," Mullen added.

Reports surfacing after our interview disclosed grave doubts about the feasibility of rapidly creating much larger, competent Afghan security forces. But if more security for the people can be achieved, there seems a good chance that the Afghan economy could be revived. It would be possible, as S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, has written, to confront delay and corruption at Afghan border stations that now impedes formerly important trans-Asia trucking routes. And Afghanistan's once-flourishing agricultural economy could be renewed.

McChrystal's leaked document, and remarks he made in London, added pressure on Obama's team to act. Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have said such advice needs to be private. I asked whether Mullen was concerned about recent polls suggesting the public is growing tired of our Asian wars. He said he has never worked very hard to shape public opinion, and he is "certainly not driven by polls in any way, shape or form." But then he added that when he's with troops "who are in harm's way, the fundamental question to me is if the American people are supporting them."

In the wake of President Obama's decision on Afghanistan strategy, Mullen will be called to testify before Congress. Such hearings don't typically get much air time, but they will offer the chairman a chance to persuade. He will have much credibility, or so suggests the latest Gallup poll about Americans' confidence in major institutions: 82 percent for the military, versus 51 percent for the presidency, 25 percent for newspapers and 17 percent for Congress.

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