Positive trends in Iraq belie deeper security challenges, says top military officer
Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen says services already are preparing to brief the next president after the elections.
A day after meeting at Fort Stewart, Ga., with soldiers from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division who have recently returned from Iraq, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they described a substantially improved security environment over the course of their yearlong tour. The reduction in violence has allowed the Iraqi government to pass critical laws and take vital security actions that would have been unthinkable a year ago, he said.
"The security environment has been set in a very positive way," Mullen said in a wide-ranging discussion at a Government Executive leadership breakfast on Thursday. "I'm not predicting [anything]," he added. "We're on a good trend line and I'm hopeful it will continue."
U.S. commanders in Iraq are in the process of reducing forces there from the equivalent of 20 brigades to 15 brigades by the end of July. Mullen was careful to avoid adding fuel to the political fire being exchanged between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, Republican and Democratic contenders for the presidency in 2009, and declined to predict when Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander on the ground in Iraq, would make recommendations regarding additional troop reductions. But if security gains can be sustained through the summer, further reductions may be possible as early as this fall, he said.
Mullen made it clear that the challenges the next president faces go far beyond Iraq. He said he was especially concerned about the need to put more troops in Afghanistan, particularly trainers, as the United States and NATO try to build up Afghan security forces.
In addition, military leaders are eager to increase the amount of time troops spend at home between deployments and are warily monitoring the effects of back-to-back deployments on retention of soldiers and Marines, Mullen said. "If we start to really hemorrhage [personnel], we'll be working our way out of that hole for 10 or 15 years," he said.
Besides focusing on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mullen said he and others are increasingly worried about the military's ability to remain prepared for the possibility of more conventional conflicts in the future. With uncertainty about China's military intentions and Iran's continued interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, the security challenges a new administration faces will be significant. Mullen said his staff is prioritizing the nation's security vulnerabilities and preparing to brief the president-elect after the November elections.
He also acknowledged that the spiraling cost of acquisition programs is creating an untenable situation. "In many cases [weapons programs] will collapse of their own weight if we don't do something about it," Mullen said
Striking the right balance between developing the forces needed to win the current wars while building the forces that may be required in the future is a difficult challenge, Mullen said. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently made headlines when he told an audience at the Air Force Academy that the services were not moving aggressively enough to provide needed resources on the battlefield. "I've been wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets into the theater. Because people were stuck in the old ways of doing business, it's been like pulling teeth," Gates said.
Gates' frustration was justified, Mullen said: "Being able to get to a target as quickly as possible is an enduring, and possibly accelerating, requirement."
"The 'pulling teeth' comment was directed at all of us in the Pentagon," he added.