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Nonmilitary Commitments Needed from NATO in Afghanistan

Interviewee: Adm. Michael G. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
April 3, 2009

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As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) marks its sixtieth anniversary, challenges in resourcing the military fight in Afghanistan--the defense alliance's first out-of-theater engagement--are threatening the coalition's future. But Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells CFR.org in an exclusive interview that NATO's contributions going forward should focus on increased nonmilitary commitments to Afghanistan, such as trainers and advisers, resources the mission desperately needs. "There are certainly countries that have indicated they're going to generate more capability," Adm. Mullen says. "We need it in this new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy; we need it as much if not more so on the civilian side as we do on the military side." How quickly the promised uptick of economists, agriculturalists, lawyers, and other civilian advisers can be in place is unclear, however. While Mullen says he'd like civilian reinforcements to arrive in Afghanistan by this summer, he's not overly optimistic. "We don't have a great track record from Iraq in timely generation of this," he says.

World leaders this week meet in France and Germany for the sixtieth anniversary of NATO. Afghanistan will top the agenda, but there is disagreement about how to resource the mission, and that disagreement has led some to suggest NATO has turned into a two-tiered alliance. What happens to U.S. interests in Europe and the greater Middle East if this fracture continues and NATO ultimately fails in Afghanistan?

I'm excited about the French and their returning to NATO fully participating. This is a military alliance, and they are a very capable military. They bring a lot to the table, and so for that reason, I think it's really important. It is the sixtieth anniversary; this is the most successful military alliance in history, and given that we need to look forward to that success continuing. That said, we've certainly had challenges delivering in the Afghanistan mission, the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] mission, the broad spectrum of capabilities from NATO members, both military and civilian. As you said, Afghanistan will certainly be front and center. I'm hopeful that countries will be stepping forward. I wouldn't want to prejudge that because I honestly don't know. There are certainly countries that have indicated they're going to generate more capability. We need it in this new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy; we need it as much if not more so on the civilian side as we do on the military side. So I look to a positive outcome here.

Beyond Afghanistan, does the United States wish to see NATO maintain a global expeditionary force? Should NATO develop a counterinsurgency strategy?

NATO has, or I'd say is in the process of developing, an expeditionary force. Certainly when I was a NATO commander five years ago, NATO was in the throes of moving in that direction. The expeditionary requirements that are there are critical requirements. It's interesting that if I were just to look at the Article 5 collective defense aspect of NATO ... by definition, everyone else becomes expeditionary because you have to provide forces there. So it's an important point, an important requirement, an important capability.

I'm still concerned about the Iranian support of the Taliban in terms of sending weapons and some of that, some of the kind of training.

NATO is going to have to decide how far the reach is. I am, actually, very supportive of engagement with countries like Japan, Australia, [South] Korea, and others who actually have or will provide capabilities to assist in this challenge we have in Afghanistan, in the fight. So in that sense it is already global. Where NATO goes in the future, and NATO has got its hands full right now with respect to Afghanistan, is in part to be determined by how we do in Afghanistan and then, clearly, based on global conditions as they emerge over time.

How about a coherent COIN [counterinsurgency] strategy? Is NATO there?

From an individual country standpoint there are certainly countries that do COIN, counterinsurgency strategy, very well. From a collective standpoint, probably not as far down the road as we could be, but there's plenty of COIN capability, and everybody doesn't have to do everything here. There are civilian requirements, there are military requirements. So, NATO COIN capability has advanced dramatically in recent years, and I would say that it will continue to do so.

Let's focus now on President Barack Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan. It's being interpreted by some in the West as scaling back the previous administration's ambitions for building up democracy in the region. Is this how you see the redefined mission?

The focus on defeating al-Qaeda is the principle focus here and the main goal; it requires the elimination of the safe haven in Pakistan, but it also requires conditions get developed in Afghanistan to the point where that safe haven that was there in 2001, 2002, can't return. And to do that, there's a counterinsurgency requirement right now to provide security for the Afghan people. Our success in Afghanistan is tied directly not just to their security but to their overall [success in] having a government that provides for them and having an economic future that makes their lives viable. I don't expect Afghanistan to be a Jeffersonian democracy. That said, they have a freely elected leadership, we're going to have elections again this year. The needs we have there include now this requirement to provide civilian capacity; to develop ministries at the local level, the district level, the national level; to develop their agricultural capability and other economic impact kinds of areas. So the challenge is really significant. Achieving the principle goal, which is to defeat al-Qaeda, encompasses a lot of efforts that are very much integrated into creating a positive outcome.

The president talked about enhancement of military governance and economic capacity in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. But on the other hand we hear about a few hundred civilian additions, three to four hundred, and some argue we have no plan for effectively doling out cash in Pakistan. So is there a disconnect at this point?

Let me go to the Pakistan cash piece first. We've supported Pakistan through giving them a lot of money over the last several years, and one of the issues that has arisen out of that is accountability and audit trails. For the assistance that will come down the road we need to have that, and we need to make sure that the money that we intend to go do certain things actually does that. And the Pakistani leadership, civilian and military, understands that.

With respect to the Afghan side, how we generate the civilian capacity is absolutely critical, and we need to do it as quickly as possible. I'm less concerned about hundreds or thousands right now than generating as many as possible, on the ground, trained and ready to go this summer, 2009, before the elections because I think that is an urgent requirement. We don't have a great track record from Iraq in timely generation of this. The other thing is, I'd be a little less concerned about the totality of the numbers. The impact of a single civilian on the kinds of things we're talking about--rule of law, good governance, the economics piece--is huge when he or she shows up. So again, I'm less concerned about the numbers right now than I am getting them there as quickly as we can.

Let me ask you about the Pakistan border region. Our strategy right now seems to be relying on unmanned aerial drone airstrikes. Do you envision ever needing to send in ground forces?

Defeating al-Qaeda is the principle focus here and the main goal; it requires the elimination of the safe haven in Pakistan, but it also requires conditions get developed in Afghanistan to the point where that safe haven that was there in 2001, 2002, can't return.

I'm not going to talk about operations; I never do, specifically. We have no combat troops on the ground in Pakistan right now, and it's really important to remember in all these discussions and debates, these are two sovereign countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we serve there in support of missions with them and with the permission of, for whatever capability we're talking about in both countries, with the permission of those democratically elected governments, and we'll continue to do that.

Back in 2007, we heard a lot about Iran's role, or potential role in funding and training Taliban forces. We don't hear a lot about that now. Is that because Iranian activity has ceased?

I'd describe it as "has decreased," but I'm still concerned about the Iranian support of the Taliban in terms of sending weapons and some of that, some of the kind of training. On the other hand, there are potential mutual interests and overlapping interests between the United States and Iran, and as I have found in the region, all the border countries to Afghanistan are concerned about what's going on there. So I'm actually hopeful that in the outreach that President [Barack] Obama has generated toward Iran and the potential dialogue that we could certainly work on those things where we are mutually concerned and get to those things that are the significant differences between us, including things like supporting the Taliban.

One last question, on North Korea missile tests in the next couple of days: You've said they possess a missile that could reach Hawaii. Are we prepared to shoot one down?

I'm not going to talk about our capabilities. I'm very concerned about the missile that has been stacked; I'm concerned about the technology that's there, that's being tested, the boosters, the guidance system, the overall engineering, which is the same technology that North Korea could eventually use, well tested out, to put a nuclear weapon, for instance, or other package on top of. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 essentially says that they are prohibited from this kind of ballistic missile activity, no matter what the payload is.

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