National Press Club

Next 12 to 18 Months Critical in Afghanistan, Joint Chiefs Chairman Says

July 9, 2009 | By Bill Miller |

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It will be 12 to 18 months before it is known how long American troops will be required to fight in Afghanistan, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Club Luncheon July 8.

“My expectation is that we will have a long-term relationship” in Afghanistan, the nation’s top military leader said. Within that 12- to 18-month time frame, he said, “we have to start to turn the tide against the Taliban.” Only after that, he said can he project a date for a U.S. pullout.

Meanwhile, he warned, the American public should brace for a higher injury and death toll among U.S. troops. Noting that 10,000 additonal Marines are being poured into the southern part of Afghanistan, he said that “as we add more troops, unfortunately – tragically – there’ll be more casualties.”

Mullen stressed that Afghanistan has replaced Iraq as the main emphasis of U.S. military operations in the Middle East. He said that a revised strategic approach, under Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S.’s new top general in Afghanistan, focuses on security for the Afghan people rather than merely killing enemy combatants.

Despite the emphasis on Afghanistan, Mullen said, the military’s overall strategy "is really a regional strategy” that also includes Iraq and Pakistan. “Our top priority is to defeat Al Queda,”

In a wide-ranging, ad libbed speech on the challenges he faces in his second year in the post, Mullen also cited Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He is encouraged, he said by President Obama’s intent to “both engage and have dialogue” with that country’s leadership, but acknowledged that “the window of opportunity is narrowing.”

Rushing from his NPC appearance to a ceremony in Dover, Del., honoring fallen U.S. troops as their bodies are returned from the Middle East, Mullen said that – in contrast with the Viet Nam War – “the American people have been spectacular in support of our troops.”

Among other things, Mullen said:

  • He is concerned about cyber attacks as a “mainstream issue” facing military leaders.
  • The military “is beginning to understand how to deal with post-traumatic stress” among returning troops.
  • Improvised explosive devices continue to be the biggest threat to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • He supports the effort by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to shift the military budget away from fighting conventional wars to modern wars.
  • He will carry out whatever changes Congress may make in the “don’t ask-don’t tell” policy on gay military personnels.
  • His military heroes are Adm. Ray Spruance and Gen. George Marshall.