Mullen Gets Unvarnished Look at Afghanistan Mission

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Dec. 16, 2010 — Navy Adm. Mike Mullen got the clear and unvar­nished truth about con­di­tions in some of the tough­est areas in Afghanistan when he stopped at for­ward oper­at­ing bases in Hel­mand and Kan­da­har provinces today.

Camp Hanson in Helmand Province, Afghanistan
U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is shown the area of oper­a­tions by U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Kyle Elli­son, com­mand­ing offi­cer, 2nd Bat­tal­ion, 6th Marines dur­ing a vis­it to Camp Han­son in Hel­mand Province, Afghanistan, Dec. 16, 2010. Mullen and his wife Deb­o­rah are host­ing the USO hol­i­day tour fea­tur­ing come­di­ans Robin Williams, Lewis Black and Kath­leen Madi­gan, Tour de France cham­pi­on Lance Arm­strong and coun­try musi­cians Kix Brooks and Bob Dip­iero tour­ing the Cen­tral Com­mand area of respon­si­bil­i­ty.
DOD pho­to by U.S. Navy Pet­ty Offi­cer 1st Class Chad J. McNee­ley
Click to enlarge

The chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met with sol­diers, Marines, air­men and sailors at Camp Hansen near Mar­ja in Hel­mand, and vis­it­ed oth­er troops post­ed in west­ern Kan­da­har at For­ward Oper­at­ing Base Wil­son.

U.S. per­son­nel at both bases –- and at com­bat out­posts around them –- are on the front line of the fight against the Tal­iban. At the same time, they’re also on the front line of train­ing and instruct­ing Afghan sol­diers and Afghan police to take on secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ties for their own coun­try.

Mullen said he was not sur­prised by any­thing he learned at the two bases, as he has fol­lowed the fight in both places close­ly.

“What I get from sit­ting down with the indi­vid­u­als is the kind of sub­stance and lan­guage and the things they are focused on,” the chair­man said dur­ing an inter­view with reporters trav­el­ing with him. “It is help­ful to me, giv­en I am back in Wash­ing­ton most of the time.”

In Mar­ja, the signs are encour­ag­ing. The city had been a hotbed of Tal­iban activ­i­ty — a safe haven with a Tal­iban gov­ern­ment and the peo­ple of the area liv­ing in fear. That was before the Marines arrived. After a tough fight, the Marines drove the Tal­iban from Mar­ja.

The prob­lem then became one of hold­ing the hard-won gains, expand­ing the secu­ri­ty perime­ter and get­ting ser­vices into the city so the cit­i­zens would feel the legit­i­mate gov­ern­ment helps them.

“I was encour­aged by the dis­cus­sions there by the move­ments in the gov­er­nance area -– the sort of sub­dis­trict gov­er­nance,” Mullen said. “That has start­ed to move in the right direc­tion.”

Still, the chair­man said, he doesn’t want to over­state the progress. He said the gov­er­nance piece of the equa­tion was nascent and frag­ile, but a pos­i­tive indi­ca­tor nonethe­less. Secu­ri­ty in the region has expand­ed out­ward to the city of Nawa, and Afghan army and police per­son­nel are doing their part, along­side the Marines, to ensure the Tal­iban do not come back.

“We still have chal­lenges in Hel­mand, there’s no ques­tion about that, but I think progress over­all there has been sig­nif­i­cant,” Mullen said.

“With respect to the Army in the Arghandab, Pan­jwai and Zhari [dis­tricts], it’s been a tough fight,” he said, not­ing that for the first time, Amer­i­can forces pushed Tal­iban mil­i­tants out of an area they con­sid­er their home­land.

“One of the ques­tions that came out in the dis­cus­sion is real­ly what hap­pens in the spring and through next sum­mer,” the chair­man said. “The brigade com­man­der [Army Col. Arthur Kan­dar­i­an] said it well: ‘focus­ing on offense while build­ing defense.’ ”

The Amer­i­can forces live, work and fight along­side Afghan secu­ri­ty forces, and togeth­er they are secur­ing the main road out of Kan­da­har to the west. They also are focused on pro­tect­ing the peo­ple of the province.

“In both places, I was impressed by the dis­cus­sions about part­ner­ing with the Afghans,” the chair­man said. “It was much more flu­id with respect to part­ner­ship, and a val­i­da­tion of what we’ve been say­ing.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t chal­lenges to work­ing with the Afghans in both places, Mullen acknowl­edged, not­ing that per­son­nel dif­fi­cul­ties, equip­ment short­falls and a lack of guid­ance or poli­cies ham­pers oper­a­tions. But, he added, progress is tak­ing place.

“To lis­ten to both of [the com­man­ders], I was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised with the progress with the police, that they have moved through some intense train­ing and part­ner­ship with the police as well,” Mullen said.

The chair­man said he is encour­aged by what he has seen and heard dur­ing his time in south­ern Afghanistan.

“What would wor­ry me are reports of no progress, or a com­plete lack of under­stand­ing on what the issues are, or no Afghan gov­er­nors, dis­trict gov­er­nors or sub­gov­er­nors that are respect­ed,” he said. “I didn’t hear that.”

The gov­er­nance por­tion needs more work, Mullen said. Some issues result from the lack of a legal infra­struc­ture, and in cas­es where struc­ture exists, gov­er­nance issues can be tied to poor exe­cu­tion, the chair­man said.

“I’m encour­aged that we under­stand more about the prob­lem than we did a year ago,” Mullen said. “That’s as much due to the part­ner­ship with them as any­thing.”

The chair­man empha­sized to reporters that the Afghanistan-Pak­istan review announced today gets at the U.S. long-term com­mit­ment to both Afghanistan and Pak­istan. When­ev­er he goes to the region, he said, peo­ple ask him how long the Unit­ed States will stay involved this time.

The review makes it very clear that Amer­i­ca is stay­ing involved, he said.

“We’re not going to leave them hang­ing,” he said. “I don’t parse that into how many troops or X num­ber of dol­lars, but the strate­gic part­ner­ship that is so impor­tant.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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