The top American military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, has taken a particularly active role in changing the U.S. approach to Afghanistan, contributing to the new strategy, choosing the new commander for U.S. and NATO forces, and deciding to replace the previous one a year ahead of schedule.
During a trip with the admiral to Europe, VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin spoke to him about the new strategy and why he has taken such an active role.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen's main job is to be the top military adviser to the president and the secretary of defense. In that role, he must keep close watch on U.S. military operations, worldwide, as well as the strategic environment related to the full range of U.S. national security interests. It is a job with little direct authority but potentially huge influence, and during this, his second year on the job, Admiral Mullen has been using that influence to the fullest.
"I've got to do what I think is right," he said. "What motivates me more than anything else is I've got young people out there who are sacrificing their lives, sacrificing like I've never seen, certainly, in my time. And, I'm anxious to do as much as I possibly can to try to get it right for them."
The 62-year-old admiral's focus has been the allied effort in Afghanistan and related security issues in neighboring Pakistan.
"I have a sense of urgency about Afghanistan that, if we don't get it right within the next 12-to-18 months, we may not ever get it right," he said. "And, at the same time, I really think we can get it right. I can see the way it needs to be done. I think we've learned a lot of lessons in Iraq, from a counterinsurgency standpoint, so that we can meet the sense of urgency that's there to move rapidly."
Those lessons include the need to focus on protecting civilians, rather than necessarily killing insurgents, especially when the insurgents attack from civilian areas, as they often do. And, that requires more forces, a near doubling of U.S. troops, which are flowing into Afghanistan now.
"In the end, we can't win it if we don't get this right," said Admiral Mullen. "We can't keep killing Afghan civilians and hope to win. It's just not going to work.
But recent incidents in which U.S. air strikes have caused large numbers of civilian casualties have worked against that strategy. That is why the admiral's hand-picked new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, will soon issue new orders to his forces on the use of air power.
The worst incident was in early May in Farah Province.
An official U.S. investigation says 26 people were confirmed killed when an American air crew violated procedures and bombed a building where Taliban fighters had taken refuge, without knowing whether civilians were inside. The American military acknowledges the civilian death toll may be higher, but says it is not as high as the 140 dead some Afghan officials have claimed.
Admiral Mullen says General McChrystal will use the Farah incident to push for a fundamental shift in how the troops on the ground think, how they plan and when they call in air strikes.
He says even junior officers and enlisted troops must understand the strategic need to gain the support of the Afghan people, even as they face deadly threats in the heat of battle.
"You can have a tactical victory and a strategic defeat," he said. "We can't keep generating tactical victories which give us strategic defeats."
The admiral says the new directive will help, but there also needs to be training and combat planners from all allied nations need to think ahead, in detail, to try to avoid creating, or being drawn into, situations in which civilians will be at risk. In the Farah incident, the U.S. investigation says Afghan troops initiated an operation against a strong Taliban unit without sufficient planning, causing an American unit to come to their aid and later resulting in the errant air strike.
But Admiral Mullen says the troops will still be free to protect themselves. And, he acknowledges there will still, inevitably, be some civilian casualties.
He also acknowledges that sometimes the new approach may mean more danger for U.S. and allied troops. But he says, in the long term, more support from the Afghan people will reduce the danger, overall.
"If you reduce strategically, you reduce risk to the force."
Admiral Mullen is reluctant to discuss his own activist role, compared to his two predecessors who commentators have criticized for not doing enough to ensure victories in Iraq and Afghanistan, years ago. But with the new strategy and the new commander in Afghanistan, who he calls "the best we have," Admiral Mullen is clearly embarking on his second two-year term as a man on a mission.
"At a time when I'm losing members of our military, when they're paying the ultimate sacrifice, I think I owe them the best military leader I have and the best I can do to support him," he said.
Admiral Mullen calls the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan "a strategy of new leadership," and leadership, he says, is what solves the toughest problems.