The top U.S. military officer says building a corps of experienced military experts on Afghanistan and Pakistan is his top priority, in order to quickly reverse the deteriorating security situations in those countries.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has been working for months to create a group of more than 700 officers and senior enlisted troops who will focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan for several years. On Friday, speaking to officers studying at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, Mullen said of all the national security concerns he must balance, that is number one.
"This is my top priority right now," said Admiral Mullen. "I am losing people almost every day in a fight. There should be nothing that's more important, quite frankly."
Admiral Mullen says with tens of thousands of troops in harm's way in Afghanistan, the need for a specialized corps of people who know the region and cycle in and out of assignments there is crucial. And when those people are stationed in the United States, he wants them to remain focused on the region, supporting their counterparts who are deployed.
President Barack Obama's revised Afghanistan strategy calls for a rapid infusion of troops and a change in approach, with the goal of at least beginning to reverse extremist gains by the end of this year. Admiral Mullen says that means he needs people who won't need months of pre-deployment training and more months after they arrive to understand the situation.
"Time is a real critical factor in Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said. "And I need people whose ramp-up time going into these two countries is absolutely minimal. That's language, that's culture, that's previous tours and experience."
The admiral's Afghanistan-Pakistan team is already working on both sides of the world, and it's growing. In an official guidance statement for the coming year, issued in December, Admiral Mullen lists pursuing the Afghanistan campaign as his top priority. He says, "We must continue to put our best talent forward and into the fight." He says he is willing to accept gaps in his own staff if those people are needed for the Afghanistan-Pakistan team, and he urges other senior officers to do the same.
The admiral also acknowledges that sustaining his effort will not be easy, in part because it requires a different mix of skills and experience than have traditionally been valued by the military services, particularly when they decide who gets promoted to higher ranks. These pepole need to be experts in language, culture, local politics and broad military strategy, rather than traditional skills like battlefield tactics or naval maneuvers.
"We've got to promote those kinds people, and we've got to have people and leaders that recognize that," said Admiral Mullen. "This is a completely different way of doing business than how we've done things in the past. And I don't have a lot of time, as I indicated. The clock's ticking. So I need people that have the experience, that aren't going to take much time coming back up to speed, and that are delivering on the mission immediately."
Admiral Mullen also says several Pentagon organizations that support the Afghanistan war and efforts to help Pakistan deal with its extremists will continue to operate in 2010. But even with those efforts his guidance document urges more focus, saying "far too many of our daily practices do not match the speed of the war."