TIMOTHY CLARK: Thank you, Andrea, for that introduction.
Welcome to all of you, and a special welcome to our guest, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is here for the fifth consecutive year. Thank you very much for being here.
It’s early, earlier than we usually start, and so a double thank you for this full room. I was thinking that we could view this as, you know, good practice for tomorrow when we have to get up even earlier for the royal wedding. (Laughter.) We may not offer quite as much glamour as the royal wedding, but I’m sure we’re going to have a lot of interesting substance to deliver here today, thanks to Admiral Mullen’s being here.
Admiral Mullen has served our country in uniform for 43 years, ever since graduating from the Naval Academy in 1968 and going off to fight in the Vietnam War. He has been the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the past three-and-a-half years, and before that was the chief of naval operations.
So he has served as the very top of our nation’s military leadership under two presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, which says something about how they view him as being a straight shooter and a very talented man.
It has also been a period – a decade of continuing war, endless war, and so he has had the job of running those wars. The world is not a very peaceful place. Today the embers are hot in North Africa, in the Middle East, in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, and we’re keeping a wary eye on China as well. And of course that’s not to mention the continuing threat of stateless terrorism or the invisible threat of cyberattack.
And so, these are some of the worries that Admiral Mullen has from day to day, but of course he’s also concerned with the health of the institutions he leads. The force is stressed by continual deployments, and the nation’s fiscal problems are putting pressure on many facets of our defense establishment. These are some of the topics we’ll address with Admiral Mullen.
Again, welcome, and thank you for being here.
ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Thanks, Tim. It’s good to be back.
MR. CLARK: Before we get to the hot news of the day, today’s headlines and yesterday’s headlines, in recognition that you are about five months I think it is, from the end of your terrific military career, I thought I’d start with this question:
In your long service, and especially in your tenure as CNO and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, what have you seen as the U.S. military’s principal accomplishments and strengths? And on the other side of the coin, what has particularly concerned you about the military, its operations, its reputation in the country and the world?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, from its accomplishments, I guess I’d put at the top of the list, having started to go into Iraq in 2004, assuming the job of CNO in 2005 and 2006 for the Navy at that time, was putting thousands of sailors ashore, and then coming in as chairman just as we initiated the surge and remembering very well, actually as if it were yesterday, how bad things were then.
And I was in Iraq last week, and it’s night and day. It is truly – it has truly been an extraordinary shift, change, and the creation of an opportunity for 26 million people that just didn’t exist a few years ago. And that came at a great price, obviously.
And that is a reflection, I think, of our military’s ability to adapt and change from the classic conventional force to – I call it the best counterinsurgency force in the world. But, more importantly, it’s a reflection of the extraordinary young men and women who serve – 2.2 million men and women, active Guard, Reserve, who serve in a joint way many of us could not have imagined just a few years ago.
And I’m very proud of them. They could not have succeeded without the extraordinary, matchless support of their families over the course of this decade. Families are obviously critical, always have been critical.
But from my perspective, what’s happened in the last decade is they become integral to our readiness because of the repeated deployments, because of the lack of time at home, even when you’re back from deployment, the stressors that they’re under as well as those who are actually deploying, some believe even more because of the worry every single day when you have your husband or your wife in the fight.
So, probably the single biggest area that I am most proud of and just privileged to serve for every day are those young men and women who make a difference.
MR. CLARK: And on the other side of the coin – while you perhaps started to answer this question – what has concerned you about the military and the status of the military? I know you’ve talked about the isolation of the military, if that’s the right word, only 1 percent of families who are actively participating in the military but there may be other things as well.
ADM. MULLEN: Well, the worry – two immediate thoughts. First of all, I’ve spoken consistently about the need for the military to stay apolitical, in what is a seemingly increasingly politicized world, not just the United States.
And I think a lot of that has to do just with the 24/7 news cycle and the flow of information – but the need, I think, to ensure that we are absolutely neutral and we serve the civilian leadership, and we need to be very mindful of that in how we speak about it and how we engage, whether you’re active or whether you’re retired.
So that’s something that I think we just have to constantly keep out in front of us to make sure we’re not coming off track there. I’ve been in too many countries where that was not the case. It’s a fundamental principal for us as a country, and I think we need to make sure that that is very clearly and cleanly sustained.
And then secondly is what you mentioned, Tim. I do worry about the contact we have with the American people, the connection we have with the American people. We’re less than 1 percent of the population. We come from fewer and fewer places in the country. And I worry about the things that we don’t do anymore.
Through BRAC we’ve moved out of neighborhoods all over the country, so we’re not in the churches, coaching the teams, in the schools, living in the neighborhoods. So the relationship, or the understanding, is often created just by what’s in the media.
And so – and I don’t expect that’s going to change in terms of physical size. We’re not going to move back in. I think we have to recognize that as a challenge. And the reason I’m so concerned about it is America’s military must stay connected to the American people. And if we wake up one day and find out that we’re disconnected or almost disconnected, I think that’s a very bad outcome for the country.
So we all have to work on that. That’s part of what military leadership must do, and also I think being a two-way street, connecting with leaders and the American people throughout the country.
And one of the great avenues for that are our Guard and reserves, who live throughout the country, who serve obviously out of communities – local communities. And I think we can do a better job connecting there to ensure that that very important connection between the American people and our military is healthy.
MR. CLARK: There seems – just to follow up with one more question on this – there seems to be, at least here in Washington, a great deal of support for, in particular, wounded warriors and people who are coming back from having served and getting out – getting out of the service. Is that something that is on the surface? Does it go deeper? Do you think that that sentiment exists across the country?
ADM. MULLEN: I think it does go much deeper than just here. I have traveled fairly extensively over the course of last year, year and a half to meet with local leaders in big cities and in small rural areas. About a month ago I was out in Boise, Idaho, for example.
And I find that, one, the American people support our men and women in uniform and their families; two, that the local leadership that I meet with, they’re passionate about connecting with our veterans as they return home, and their families. And I’ve tried to work to be able to better make that connection.
The way I describe it here in Washington is, our “yellow pages” in the Pentagon is still about four inches thick. Those of us that work in the Pentagon don’t understand it. If I’m out in rural America and I have a good idea, how do I connect with someone in the Pentagon or the VA to try to get that idea across the goal line to help and support our young men and women?
And they are, by and large – most of our young men and women are going to not stay in the military, make a career, although we have a substantial number that do. They are returning at a time of a very robust GI Bill, so tens of thousands of them are going to school.
And I think they’re a generation that is – I’d call them they’re wired to serve. So they’re in their mid-20s. They’ve seen some very difficult times in some cases, clearly, but I think they offer a great potential for our country. And with a little investment, customized locally – which I believe it must be because I don’t think DOD can do it and I don’t think VA can do it.
I think the three of us – the DOD, VA, and communities throughout the country – working together, can focus on employment, health and education. And I think with a small investment there, they’ll take off and provide decades of service. I find while some of them, in particular the wounded, their lives may have changed but their dreams haven’t changed. They still want to go to school, start a family, put their kids in good schools, typically two incomes, and they’d like to own a piece of the rock.
So what I’ve tried to do is connect with community leaders in ways to be able to create the knowledge of those who are coming home – who they are and where they’re going – and what the opportunities are with those who have given so much.
Part of this focus has also been for families of the fallen, those who’ve paid the ultimate price. And sometimes we have to be more active in pursuing them in terms of support because their lifeline has been that military member. So the services are all very focused on that.
And I know, in community after community after community, they all want to say thanks and to make a difference in their lives so they can literally put food on the table and take off for the next chapter of service, wherever it might be.
MR. CLARK: At the same time, you’ve also expressed concern about homelessness. You’ve referred to what happened after Vietnam in that regard. And we have the new effort by Michelle Obama and Stan McChrystal to support military families. What’s the impetus of that, as you see it?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, many of the issues that the military leadership and our spouses have been working on have actually now been raised to the level of the president and the first lady and the vice president and Dr. Biden.
And Dr. Biden and Mrs. Obama have come together in this initiative called Joining Forces. And it really is to support our military families. And one of the things they do is they just give this great voice. And it’s back to this connection piece.
So I’m very encouraged by that. And it’s focused on the needs of our families, and raising the awareness and the opportunity to reach out to them. They are a wonderfully – the military family is a wonderfully independent group. They won’t ask for help. It’s part of what gets them – you know, allows them to be as strong as they are.
And yet, there are – we live in a time that has been particularly stressful – 10th year of war, multiple deployments. We see – my wife Deborah sees spouses who have post-traumatic stress symptoms, kids – children who are exhibiting the same kind of thing. And, again, it’s back to this connection.
So I really do applaud the effort. There’s been a lot of work that’s gone into it, and I’m very thankful that the president and Mrs. Obama and the vice president and Dr. Biden have taken this on. It really is a big deal.
MR. CLARK: Let’s turn to the top of the news here. We’ve just learned that Leon Panetta will succeed Secretary Gates and that General David Petraeus will be CIA director. You’ve worked with both closely. And I understand that your policy is not to comment on nominations before they’re made by the president. But hypothetically – (laughter) – are there tea leaves to be read in the appointment of a military man to head the CIA at this particular point in time?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, actually, even hypothetically I can’t answer that question.
MR. CLARK: (Chuckles.)
ADM. MULLEN: Again, you said it very well. I mean, obviously the policy is before anything official is announced, I really can’t comment on it.
Suffice it to say that I’ve worked very closely with Leon Panetta as well as with Dave Petraeus, in Dave’s case since 2004, and I have great admiration for both men, who are wonderful public servants. And their service in their current positions has been extraordinary. And then we’ll see what happens.
MR. CLARK: OK, I won’t ask my second question on that. (Laughter.)
Let’s turn to the budget – the budget trends today and what they portend. You’ve said that the greatest long-term threat to America’s national security is America’s debt. You also have said, I believe, that the flush years of Pentagon budgets, including the off-budgeting of the wars, has destroyed budgetary discipline in the Pentagon.
The budget’s already tight. Personnel reductions have already been taken with senior officer billets abolished, and SES positions as well. I know that you’re concerned, and many military leaders are concerned, about the claim of personnel on resources in the Defense Department, and the health costs – the benefits costs associated with that.
How do you view the budget going forward? What are the key challenges as you see, if you do see, a period of declining defense budgets?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I do see that. And the reason I talk about the debt as the single biggest threat to our national security is – it’s basically not very complex math. I mean, I think the worst situation that we are in as a country fiscally, the likelihood of the resources made available for national security requirements continue to go down is very high.
This is the third time I’ve been through this. We did this in the ’70s. We did it in the ’90s. And, actually, if you look at the data going back to the ’30s, our defense budget goes up and down, and it does so on a fairly regular basis.
So certainly this is not unexpected, from my point of view. What I’ve seen, though – and I’ve been in the Pentagon most of the last decade – with the increasing defense budget, which is almost double, it hasn’t forced us to make the hard trades. It hasn’t forced us to prioritize. It hasn’t forced us to do the analysis. And it hasn’t forced us to limit ourselves and get to a point in a very turbulent world of what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do.
And so I see that on the horizon, and we need to be paying an awful lot of attention to that. I have said the defense needs to be on the table, and I’m comfortable with that. That said, I’m required to articulate our national security requirements and certainly advise the president and others, but particularly the president, about how we best can achieve them with the force that we have.
And we find ourselves at a particularly difficult time for, let’s say, our modernization in our Air Force. I mean, we are running out of life in those assets that we bought in the ’80s under the Reagan administration, at a time where – I don’t have to tell you or this audience – where our national security requirements continue to challenge us.
If we’d have been sitting here a few months ago, I don’t – and you’d asked me, well, what do you think is going to happen in the next couple of months, I would not have put Japan and Libya at the top of the list of countries I’d be spending the majority of my time on for the time that I have.
And that just speaks to the unpredictability that’s out there, the tragedy, the loss of lives in Japan. And while there was great focus on Libya, at the same time we had almost 20,000 troops and I think 18 or 19 ships in support of that humanitarian assistance and disaster relief for weeks at a time.
So, the demands I think will continue. We just have to be pretty measured about what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do. I’ve been in a hollow military before and I won’t lead a hollow military. I know what one is and what it can and can’t do, and I think it would be particularly dangerous in the world that we’re living in now to hollow out. So, whatever we have, whatever we get to, our future, it must be whole.
And you talked about cuts in personnel, and that’s out in the ’15 and ’16 timeframe, maybe ’14 right now. When I was the head of the Navy, out of my budget it was 60 to 70 percent of my budget every year, and that’s active, Reserve, as well as civilian. The personnel costs were about that percentage of my budget. And – I’ve said it this way – I need every single person I need, but I don’t need one more.
And oftentimes that becomes almost too easy to say, OK, let’s immediately do away with force structure, because there is a lot of money there specifically. But we must evaluate that against our overall requirements.
I’ve talked about the health care explosion that we’ve had in our costs – I think 19 billion (dollars) in 2001, 51 billion (dollars) this year, 64 billion (dollars) in 2015. That’s not sustainable. So I think we all have to sharpen our pencils and make sure that every dollar we have is being spent well. And we need to be good stewards of the resources that the American taxpayer gives us. And I just think we really have to – we’re going to have to do the hard work to get that right.
We’ve got to come through this cycle, and we will. We’ve got to come through in a very strong fashion – back to what I said in terms of the demands of the national security environment.
MR. CLARK: So, do you see the ratio changing, the 60 to 70 percent. Are the payroll and associated costs going to claim a lesser share of the budget going forward, as you see it?
ADM. MULLEN: I don’t know the answer to that because I don’t think we’ve resolved that. I think we need to have that in front of us and recognize that investment. As Secretary Gates and I have focused on the future and how – and how we’ve talked about that is in terms of if we get it right for our people, we’ll be OK.
If we retain in our military right now this most combat – this is the most combat-experienced force we’ve had in our history. If we retain the right young junior officers, who’ve been through this; if we retain the right young NCOs in all our services, we’ll be just fine. And if we don’t, almost no matter what the budget, as we come out of these wars – and I believe we will over the next decade or so – then we’re going to struggle.
And so, we need to focus on the leadership aspect of it, the retention aspect of it, but we should not be blind to the cost and the investment that it takes to make sure we get it right for the overall defense resource account.
MR. CLARK: Let’s talk for a minute about – I think an interesting question is the relative importance of the uniformed services and whether or not the Army’s role in that relative scale will recede somewhat.
Secretary Gates has said that in his opinion – and I’m quoting here – “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” And you have told young cadets that they will be faced with leading a garrison force.
So, how about the Army, A, and B, what will the most important roles be for the Navy and the Air Force? I know we could talk for a long time about that. Sorry for the – but that’s – why don’t we start with the Army?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I love the Army – I love our Army, my Army. And one of the great joys of wearing the uniform for this long – and part of the reason I have been privileged to literally do that is it offers me an opportunity to grow in every single job. And certainly this job has afforded me that opportunity, and I don’t think I’ve learned more about any single subject than our Army, who I didn’t know well.
I knew a lot about the Marine Corps because of the Navy-Marine Corps relationship. But, again, I’ve learned a lot more about our ground forces. And so they are – they’ve truly been a heroic force, both the Marine Corps and the Army. And I’ve watched the Army change. I’ve watched them go through this counterinsurgency, develop this capability in ways and at a speed many of us could not have anticipated.
When we get in this – what I do worry about is when we get in this environment, there are an awful lot of old saws that people pull off the shelf – because we have been through it before. We went through it in the ’90s.
And I think it’s really important as we think about how we move forward here – we recognize we’re living in a different world than we were the last time we went through this, or the time before that. That’s why the wholeness of this, the comprehensiveness of this challenge in terms of how do we adjust is really important.
And I think, you know, a catastrophic adjustment, a massive change in the world that we’re living in right now would not be very prudent at all. And I certainly take Secretary Gates’ point, but my expectation is most of us – most of the senior leaders in the military think we live in this time of, quote, unquote, “persistent conflict.” And we don’t know where we’re going to be used and we don’t know when, but we need to be ready.
And I think in that regard, all four services – and they’re wonderfully unique and wonderfully joint in ways that we hadn’t, as I said before, imagined just a few years ago. (Clears throat.) Excuse me. And we need the talents and we need the capabilities of all four services.
So I think – I mean, I think the future is very healthy for all four services. There’s a tremendously important role for our Navy and our Air Force, along with our ground forces. It’s really been that combination over our history that has served us exceptionally well.
And one of the immediate old saws that comes up is, well, let’s just divide the pie up differently. And I think – the total budget – and I think you just have to do that very carefully. As difficult as it has been historically – and it has been when we see these pressures – I think we need to – we need to lead as the president has laid out and as Secretary Gates and I have talked about.
We need to lead with a strategic view, a strategy, before we just start taking out the meat axe and the scalpel to just reduce the budget, and then figure out how to meet that number, and then after that, well, what are we going to do with it? That’s exactly the wrong way to do it, and I think a very dangerous way to do it now, given the world that we’re living in.
MR. CLARK: So, you just talked about the need for a strategy. Do we have one now and –
ADM. MULLEN: We’re working – well, I mean, I think that – I mean, the framework against which we review our national security requirements has really been the QDR. And it’s fairly current. A lot of us worked on that, and I’m very comfortable with that framework. I think we need to, given the intensity of the fiscal crisis, the reality of it as well, we need to reassess that, not and throw it out, but look at it as – and adjust it and then say, given that adjustment, this is where we ought to go.
MR. CLARK: Let’s engage on a tour of the horizon of the world’s hot spots – “Arab spring” and beyond. And let’s start with Libya. Can you talk a little bit about how you thought the handoff to NATO has gone and how NATO has performed? Obviously there have been some problems, reluctance by various countries to undertake various missions, shortages of precision missiles among them, complexity of command and control. But how do you think this NATO deal has really gone?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I’ve commanded in NATO twice over this last decade, once as the fleet commander down in Norfolk for the NATO Striking Fleet, and again in Naples, Italy, where I commanded all forces in the South, which included forces that were assigned to the NATO training mission in Iraq in 2004 when NATO took that mission on as well as the forces in the Balkans.
And I think someone said it pretty well the other day. I mean, we’ve done in about 18 days what it took us 18 months to do in Bosnia in terms of standing up a command, committing to a mission and execution. And I think that speaks volumes about NATO’s agility in these times, certainly compared to where it used to be.
So I’ve been very impressed with how NATO has grabbed this mission and executed it, and executes it literally today. And, yes, 28 countries are not participating on the combat side, but the majority of countries are participating one way or another and it’s not all about combat or military capability per se. There’s humanitarian assistance. There’s the kind of support we need in the maritime environment.
So, I’ve been very, very pleased with how NATO has both stood up to this and executed it. A few years ago, when I first came into this job, both Secretary Gates and I were fairly frequently beat up by critics who said, can’t you get more NATO forces into the fight in Afghanistan?
And, in fact, over the course of the last two years, NATO has stood up to that in ways that I couldn’t have imagined just a couple of years ago, and just like this mission. So I think NATO is in a much better place than just a few years ago – more adaptive, more flexible, more capable.
That said, there are some things that have to be addressed that we will learn from this Libya campaign that I think not just individual countries but NATO as an alliance will have to adjust to – or adjust, having studied those lessons. But I think that’s really for the future. So overall I’m very pleased.
MR. CLARK: So what you just said suggests that you have not yet concluded that this may be a new model where the United States is willing to cede leadership in military campaigns to the allies?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think it’s – I think the assertion in the question is it’s like a – it’s black and white. And I think just because we’ve done it once in terms of – which is something actually we’ve asked other countries to lead more aggressively in previous times and they haven’t.
So to say this is it for the future I think almost across the board, whether it’s NATO or the United States, is – we just can’t be that certain. It’s working now. They’re leading well. We’re in a very strong support. The mission is executing well. I fundamentally believe that we prevented a massive humanitarian disaster that Gadhafi would have wreaked on his citizens in Benghazi.
That’s the mission, is to protect the Libyan people. So, in that regard I think NATO has been very, very effective. And the combination of us going in early, them taking over, them leading has worked very well.
MR. CLARK: So, various people, including retired General Dubik, have called for more involvement, and military advisors, preparation for a U.N. peacekeeping force of some sort. And I’m wondering what you think about that, and also whether you think that we are following the Weinberger doctrine, which says that you don’t go in unless you know how you’re going to get out.
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think long term, clearly, the strategy is – and this is really the political strategy – is Gadhafi is on his – is going to be out and needs to be out, along with his family. Clearly the initial limited mission on the part of what we participated in and participate today in is to ensure, as best we possibly can, the protection of the Libyan people.
There are many, many ideas on what we should be doing, what NATO should be doing, and how to do this. I can only say, being on the inside, this is, as every single operation is, extraordinarily complex. It is not – when asked about, well, when does it end and how does it end, those are unknowns right now.
There is an extraordinary amount of political pressure that has been brought to bear, financial pressure that has been brought to bear, and I think that will continue to be both not just exist but ratchet it up. The Arab League has pitched in against, you know, a fellow Arab in a very, very strong way.
So Gadhafi is a pariah. We know that. And I actually do believe his days are numbered. If you ask me how many, I don’t know the answer to that. So I think the political pressure will continue to be emphasized and focused in a way that sees him leave as soon as possible.
That said, he’s a survivor. We know that. And so it isn’t going to be – there’s no easy solution that’s certainly staring us in the face here.
MR. CLARK: All right, let’s move on to – I’m grouping these countries in the interest of time, but Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, talk about that for a minute, and in particular with regard to succession issues. We’ve had strong military ties to Egypt and also to Yemen, where we’ve trained counterterrorism forces.
But we don’t know what kind of regimes are going to emerge from all this turmoil. And of course al-Qaida is a powerful force in Yemen. So, my question is, is our own security, our own – the United States’ security compromised by the turmoil in these countries?
ADM. MULLEN: No, I certainly don’t see that right now. And I think – we’ve had a 30-year relationship, mil-to-mil with Egypt, and a very strong relationship – and, quite frankly, I’ve been incredibly impressed with how the military leadership in Egypt has handled this crisis and continues to handle it.
And what is a constant in all three of those countries is this – this is about the people in those – these are internal issues. We have a military-to-military relationship with Yemen, but it’s not been for that long, and we have worked hard to train them. So in that regard it’s vastly different in terms of both strength and depth and breadth in Yemen than it is in Egypt. And at the same time, it is internal and it will continue to evolve there as well.
Your point is very well taken. There’s a very – I think the most viral strain of al-Qaida that lives there now, and the most dangerous strain of al-Qaida that lives there, and that we all must be mindful of that in Yemen as well.
And then just briefly, in Tunisia, that’s another country that is – this is principally driven from the inside, and so – not that the national security requirements of the U.S. aren’t – I mean, we clearly need to keep an eye on if it moves to affect that, and out of the three countries, probably the al-Qaida threat in Yemen is one that is of most concern, although that was a very high concern before recent events in Yemen. So we’ll continue to stay focused on that.
MR. CLARK: Let me see. Let’s turn to another grouping of countries: Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Some experts say that suppression of protests there will lead to further revolt, including possibly even in Saudi Arabia, which has been a longtime key ally out there.
Are we concerned about that? And what are the implications of what is happening in Bahrain for the 5th Fleet, which of course has a major installation there, is headquartered there, I guess? And do we have contingency plans for the 5th Fleet if things really turn bad in Bahrain?
ADM. MULLEN: I traveled in that area several weeks ago right at the height of the Bahrain crisis, specifically. And a couple of things really struck me – first of all how strongly the Gulf Cooperation Council had come together, all of the countries. And the message to me was that Bahrain is a red line, very specifically.
Secondly, there was a belief that Iran was behind this, and I just don’t agree with that. All the information and intelligence I’ve seen is Iran had nothing to do with what happened in Bahrain. Like the other countries, it was an internal issue. And I do worry about the extent of the crackdown in terms of potentially opening the door to Iran.
And I have now seen – and this doesn’t surprise me at all – Iran try to take advantage of the situation, not just there but in other countries as well, which is no surprise. We all continue to be extremely concerned about Iran. I want to reassure everyone that we haven’t taken our eye off that ball, that Iran still continues to try to destabilize. They continue, from my perspective, to develop a capability that gets them to nuclear weapons.
And they’re still the leading sponsor of terrorism from a state perspective of any country in the world. They are more active now in Iraq. And one of the things that I have been concerned about is the relationship between the instability in Bahrain and how that’s impacted our capabilities, or what’s going on in Iraq as Iraq continues to go through transition.
So, it’s an area of great focus and great concern, and certainly I don’t see anything right now that would jeopardize our presence in Bahrain. Our 5th Fleet has been there for a long time. And in fact, the U.S. Navy has been in Bahrain since the late ’40s. We have a longstanding relationship there, and it continues to be a very strong relationship.
Certainly it’s important that we never get to a point – that it never gets to a point in Bahrain where that fleet, that capability which is so important in providing the kind of security and support, given Iran’s threats, that – none of us would certainly ever want to see us get to the point where that would be jeopardized, and I just don’t see that right now.
MR. CLARK: Admiral Mullen, you recently returned a few days ago from a trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and let’s spend a few minutes on the issues there.
Iraq. There has been something of an “Arab spring” arising there a little bit, which may be of concern, but I believe your focus during your visit to Iraq was on a pointed question: Do they want us there? Does the Iraqi government want us there, our military there, past the end of the year?
We have 47,000 troops there now. And I believe that there’s only something like a three-week window where in which the Maliki government must actually tell us that he wants us there, or else we’re going to have a train moving out of that country and we’ll be gone.
ADM. MULLEN: Well, as you said, we have 47,000 troops there. The current policy is that we will be completely out of there by the end of December. I wouldn’t give this – I wouldn’t limit it to – or constrain it to three weeks. What I said while I was out there, we have weeks, not months, to address this issue if the Iraqi government wants to address it.
And so, General Lloyd Austin and Ambassador Jim Jeffrey and others are – they’re working this extremely hard and will continue to do that. We think there are great opportunities with respect to the future of Iraq. The challenges that are there now are principally political. And the “Arab spring” demonstrations there have certainly not turned into the kind of demonstrations that have existed in other countries.
The security environment is good. That doesn’t mean we don’t have the challenges, or that the Iraqi government doesn’t have challenges, because there still is a level of violence. But it’s the lowest it’s been since 2003. I’m comfortable with the development of and the leadership of the Iraqi security forces. They tell me that that they will have some gaps, should we leave 31 December, in intelligence, in aviation, you know, in logistics maintenance and support.
So, we’re aware of that and we’ll just have to see what the political leadership in Iraq does.
MR. CLARK: And are you not concerned that the governance structures – the civilian governance structures have not kept pace with the advances in security forces, and so the people of Iraq aren’t seeing, you know, real results in terms of their own daily lives, their own economic and social lives?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, the Iraq government certainly has some challenges there, although I think they’ve improved and will continue to improve. I mean, they have – they are rich in resources, and I think economically, fiscally they’ll – in the next few years they really will be in pretty good shape.
From a security standpoint, again, I think the security forces have performed exceptionally well. So, in many ways it’s up to the politicians to kind of get all this organized. Their ministries have developed a great deal from a few years – have really improved over the course of the last few years. So they’re in much better shape in terms of delivering goods and services than they used to be, but they still have some – they still have significant challenges.
MR. CLARK: Great.
Let me see. I’m going to ask – our tour of the horizon only has two more countries to it, although it could have three or four. But I’m going to ask you, if you’d like to ask questions in about five minutes here, if you would, please come to one of these two microphones.
Pakistan, I believe there is tension in our relationship with the Pakistan leadership. I believe that when you traveled there just recently, you delivered a pointed message about the Pakistan intelligence service – the ISI’s facilitation of the Haqqani Network of terrorists, which are dedicated to – who are dedicated to killing our people.
What is the status of our relationship with Pakistan? And could it deteriorate to a point where those key supply routes that supply our troops in Afghanistan with the needed equipment could be compromised?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I mean, I think theoretically it could devolve to threaten those lines of communication where we bring an awful lot of our supplies in support for the efforts in Afghanistan. That said, our relationship is one that we can continually work on. And right now it’s pretty strained.
It was strained in great part recently because of the Raymond Davis case. He was the individual that was taken by the Pakistanis after a very serious incident where he shot two individuals who threatened him. And we worked our way through that, but in working our way through that it really did strain the relationship.
So that’s what I – this was a routine trip for me in the sense that I go there about every three months, but certainly it was not routine in its nature because of the relationship that had been so badly strained as a result of the Davis case.
And so, it’s something I’ve invested a lot of my time in because I think it’s important we stay connected. It’s an extraordinarily complex country, and actually it’s an extraordinarily complex region. I’ve talked about our engagement in that part of the world. You can’t pick one country or another. It’s Afghanistan and Pakistan. And you have to take the region into – put the region in the context, if you will, in just about everything that you’re doing.
So, we’ve been through a rough patch. We’ve been through it before with Pakistan. I’m actually hopeful that we can – that we will continue to be able to build on the relationship. We understand each other much better than we did a few years ago.
We’re still digging our way out of 12 years of mistrust, with no relationship, from 1990 to 2002, and that’s just not going to be solved even in the few years that we’ve been working this. It’s going to take us some time.
But I think a partnership – a strategic relationship with Pakistan in the long run is absolutely vital for the security, not just in that region but because of the downside possibilities for security – global security.
MR. CLARK: Afghanistan – a neighboring country, right? As you say, you kind of have to consider them together. But we have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and many, many thousands more contractors. I want to ask you – and I believe the drawdown is supposed to start happening this summer, in July. Is that correct?
And so what do you see as the pace of the drawdown plan and are we in there for the really long haul? What do you think?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, we’ll start to withdraw troops this summer. General Petraeus has not made a recommendation to the president yet so there’s no decision with respect to that, but not question that we will. We just don’t know how big it will be or from what part of Afghanistan, per se. It does speak to a very important message of transition.
President Karzai, I think the 22nd of March, identified seven provinces for transition over the course of the next year or so. And then we’re focusing on getting to a point, by the end of 2014, where the Afghan security forces have responsibility for their own security. And we think that’s doable. We think we can meet that goal.
I, just on this most recent trip, which was out in the east, which is a very tough fight, as well as down in Helmand, I’m encouraged by what I see in terms of security improvements over the course of the last year. So what you hear about that, I can just verify, having been there. That said, this year is going to be a very, very difficult year. It’s already started out to be a tough year.
We had tragic losses yesterday when we had eight of our airmen who were killed by this Afghan airman who was inside. And every loss is tragic – we know that – but these are particularly difficult because it comes from an insider threat. And we’re working very hard to eliminate that, not just – we have been working on this. This isn’t the first incident.
So this will be a very difficult year. It was a very tough year for the Taliban last year. It’s going to be a very tough year on the Taliban this year because they’re, by and large, out of their own safe havens in Afghanistan and they’re going to come back and try to take them. And I think they’re going to – you know, they will meet a force that is more than ready for them. We’re starting to see signs of reconciliation and reintegration on the ground there.
If I’m concerned about one thing – not that I’m not concerned about security – the governance piece, the corruption piece are probably the two areas – and I’d add rule of law to that – those are areas that have to really start to take traction. And we need to improve in those areas in order to get where we need to get to over the course of the next three years.
MR. CLARK: Yeah, there was an interesting story in the paper the other day about people in rural Afghanistan who feel that they cannot trust the government or the United States forces there trying to help them because if they do, the Taliban will target them and go after them. And on the other side, they don’t like the Taliban, either. And so what’s the answer?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, the Taliban are still – I think the numbers I’ve seen – they’re in the 9 or 10 percent – at that level, in terms of how the Afghans feel about them. I think most Afghan citizens are on the fence, seeing how this is going to go. And I’m hopeful that with another year similar to what we had in 2009, we’ll have much more clarity about what it looks like once we get through this fighting season – so into the October, November timeframe.
And we’re starting to see some good signs – even local leaders, local governance starting to function in certain places. So I’m cautiously optimistic at this point but I don’t want to understate the degree of difficulty overall and the challenge that we have in front of us this year.
MR. CLARK: Please, if anyone has a question, come to the microphone. And let me see, thank you for coming to the microphone. I’m going to – we shouldn’t ignore one more country, I’m sorry – North Korea and Korea in general – very high tension levels there. What are our key concerns? And I know you’re concerned about that situation.
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I mean, South Korea is a great ally of ours. We work very closely with them. It’s a critical part of the world to ensure stability. Obviously, its proximity to China, the economic engine that China is, our relationship with the ASEAN countries, et cetera – so an awful lot of people focused on keeping that part of the world stable. We do that in great support of the South Koreans and there have been provocative actions.
We worry a great deal about those. There’s also – this guy, I mean Kim Jong-il, is not a good guy and has acted in ways that have been very dangerous, at times. The worry is – and I think Secretary Gates said this very well – the worry is, in five or 10 years, he’s looking at a nuclear capability, which threatens the United States. So this isn’t just about local security. In the not-too-long run, that potential exists, as well.
So – and he is, by and large, starving his people. We know that. And in fact, his army, which is pretty unusual, is having a pretty tough time getting food this year, as well, or through this winter. So it’s a very, very tough, complex situation that an awful lot of us are focused on. We need it to be stable. We need him to stop the provocations.
And what I worry about is, as he continues to provocate (ph), as we look at this succession plan for his son, that the potential for instability and miscalculation and escalation there is pretty high and of great concern. So we’ve – we continue to focus greatly on ensuring, as best we can, that it actually goes in the other direction.
MR. CLARK: And of course, should a war erupt there, we’re involved, right, because we have a mutual defense –
ADM. MULLEN: Exactly.
MR. CLARK: – treaty with South Korea. Yes, ma’am?
Q: All right. Cynthia Hilsinger, Headquarters Air Force. Six-to-one (6-to-1) is the ratio of contractors to civil servants, yet civil servants continue to endure public opprobrium. What is your position on the total force structure and who should be doing the work of the government?
ADM. MULLEN: Civil servants continue to endure what?
Q: Opprobrium – that a lot of civil servant-bashing.
ADM. MULLEN: A pogrom?
Q: Opprobrium. You know, calumny. (Chuckles.)
ADM. MULLEN: I’ve worked with civilians in our military for a long time. And as I talked about the investment when I was the head of the Navy, that the total force, if you will, includes our civilian workforce, who’ve been extraordinary and will continue to be a vital force in the future. There’s just – there’s no question about it. They bring a level of skill and continuity and, actually, dedication and patriotism that equals that of any of us who wear the uniform.
That said, all of us have to be realistic about the budget environment in which we exist and then look at the best way to move forward. One of the things that I worry about on the civilian side is the rules, you know, when we get into a tight situation like this, the tendency is you know, last in, first out. And we’ve got to pay attention to refreshing our workforce, our civilian workforce. So we have to figure out a way to reach our goals, whatever they might be in this environment, while, at the same time, not sacrificing our future.
I think the average age of our civilian workforce is about 47 or 48 years old and we have to recognize that. So leaders have to be very creative and cognizant of this to ensure that this isn’t just about the next 12 months or the next 24 months, but it’s a long-term requirement that we have to meet, as well. But we wouldn’t be anywhere without the great civilian workforce that we have.
Q: Do you think there will be a shift in that ratio from 6-to-1, contractor to civil service, to more civilianization?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think that, I mean, clearly, that is going on in the acquisition workforce right now. I mean, it has been over the course of the last two or three years, for example. In terms of the overall budget pressure, I think that ratio certainly has potential for changing, but I don’t know – I mean, just, it’s natural. Many of our contractors are what I call in direct support of what we’re doing, as well. And Secretary Gates has asked all of us to look at that to see how much of it we really need and I think that pressure’s just going to grow.
MR. CLARK: We’ll take one here and then the other microphone is over here. Megan, we have a – we’ll take that question next, thank you.
Q: Good morning. I’m Captain Ed Zak. I think you worked for my dad, years ago. We’ll be interring him at Arlington in two weeks.
ADM. MULLEN: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.
Q: The question I’m going to raise this morning is not new. My sister and brother-in-law both served in the Army in the early ’80s. My son and daughter-in-law are both active duty now. My son, a Marine intelligence officer, just came home from his third tour in southwest Asia. My daughter-in-law, a surface warfare officer, has been doing drug interdiction in the Caribbean and off of South America.
They’ve been married for six years and this month, they will have been in the same town for one year, total. You know, when I was on active duty, we paid attention to the joint service couples and we made promises about allowance in this regard. I understand the operational exigencies of our time but I don’t see that anything has changed in the last 30 years, in terms of really making the rubber meet the road.
Literally, my son just deploys; my daughter gets home. My daughter just deploys; my son gets home. It’s happened again and again and again. Is anybody paying attention to this, in terms of retaining people that are critical?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, in the mid-’90s, I was in a position of leadership in the assignment world as a head detailer and we actually had initiated steps to assign dual military couples across services. And I believe we’ve got to extend that, actually, outside the military. I think we have to pay a lot of attention to dual careers, whether you’re – you know, a family has one in the military and one, not so.
I’ll do two things. One is, I’d love to just take your name and go do some research in terms of how much of this is – where, exactly, we are. I mean, I know that we’re much better than we were in the mid-’90s with respect to that, in terms of those assignments. But you overlay that with the demands of the war and repeated deployments, it becomes a much more difficult issue to manage.
I know there is a great deal more focus on this, from the leadership perspective, than it used to be. And it goes to what it said earlier about guaranteeing the future. If we don’t get young men and women like your son and daughter-in-law to stay in, we’re not – our future is going to be somewhat problematic.
I have been struck – and it goes back to the dedication and the extraordinary young men and women who serve right now – I have just been struck with their willingness to do this, to pursue the careers, obviously to meet the needs that we have from a national security standpoint and, in many cases, even surprised that they would continue to do it because of the kinds of percentages that you just laid out there – one year in six.
And yet, we have lost – I mean, I’ve talked to more than my fair share who said, okay, now I’ve got to get a life and I want to start a family and we’ve just got to slow down. And it’s something that I’ve addressed and we’ve looked at very, very closely, in terms of not just dealing, now, but you know how does this affect our future?
I don’t think it is – my own take on it: I don’t think it’s deliberate. I do know – I mean, I run into many, many couples that have been assigned or detailed very specifically to make it work, as opposed to what’s obviously going on in your family. So I’d be happy to take your name and email address and get back to you with where, exactly, we are on that.
But I know it’s a focus of all the services and I’m very comfortable we’ve improved. It’s not where we were 30 years ago. But that doesn’t mean we can’t – you know, we don’t have work to do. In the long run, I believe, we’re going to have to assign people – we’re going to have to put people at the center here, as opposed to the institutions.
And I think if we do that – really, no kidding, do that – and assign people accordingly, that the institutions will be well taken care of, as opposed to the institutions – you know, we are protective of the institutions, take the institution’s needs and put that up front and then sort of figure out where people go after that. I just don’t think that model’s going to work.
MR. CLARK: Yes, ma’am?
Q: Good morning, sir, Doryth Bernesser (sp), truth in advertising – retired military, retired Air Force, former defense contractor, current Air Force civilian. That being said, Libya is maybe a one-off but it may be a precedent and I am concerned if this precedent will be applied to Syria.
I came through Bosnia and my personal belief was, yeah, we can fly over all you want but until you put boots on the ground, things don’t change much. That was my personal learning. And I’m a little concerned about possibly applying the pariah killing his own people to Syria, which I perceive to be a significantly greater threat than Libya was at the time that we began this.
ADM. MULLEN: The president’s made it very clear that he decries, and we all do, the violence in Syria. And it needs to stop. One of the – I talk about this trip that I took up through the gulf states right at the height of the Bahrain challenge and one of the things that struck me – and I think we just have to be very careful about this – is you can’t broad-brush this. Every single country is unique.
Every single country is obviously in a region, as well, and I don’t think we can disconnect a country from its region. You know, I think we have to be very careful about how we address each one. And there are differences and reasons for differences in each one. And so the question of, okay, Libya – why not Burma?
I mean, there are, for instance – and I’ve actually heard that question, as well. I think it’s too broad-brush. I think, to your point, Syria is a different country. It’s in a different place. And while we certainly abhor the violence and abhor the killing, I think we have to be very mindful of the uniqueness of Syria in both its history, its location and what the potential is, quite frankly, and where we are in that, where they are in that crisis.
So I just don’t think that we can say because – you know, because one leader was doing something that it absolutely translates to an intervention that involves another leader. I’m just saying I think we have to be very, very careful about that. And I’m mindful of your comment about how much – you know, the limits of air power, per se, but would re-emphasize what the president has said. And I assure you, he has no intent, that I’m aware of – he’s made it very clear to me, no boots on the ground in Libya. And that’s where we are today.
MR. CLARK: We’re counting down. We have about three or four minutes left. Yes, sir?
Q: Good morning, Admiral. Thank you for your service and your example that you not only set for my generation, but for generations to come. I had the pleasure of watching you as your first (ASCNO?), so thank you.
ADM. MULLEN: Thanks.
Q: My question is, how effective has our civilian expeditionary workforce been to our military leadership?
ADM. MULLEN: When I – it’s evolving. Our civilian expeditionary workforce is evolving. I was in Kandahar in Afghanistan a few months ago and sat down with maybe a half a dozen young foreign service officers who had come from Lima and London and Paris and Rio and found themselves in Kandahar, every bit as excited as any young officer in the military about where they were and what they were doing.
And I was very taken by them, in terms of their dedication and their service and the excitement that they generated, in terms of making a difference in people’s lives. So I think that it’s improved. I think we need to continue to focus on this because we’re living in an expeditionary world.
We’re not going to be able to just deal with it from the Washington perspective in the future. So all the agencies – and it’s going to be harder now that the budgets are tighter – have to continue to focus on this. But I think we’re in much better shape than we were a few years ago. That said, still a long way to go.
MR. CLARK: I’m being signaled that our time has just about run out, so Admiral Mullen, I’m going to ask you for – if you have any final thoughts for this audience before we give you a round of applause for being here.
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I mean, lastly, I would just say thanks to all of you, the many of you in the audience who serve and make a difference. When I think about the challenges we’ve been through, if I’d have said in 2000, this is what we’re going to do for the next 10 years: We’re going to deploy this many times, we’re going to ask these sacrifices of our people – and we should be mindful we’ve lost almost 6,000 young men and women and tens of thousands who’ve been physically injured and hundreds of thousands with invisible wounds like PTS.
They are been the best I’ve ever seen and that we just never forget their sacrifices – we’re blessed to have them. We’re a great, great country for many reasons and one of the underpinnings of that is this extraordinary force of young men and women who serve today. And again, I’m privileged to still be in uniform and still be with them and still, hopefully, in a position to try to make a difference for them.
MR. CLARK: Well, thank you very much, Admiral Mullen, for being with us again and thank you for your service. (Applause.)
ADM. MULLEN: Thank you.