ADM. MULLEN: Okay, well good morning, everyone, and thank you for coming. I’ve had a terrific couple of days here in Afghanistan meeting with coalition troops in the South as well as with civilian and military leaders – U.S., allied and Afghan alike.
Indeed, I had a call this morning on President Karzai – (inaudible) – I very much appreciate. The president and I talked about a good many things, from progress we are making in joint operations to a host of other mutual security concerns. I can best sum it up this way: Never has our partnership with the security forces of Afghanistan been stronger or the challenges we face clearer.
Just yesterday in Marja, I sat in a shura with nearly three dozen local leaders, 201. They stood grateful for the efforts by Afghan and coalition forces and were quick to point out that security in many places had much improved, the result of extraordinary partnering and Afghan leadership.
But so too did they speak of Taliban intimidation, local corruption and of a real economic need. They’re worried about their poppy crops: Can subsidies be provided in time for harvest? They need access to better transportation: Can more roads be paved? They want education for their children: Can more schools be built and more teachers hired? One man stood and said all he wanted was a wife.
I was struck not only by the urgency of these requests but also by their normalcy. By all appearances, the people of Marja just want to get on with their lives. And that, in and of itself, speaks volumes.
Gov. Mangal sat with me for this session, listening intently, and assured his constituents that he was hard at work on solutions. He promised his best efforts to work with local leaders and to work for them. He did not promise that man a wife.
Let me likewise assure all of you today as I did in the shura that we in the United States military share this commitment. We share the desire for stability and security throughout Afghanistan. We share in the pursuit of Afghan national security forces properly trained, manned and equipped to defend their borders and protect their citizens. And we are willing to share the sacrifices required to achieve all of that.
The operation in Marja stands as testament to that fact. There, we still have nearly 10,000 troops serving alongside coalition and Afghan partners. And there, we still work hard every day to help create security conditions conducive to economic development and civic improvement. We’re undoubtedly making progress, as I saw for myself. Many villages are safe again, many streets are busy, many shops are open.
And I must applaud here the terrific work of the Afghan National Army. I heard from more than one American soldier and Marine how very far the ANA has come in a short period of time. They fight bravely, they fight well and they lead. And yet, the progress they have helped make possible is not assured. Life for many in Marja is not yet completely normal. Marja is not over.
Even as we move into the hold-and-build phase in many areas, we will find ourselves clearing out the enemy in others. The Taliban’s influence there has been and continues to be pervasive and persistent. It will take more work and likely more bloodshed to break it loose.
Too sanguine an approach to whatever progress we make is just as treacherous as too little fortitude to see it through. If we’ve learned nothing else in this long and bloody fight, it is that failure makes itself plainly obvious; success takes longer to see. We will see success in Central Helmand but we must be patient.
We must also look ahead to Kandahar. We know that as important as Central Helmand has been, Kandahar is all the more so the very heart of the Taliban in this country. Nearly half of President Obama’s 30,000-troop commitment has made it to theater, with more coming almost every month. They are coming to Kandahar, the cornerstone of our surge effort and the key to shifting momentum from the enemy to the Afghan people.
I am confident in Gen. McChrystal’s planning efforts in this regard and in his coordination with our State Department, other agencies, partner nations and most importantly with the Afghan government as he moves forward. And I am confident in our eventual success there together. As I said at the outset, it is very much a partnership and that partnership has never been stronger. Thank you and I look forward to your questions.
MR. : (In Dari.)
Q: (In Dari.)
ADM. MULLEN: Is the second part specifically about Marja? As I indicated, the operation in Kandahar is what we are looking to now. Gen. McChrystal, as he was in Marja, has been very open about this. I think you will continue to see him be very open about the direction of his strategy and his operation, and as I indicated in my remarks, that it is a cornerstone in reversing the momentum for the Taliban. So in some ways, it’s already started. Certainly, the messaging is there.
And I was in Kandahar yesterday. There’s an understanding that clearly there from what I could see, an understanding that the next operation is there. I would not go into the detailed planning. I think it’s important to know that this is an operation that will be done with the Afghan leadership. It will be done, as it was before, to be both briefed, endorsed, approved and executed right up through President Karzai that there won’t be any secrets with respect to that, similar to Marja.
And at the same time, Kandahar is not Marja. We understand that. So it’s a much bigger challenge, and in that regard, I think has much greater potential to achieve this goal of reversing the momentum. So that’s where our focus is right now.
Then specifically with respect to the operation in Marja, from my perspective, it has gone exceptionally well. I will tell you, I was taken aback by the number of United States Marines, United States soldiers that I spoke to yesterday in Marja and actually coalition soldiers in Kandahar who spoke so highly of the Afghan national police in Kandahar, of the Afghan police – the ANCOP specifically in Marja – and this was unsolicited – and their performance which has been exceptionally good. And I’m encouraged by that – not only good, but improving.
We know that the police have been a challenge. I’m encouraged by certainly those conversations that I had and what I saw on the ground. That the Taliban are still in the vicinity of Marja, we know that. But that they will be from my perspective unable to seize the initiative.
I mentioned the local citizens, the leaders there are – when they went through their lists of concerns with Gov. Mangal, it was roads, education, medical, jobs, agriculture. And they are confident enough in the security that they have to be able to be very active in laying out what their needs are. And Gov. Mangal has a pretty good track record so I’m confident that he will start to deliver on many of their requests, although as I said to them, this isn’t going to happen overnight. It’ll take some time.
So the operation in Marja, I think has gone exceptionally well. It’s been together. The partnership piece has been very strong and I greatly admire what the Afghan leadership has done from political to military there. And I look forward to more of that as we move to Kandahar.
MR. : Thank you very much. I will have more question.
Q: (In Dari.)
ADM. MULLEN: I can’t be very specific about when the operation will end at this time. It’s difficult to predict. But I think you will see as we approach Kandahar – the operation – you will see a similar approach to Marja, where the local leadership was very much involved. There was a – as I recall, a two-day shura of some 400-plus local leaders just before the Marja operation. And so I think you will see, clearly, the leadership engaged from the Kandahar perspective.
And I think it’s important to – actually, it’s critical that that leadership be the total leadership in Kandahar. Every interest represented, not from one specific area or another. And I know that strategically, that’s where Gen. McChrystal is focused. And just based on my discussions with him, he’s encouraged both by that approach and the commitment to see that leadership represented who should represent the entire population of Kandahar. And obviously, those kinds of concerns would be expressed.
Q: (In Dari.)
ADM. MULLEN: I think all of us would like to see this war end as soon as possible. And from that point of view, we all are very much exactly in the same place. It’s very difficult to predict with any certainty how long it lasts.
I am confident from the perspective not just from the American perspective but from the NATO perspective, the coalition perspective that we’re in better shape now than we’ve been at any time since this war started. And the reason I believe that is because we have the political commitment; we have the right strategy, from my perspective; we have the right leadership, both military and civilian; we have the partnering that is occurring literally in the field, which is one of the reasons that Marja was so successful from a security standpoint; we know that we need to build institutions; we know that we need to focus on rule of law and governance; focus on the significant steps with respect to eliminating corruption. So we think we have that right.
That’s going to take some time and I would be remiss if I said it’s going to be two years or three years or, you know, a specific period of time. I honestly don’t know the answer to that although all of us would like to see this end as quickly as possible.
But in terms of its end, it must be from my perspective under conditions that make sense, which means that al-Qaida cannot return here; the Taliban cannot be in a position to take over the country as they did in the past; we see a region which is peaceful, stable, and neighbors that are in fact dealing with each other in a very positive way.
And then that speaks to the requirement, I think, to approach this from a reasonable perspective. I have spent a lot of my time not just here in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan with the Pakistani leadership. President Obama is very clear and has been in this strategy about the need to get at al-Qaida leadership, which has been disrupted but by no means is it gone. It’s very lethal, it still plans against us in particular – my citizens, Western citizens – and that threat needs to be dealt with.
And I think we do this together and I’ve seen improvements in that regard in terms of what’s happening on both sides of the border. And it’s going to take some time to continue that but I would just reemphasize what he said. He’s very serious about reducing that threat, basically disrupting and dismantling that threat, so it no longer is an immediate threat to American lives.
Q: The other day in an interview talking about his trip here, President Obama said that progress and fighting corruption in Afghanistan has been too slow, suggesting that he is not particularly happy with the government’s performance on this. Is this something that you discussed with President Karzai today? And could you give us your own views about progress and fighting corruption?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I mean, throughout the review that we went through in the United States, the issue of – those issues that I mentioned – corruption, governance, rule of law – are critical issues; the other one that I mentioned not just in passing in my earlier comment about the performance of the police. Those are the areas that we think were areas of high risk that we looked at our strategy and all of them are being addressed.
And in fact, the feedback I’ve gotten both here since I’ve been here and also literally from the White House is that both presidents were very pleased with the visit. And I know that President Obama did not come here to strong-arm President Karzai, and that is not what he did. They had a very good meeting; it was a very positive meeting. I thought it was a very important trip. And the outcome when two heads of state meet in that regard to focus on mutual concerns, and I say that and I think President Obama recognizes, as we all do, the extent of the challenges, and that in fact President Karzai has committed to addressing this issues specifically – corruption – and it is.
And it’s not just corruption in the last year or corruption since the most recent election. It’s something that’s been endemic here for a number of years, so it’s not going to be drastically reduced in two or three months. Leadership is focused on this. But I thought President Obama’s visit was very positive, very timely and said more than anything else that he is committed to this relationship. This is about partnership; this is about national interests on the part of Afghanistan as well as national interests on the part of the United States. And that’s what two heads of state do.
MR. : Thank you very much. Can I have your question? (Inaudible, off mike).
Q: Hi, – (inaudible) – with the Associated Press. I’m wondering, Marja, there has been a lot of progress there but there is a lot about that, that it’s an open question. As you say, people are still very afraid; we’ve seen villagers willing to take projects and money but not necessarily willing to buy in.
And so I’m wondering, then, how are you going to really generalize that technique and those tactics over the Kandahar, which as you say, is a much more complicated situation when we’re not even really sure if it’s taking hold in a smaller area?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, we’re very confident in both the approach and the results of Marja. As was pointed out to me when I visited the Marines yesterday, this is day 45 since the operation – or, yesterday was – since the operation kicked off. And it’s going to take some time. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that the local citizens who’ve been dominated by the Taliban for the last two, two-and-a-half years, specifically there, that there would be some skepticism until this is sustained over time.
I mean, that’s one of the things why I urge some patience here; that this list of things that the local citizens want, the local – that makes all the sense in the world. It’s going to take time to generate that. And there is some of that. And I’m talking about the poppy piece. I mean, harvest season is upon us very shortly and can we in fact incentivize those farmers to not plant poppies in the future in a way that they’re able to feed their families? And that’s something the governor has to address – we all do – has to be addressed right away.
So I’m very confident in the strategy. It’s going to take some time. And they’re strategically focusing on the people. Focusing on security in Kandahar will be identical. The way it gets done, because Kandahar’s a big city compared to Marja, it won’t be exactly the same. And I wouldn’t go into the details with that but all of that is taken into consideration.
That we would work very hard to incorporate the views of the local leaders, identical to Marja, that’s what we’re going to do in Kandahar. So some will be the same and there will be others in terms of execution that will be different.
But the focus on the people’s security, the need for governance there, the need to – as I heard from a local in a fairly large shura yesterday with the local leaders, they would like education, they want security, they want medical; those kinds of things that are, again, pretty normal requests for anybody living in anyplace around the world. That didn’t surprise me. So that’s how I’d answer that in terms of the comparison right now.
MR. : Thank you very much. (In Dari.)
Q: (In Dari.)
ADM. MULLEN: Part of this – part of what I take away from this trip is looking at, let’s say, the roadmap over the next six, eight, nine, 10 months. And certainly the peace jirga is one of the major events and the operation in Kandahar is another major event. And there are – there’s the Kabul conference which is also coming and there are parliamentary elections that come later this year, et cetera.
So I think as we look at Kandahar specifically, we take into consideration all of those events from a leadership standpoint and they are integrated into the strategy. So I think your question is well-stated in terms of raising a concern that we must integrate into this overall strategy and plan.
But I’m not prepared to say that it’ll move it one direction or another because I think obviously the jirga will speak for itself. But all of us including the president, including President Karzai in my discussions with him this morning, certainly understands, one, the importance of the peace jirga and, secondly, making sure that each of these major events, if you will, are part of the overall strategy and plan, and must be – are important in terms of producing a positive outcome. So I’m confident the leadership is approaching it correctly.
Q: (In Dari.)
ADM. MULLEN: I agree with President Obama that the root of terrorism is in Pakistan. So while there is great focus here in Afghanistan, and in many ways because of the number of troops, I do not want to understate in any way, shape or form the commitment to addressing the issue in Pakistan.
I think I have personally made 16 or 17 trips to Pakistan over the last two years to cultivate a relationship with the military leadership in Pakistan to address exactly what you are speaking to. I’ve watched Pakistan become the victim of terrorism inside its country, its own insurgency, and recognize that and deal with that.
At the same time, I’m very much aware that they have historically facilitated the Taliban who reside in Pakistan and support or physically cross the border that kill Afghan citizens as well as coalition troops. And I have brought that issue to them many, many times. And I think we can’t just address one side of the border or the other. Both must be addressed and addressed so differently.
What has happened in Afghanistan is the insurgency has grown much more confident, much more lethal than it was a few years ago, and needed to be addressed. And the Taliban in particular – the Afghan Taliban – are harboring al-Qaida in Pakistan and both of those issues – the issue of getting at the root cause as well as getting at the Taliban – must be addressed.
And there are discussions about reconciliation and reintegration with the Taliban here in Afghanistan. At the center of that must be the Taliban’s willingness to lay down their arms, to not support al-Qaida, to support the constitution and to become a participating part of a future in Afghanistan as opposed to the Taliban that existed in the past.
MR. : Thank you. (In Dari.)
Q: (In Dari.)
ADM. MULLEN: I’m not sure I said all of that. That has certainly been out there. Part of the discussion about Kandahar, from my perspective, which is what I spoke to earlier – and the shura that will certainly precede any operations there – that the representation there needs to be from the entire – all the entities, all the interests in Kandahar. And I mean all of them.
Very clearly – and again, I would not go into any kind of details on private conversations that I’ve had with President Karzai or other leaders – I just don’t do that. Certainly, we recognize that there are individuals throughout Afghanistan who represent various interests, and I think all of their interests, as we move forward here, have to be addressed. That doesn’t mean every interest needs to be met. I think we need to understand that.
And I work pretty hard not to single out individuals publicly, because I find that, that generally doesn’t work very well. That’s why, when you said I specifically said those things about Mr. Karzai in Kandahar, I would like to go back and look at exactly how that was reported. I certainly know who he is. I understand, obviously, he is an important individual in Kandahar, and he’s going to be part of these interests that I spoke to earlier, that he is going to have to be engaged.
Q: Thank you very much. Just a follow-up on that. What leverage does the United States have –
MR. : Will you introduce yourself, sir?
Q: I’m sorry. Adam Akis (ph) with World News. What leverage does the United States have, or the coalition have, in dealing with these powerbrokers like Karzai’s half-brother? What exactly can you guys do to see the behavior change in ways that might be more in U.S. interests?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I’m not sure that I’d answer that in terms of leverage. This is – I mean, one of the really important points to emphasize, as far as I’m concerned, is we have a newly elected president here – that this is about Afghanistan; it’s about its people. This is a sovereign country. This is Afghan-led.
So very specifically, if I were to talk about reconciliation, reconciliation needs to be led by President Karzai and the Afghans. The big concerns that we have had, or the coalition – other allies have had over time get raised to the Afghan leadership. The whole issue of warlords – I think we’re all in agreement that warlords returning as a part of the security environment isn’t going to work – not going to be acceptable. I’ve heard that from Afghan leadership; that’s not just something that America would like to see.
And yet, there has to be local security provided by local people. Returning to the days of warlordism, just, I don’t believe is going to work. And I don’t think the Afghan political leadership thinks it’s going to work, either. So I think it’s less leverage than trying to support what Afghan leadership wants to do, and I think – and I’m reminded when I come here, this, again, is also – as it is in every country – a unique culture that has to – that operates within its own boundaries and in its own culture. And we need to understand that and listen to that and let the leadership work its way through that.
And I think the constancy of engagement between us – America and Afghanistan, but also allies – in this, is really vital. And Ambassador Eikenberry, Gen. McChrystal, Mr. Sedwill from NATO – you know, all of us spend a lot of time in that engagement trying to understand more. So I think it’s less about leverage than it is about engagement and letting the Afghans lead here.
Q: Thank you very much. (In Dari.)
Q: (In Dari.)
ADM. MULLEN: I’ve seen that request, and as it has been mostly reported, I think it’s a non-starter from the beginning, specifically, although clearly, at some point, again, all of our goal is to drawdown the military forces, and as we do that, strengthen, through that civilian side, the relationship that is a normal relationship that obviously doesn’t involve any kind of significant military footprint on the ground.
So in the end, that’s where we end up. But I think conditions like that at this particular point in time aren’t very realistic. You know, there’s an awful lot of, again, focus on the population here. There’s been a significant reduction in civilian casualties. I’ve been very impressed, in the last two days, by the feedback I’ve gotten from U.S. forces, from coalition forces, on the performance of the Afghan police, on the performance of the Afghan National Army, in ways I haven’t heard before.
Do we still have challenges? Yes. Do ANSF still have challenges? Absolutely. But I’m encouraged by the approach that would put us in a position of what I consider to be – when I say us, I mean all of us – in a position of strength, to then make decisions about how we’re going to deal with requests from organizations like this. And I just don’t have the answer, yet. I think it’s early.
Q: (In Dari.)
MR. : (In Dari.)
Q: (In Dari.)
ADM. MULLEN: The way that I see the interests of a broad spectrum of Afghan citizens being dealt with are really through the leadership here in Afghanistan. And so I spoke to the shura, which will certainly precede operations in Kandahar, and my expectations that, that broad spectrum of people will be represented in that shura – not selectively, not a part of it, but that they will be represented there by their leaders.
In the shura that I attended yesterday, there was broad representation there, from what I could see, of interests across the entire spectrum in Kandahar. So I’m encouraged by that; I think that Afghan leadership recognizes that; I know the governor in Kandahar recognizes that and is intent on making sure that happens.
And then specifically with respect to Iran, I agree with your question. Iran is working to increase its influence in the area. On the one hand, that’s not surprising; she’s a neighbor state – or sorry, neighbor country. One the other hand, the influence that I see is all too often pretty negative. I was advised last night about a significant shipment of weapons, you know, from Iran into Kandahar not too long ago, for an example.
I have seen them, over the last several years – or last couple of years, anyway – certainly be more than just interested, providing some capability. But I’m also concerned that, that desire to be influential is increasing.
MR. : Thank you. I will take the last question from –
Q: Thanks, Josh Partlow with the Washington Post. President Karzai made some comments, reportedly, a couple days ago that, essentially, that the United States – you know, he could make deals with Taliban leadership faster and the United States essentially holding him back. I just wanted to see if you could talk about if there’s any difference of opinion between how fast to move on reconciliation, you know, in your views with him – or what is he asking the United States to do on this issue?
ADM. MULLEN: I remember we had a very good discussion about many issues this morning, and again, I wouldn’t go into the specifics of it. Part of the reason I sit down with him – and other leaders have – is to make sure that we do have an understanding of each other, specifically. I think we all recognize that reconciliation, reintegration, at some point, is a very critical part of the process, in terms of how we get to, you know, conflict termination and a peaceful outcome.
The specifics of it are still very much being worked. I think the stakeholders are all – all the stakeholders recognize who they are and are working their own way through where we are. And in some ways, that’s a positive sign. On the other hand, I believe this must be done from a position of strength, from everybody’s position, from that standpoint. And I think it’s got to include all those stakeholders. And I don’t think we’re in that position of strength right now. Thank you very much.