JUDY WOODRUFF: Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thank you very much for talking with us.
ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: It’s good to be with you, Judy.
MS. WOODRUFF: Let’s start with Pakistan. The Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote the other day that the U.S. may be witnessing a soft coup taking place in Pakistan with the military exercising growing control over the government but leaving the political leadership in place.
You’re very close to the Army chief of staff there, Gen. Kayani. Is that your assessment?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, no, it isn’t my assessment. Certainly, it’s a country with many, many challenges. I was there, I guess, about a month ago; a couple weeks after the floods. And just the devastation that was evident to me as I flew around Pakistan was exceptional. And yet again, it was another crisis that this country has been through. Financially, they’re struggling. And where my focus has been, it has been heavily invested in the extremist challenges that they’ve undertaken.
So they’ve had one crisis after another. And in my engagement, specifically with Gen. Kayani, I mean, he’s very focused on the democratic institutions. I mean, this is a government that has never completed after being elected, its first term. And I know that he is focused on that.
That there are increased pressures throughout the government, there’s no question about that. As I watched the Pak military execute the relief efforts when the government was really struggling to do so, so to say that – I mean, there are clearly increased pressures inside the government to execute. But I don’t sign up to a soft coup.
MS. WOODRUFF: Do you believe that the Pakistani military is really prepared to go after the Taliban, especially in those northwestern tribal areas, when they have twice as many troops on the border with India as they do in the area where Taliban and al-Qaida are?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, one thing that’s very true in Pakistan, and sometimes it’s difficult to accept if you’re not living in that country, is they really see two threats. They see a threat from India that’s very real to them, and that’s where they’ve been focused for many, many years – on the Indian border. That said, he’s moved some 70,000-plus troops from that border area to the west, where he now has about 140,000 troops that have been in a pretty tough fight over the last couple of years.
And I’ve watched them evolve, in terms of how they’ve fought the terrorists out there. They’ve lost an awful lot of Pak military soldiers. They’ve sacrificed; they’ve lost a lot of citizens. And they are really concerned – urgently concerned – about the threat to their own country from terrorists. Two years ago, that wasn’t the case.
So he, not unlike us – I mean, he’s been fighting two different wars – or at least, I’m sorry, he’s got two fronts and he’s had to rotate his forces. He’s had to train them from a conventional force to a counterinsurgency force. We’ve supported him in that training. And he has gone after principally those who have threatened Pakistan.
He’s well aware of the requirement – this is Gen. Kayani – he’s well aware of the requirement to get after the Haqqani network, specifically in northwest Waziristan. From literally a physical ability to do that, in a place like Swat, which he took back from his country last year, he’s got no government to build behind it.
So he’s got his forces literally pinned down in Swat until the government can actually come in and provide the security, the police, those kinds of things. And so he’s pretty thin right now. But he’s committed, to me, to go into North Waziristan and to root out these terrorists, as well. So we’ll see.
MS. WOODRUFF: So the U.S. can count on Pakistan to do what is needed?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, this relationship, Judy, comes from what I call a very dark hole, where we left them in 1990 and we basically had no relationship with them for over a decade. One of the reasons I’ve been to Pakistan so much – and I think I’ve been there 20 times – is to try to reestablish this relationship and try to recreate trust which was there before, and it’s not back. So to assert certainties right now, I think, is a real challenge.
He clearly knows what our priorities are. I understand what his are. This is the epicenter of terrorism. It’s where al-Qaida lives. It’s where the Haqqani network lives. It’s where LeT has now spread to from the eastern border to their western border. It’s where the Pakistan Taliban reside. And so it’s the epicenter of terrorism in the world, and we both agree that it has to be attacked in a way where this terrorism threat is significantly reduced or eliminated.
MS. WOODRUFF: Afghanistan – I hear people asking, since the U.S. went into Afghanistan nine years ago to get Osama bin Laden, Osama bin Laden is still running al-Qaida, by all reports. Is that still the goal in Afghanistan?
ADM. MULLEN: Certainly, to be able to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri, who’s the number two, is still a goal. But what the real goal is – and this gets back to Pakistan – the real goal is to dismantle, defeat and destroy al-Qaida. Now, al-Qaida, while they still threaten us and threaten us significantly, they’ve been greatly diminished over the last couple of years.
So yes, bin Laden is still running al-Qaida. He’s struggled doing that, to some degree, over the last couple of years. But from the strategic intent, from the threat to the United States, as well as other Western countries, it’s every bit as intense as it has been and it’s still a threat that needs to be eliminated.
MS. WOODRUFF: Do you believe – I kind of just want to ask a couple of, frankly, quick questions –
ADM. MULLEN: Sure.
MS. WOODRUFF: Do you believe the U.S. is on target to begin to withdraw troops from Afghanistan next summer, and that the Afghans will be ready to take over, as President Karzai has said, in 2014?
ADM. MULLEN: One of the things that’s happened over the last year has been the fairly rapid development of the Afghan National Security Forces – their army, their air force and their police forces – ahead of what we’d anticipated. So they are actually taking the lead in some areas – it’s not a lot right now. They’re out there with us, in terms of this fight, extensively.
And so we’ve been impressed with their development. The police are behind the army, as it was in Iraq. It’s just going to take a longer time. And they are key. And yes, I believe we will start to be able to transition next summer, based on the conditions and – specifically, we don’t know exactly where that will be or how much – but we’re very committed and I’m sure we’ll be able to start that transition.
MS. WOODRUFF: Iran – do you believe the new sanctions on Iran are starting – are causing them to reconsider their nuclear enrichment program? Any evidence of that at all?
ADM. MULLEN: I think the sanctions have had a very significant effect on Iran – more so than many people anticipated, including the Iranians. And I am one who believes we need to continue to increase that pressure to get their attention, to force them to the table, to get to a point where Iran makes a decision that their future is better served without a nuclear weapon than with one. I also believe they’re still strategically intent on having a nuclear weapon, and I think having it would add to the instability in a very unstable part of the world. So that’s a very dangerous capability that they would achieve if they get there.
So I’ve seen the sanctions take hold and have an impact, and we’ll see. I mean, time will tell. And there are an awful lot of clocks moving right now – the clock that they’re on to develop this weapon, the clock that sanctions lay out there as well, and an awful lot of international pressure to get them to change their minds.
MS. WOODRUFF: A sidebar – any new information about cooperation between Iran and the North Koreans?
ADM. MULLEN: Between the Iranians and the North Koreans? No, I mean, I don’t have any new information. They continue to cooperate. North Korea continues to be, in my judgment, the number-one proliferator of nuclear weapons technology in the world. And certainly, they’re very much tied to Iran.
MS. WOODRUFF: China: As Secretary of Defense Gates met with his Chinese counterpart this week, we know the dialogue is opening. And yet the question is, is it all clear that the Chinese are ready to – or, have any intention of giving the U.S., really, insights into their defense plans?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think that this is very much focused on the military-to-military relationship. I think the president of China, Hu Jintao, and President Obama have clearly signaled that we want this military-to-military relationship to work.
We haven’t had a good military relationship with them for some time, and I think it’s very important that we do have opportunities to meet, to discuss things we agree on, as well as those that we disagree on. And the longer that we are not in contact, I think the more dangerous the potential longer-term outcomes are.
So I think the steps that Secretary Gates has taken and that the Chinese have invited him to come to Beijing, I think that’s very positive, and a step in the right direction. No matter what happens over time, I’m hopeful that we can have a relationship, military-to-military, that we can sustain in the best of times and in the worst of times.
MS. WOODRUFF: Different subject: The new book by Bob Woodward, “Obama’s Wars”. It’s about this administration; best-seller list. Have you read it?
ADM. MULLEN: I haven’t read it, no.
MS. WOODRUFF: The White House has said everyone should read it, and it is about the administration and the time period you’re serving in. Why wouldn’t you read it?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, actually, I mean, I’ve certainly read some of the news articles about it, specifically, which I think captured an awful lot of what is there. But I haven’t read it, to date.
MS. WOODRUFF: So if I asked – is it consistent – if what you know of it is consistent with your understanding of the national security process?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, certainly, what was represented, from what I’ve seen in the media reporting, I’d say certainly some of it was. There were parts of what went on that wasn’t reported in the book, specifically in terms of what has been accounted for in the media.
MS. WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you about a couple of different places. He does suggest that the top military officials, including you, sought to limit the options on Afghanistan for the president. And at one point, he quotes you as telling Gen. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, not to present a scaled-back plan on Afghanistan.
ADM. MULLEN: Well, one of the things I wouldn’t do now is get into the details of, actually, those conversations that took place at that particular time. What I would like to say is, we had a very specific mission that we’d agreed on in these discussions, and this was – back to Pakistan – and it was Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But it was to ensure that we defeated, deterred al-Qaida and that we made sure Afghanistan could not become a safe haven for al-Qaida or terrorist organizations, from which they could attack us in the future. And that defeat and dismantling of al-Qaida – focusing on that mission – that’s how we approached, that’s how I approached my best military advice to the president.
MS. WOODRUFF: He also suggests that the optimism that one hears about the mission in Afghanistan in the administration is less than publicly professed. At one point this year, he quotes Derek Harvey, top intelligence advisor to Gen. Petraeus, as saying that, “The mission in Afghanistan is fatally flawed.” This is a quote: “It is not going to work. The likely outcome is malign actors, disruptive, ineffective, collapsing government in Kabul, a reemergence of violent extremist groups and safe havens.” My question is, if an expert like Mr. Harvey is saying this, how can one have confidence in the policy?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, Judy, part of my perspective here is, I came into this job just as the surge was kicking off in Iraq, and I recall how pessimistic so many people were there, in terms of the strategy and the surge and the application of it, and look at where we are today. So I think we’re at a point in time where we’ve certainly got very clear strategy from the president, we understand what our mission is. We just recently, literally last month, got the surge forces in place.
We’re starting to see progress. I’m not going to overstate or over-emphasize it now, but we’re starting to see some progress on the ground. This is not just about security, though. That’s key because there’s a governance piece; there’s a development piece, all of which has to fall into place, as well. Btu we think we’ve got the strategy right and the inputs right to move forward. That’s why this time, over the next year or so, is so critical, and why I’m confident that we’ll start to transition next July.
MS. WOODRUFF: One other question about the book that’s really related to what’s just happened, and that is Jim Jones, the national security advisor, his deputy, Tom Donilon, has been named to succeed him, as you know.
In the book, Bob Woodward, at one point, writes that Secretary Gates said that putting Tom Donilon in that job would be a disaster, that Tom Donilon has primarily a political background. And Jones himself tells Donilon and his deputy he has no credibility with the military.
How tough a job is this going to be for Tom Donilon, do you believe, and how does he build the trust that’s necessary?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think it’s an incredibly difficult job, no matter who’s in it. You know, I’ve watched Tom, as the deputy national security advisor, over the last year-and-a-half, run the machinery, if you will, that makes the National Security Council go. And I’ve actually been very impressed.
I mean, these are extraordinarily difficult times. You’ve asked just about a handful of the significant challenges that were out there. And actually, I have great confidence, based on what I’ve seen Tom do over the course of the last year or so in his ability to very, very capably execute this critical job.
MS. WOODRUFF: One quick question about very current events and that is the death of the British aid worker. U.S. forces were involved with attempting to rescue – she was being held by the Taliban. Do you have anything to report?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think certainly, we mourn her loss, and it’s a real tragedy. I think Prime Minister Cameron said it very well, when one’s captured by these individuals, we’re in a very high-risk environment for her survival under any circumstances. I don’t know all the details, in terms of the rescue attempt.
I’m familiar with some, and obviously, I want to wait until the investigation, which Gen. Mattis has now ordered, is completed so we really do know what has happened. But again, it’s a tragedy and, certainly, my thoughts and prayers and condolences go out to her family because of this loss.
MS. WOODRUFF: Well, let me bring some of the questions home. You’ve said that the biggest threat to national security is the debt – the deficit. The defense budget is 51 percent of federal discretionary spending. How much of a hit should the Pentagon take in the efforts, now, to hold down and bring down government spending?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, Judy, in my previous life, I actually handled all the money for the Navy. So since as early as 2002, 2003, I had expectations that our budget would eventually start going down. And that has started to happen. And so what I’ve tried to do is prepare those around me – originally in the Navy and now the other chiefs – and we’ve talked an awful lot about expectations that the budget is going to see increased pressure.
I think that we have to both meet the national security requirements and be very clear to the president and to the secretary of defense of what we believe, what I believe it will take, in terms of the fiscal resources, to meet the requirements, or we’ll have to stop doing something. While at the same time, we have to participate in this process because we are such a significant player on the one hand, in terms of discretionary spending.
On the other, we’re about 4 percent of the gross domestic product for the country. So we are by no means going to solve this problem by ourselves, but I think participating in the solution to get our debt under control is really important.
MS. WOODRUFF: You can slow the growth, but what about actual cuts? I mean, do you see actual cuts out there to reduce the size of the military budget, even by a couple percent?
ADM. MULLEN: I think there will be more cuts. We’re going through that process right now. Again, I’ve been doing budgets a long time, and I think what Secretary Gates did in the fiscal year ’10 budget amendment, where he eliminated so many programs – I mean, really tough, tough decisions – was signature, in terms of meeting this requirement.
And I think there will be more. I think major programs from all the services, which are not performing well, which can’t get themselves under control in terms of cost and schedule, that they’re going to be looking at either being slowed down dramatically or being eliminated.
MS. WOODRUFF: All right, a couple specific spending questions very quickly: The Navy, over the next few decades, we’re told, wants to extend the number of ships to about 313 from about 286 today. This includes 55 of the so-called littoral combat ships – shallow-water ships that have experienced major cost increases. Can the country afford them?
ADM. MULLEN: I would put them in the same category. If LCS is unable to contain itself, in terms of cost and schedule, then I don’t think it has much of a future.
MS. WOODRUFF: The F-35, the stealth fighter jet – Pentagon’s largest program. How do you continue to justify the huge price tag – I think it’s $382 billion – in the face of deficits? Is this also on the table?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, the Joint Strike Fighter – the F-35 – really is the strike fighter of the future. And we’re very much focused on this. The secretary recommended and Congress approved the reduction in the number of F-22s, which was a very, very expensive program, for example.
Part of what I hope we don’t get lost on is that our future is all just about counterinsurgency warfare. While it has been the focus of these wars, and rightfully so, that shouldn’t be the complete focus in the future. We’ve got to have capabilities, I think, across our entire military, to include air, land and sea. Part of my responsibility is to make recommendations to the secretary and the president about, what does that take.
And I also come from a position of balance. We’re pretty lousy at predicting where we’ll go. We’re pretty lousy at predicting the kind of warfare we’ll be in, if the last 20 years, or so, serve as an example. So I think a balanced portfolio of capabilities is critical, including the kind of strike fighter capability, as we transition away from our older airplanes into the future, that the F-35 brings.
MS. WOODRUFF: Last spending question: The State Department – asking for more equipment, more helicopters, more logistical help after U.S. troops are out of Iraq next year. I understand there’s been no response yet from the Pentagon. What’s the answer?
ADM. MULLEN: Actually, we’ve worked – and I give Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew a great deal of credit – we’ve worked closely with the State Department over the course of the last year to figure out what the capabilities and requirements will be for the State Department to support their mission in Iraq. And I am certain we will be there. In the money world, there’s always disagreements about how much and when, but the leadership is very focused on resolving it in a way that, that mission is in no way jeopardized.
MS. WOODRUFF: All right, changing subject one more time: veterans. When you came back from the war in Vietnam, veterans were treated miserably in this country by this society. It’s been a lot better for veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars. Why do you think that is?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, the other time – or the other thought that hit me when these wars started was, would the American people support our men and women in uniform because at the end of Vietnam, they didn’t. And that was when I first was commissioned – I mean, the late ’60s. So I was very concerned as to whether or not they would. The men and women in uniform are strongly supported by the American people throughout.
And I think that is very much a part of our ability, now, to focus in ways to make sure that our veterans who’ve sacrificed so much – those we’ve lost, and that we don’t lose focus on their families, their spouses, their children – as well as the hundreds of thousands who suffer from post-traumatic stress, the tens of thousands with physical wounds, and that we get this right.
And while it is much better, we have a long way to go. We don’t understand that traumatic brain injuries that we see. It’s nascent science and we need help there. We still haven’t removed the stigma from asking for help, and so PTS – post-traumatic stress – is still a real challenge. We’ve got suicide rates in our military, and particularly in our ground forces, at record levels, and we don’t understand that.
It’s not something that America understands really well, when I looked into the research that’s associated with that. We’ve got to get ahead of that. And as these young men and women transition back to their communities throughout the country, they come back at a time having served and sacrificed, seeing a G.I. bill that is very robust. Many of them will go back to school.
And I think they offer great potential for the country, and I would hope that 30 or 40 years from now, we will have fully tapped that potential to make the country better, as opposed to seeing a repeat of what we did in Vietnam, as we are generating homeless right now; we’re generating female homeless veterans at a record rate.
So it’s something the country, I think, has to look at and seize. I meet with community leadership throughout the country fairly routinely. There is a sea of goodwill out there that wants to help. We have to figure out how to connect with them.
MS. WOODRUFF: You talk about their potential, but right now, I understand the unemployment rate among these veterans is 10.2 percent. Should Congress enact legislation specifically with regard to job training directed at veterans?
ADM. MULLEN: I’m not sure about that, Judy. What I try to do is focus the issue – you’re right, the veterans’ unemployment rate is higher than the national average. There are an awful lot of people focused on this right now, so I’m not sure that legislation is a specific answer. I think we also have to look internal to our own system, which prepares young men and women for transition. And I’m not sure we’re doing that as well as we can.
MS. WOODRUFF: Finally, you’ve been a big advocate of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy regarding gays in the military. Congress did not act on this in September, when it was in session. Some advocates are saying this is the last, best chance. If this is not changed – if it’s not changed – what do you think the implications are for the military?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, first of all, advocacy is not my position. I was asked last February – or I had an expectation at a congressional hearing that I would be asked my personal view, my personal opinion, which I gave. And I think it is that the legislation – or that it should be repealed, specifically.
But I’m not into how that happens; that’s all up to Congress. And as I said then, we follow the law now and we will follow whatever law is out there in the future. So I certainly expected, over time, that this would have its ups and downs, and we’re certainly seeing that. But it’s really not for me to judge what’s going to happen. Predicting what Congress is going to do is pretty difficult.
MS. WOODRUFF: But in terms of implication for the military, if it’s not changed, what do you think?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I mean, one of the things we’re doing is, we’re completing a study, which we will do over the next month or so. So we’ll know a lot more about the implications of change and, by virtue of that, the implications of it not being changed. And so I think the leadership will certainly be able to deal with it, no matter what happens – one way or another.
We’re going through this process and we’ll see what the process, the review suggests we need to do if and when it does get implemented from a leadership standpoint, which is my principal responsibility, and we’ll just see what happens on the congressional side?
MS. WOODRUFF: But your personal views have remained the same?
ADM. MULLEN: My personal views have remained the same, and it sums up, in terms of – I struggled greatly, being in an institution which values integrity, which it has my whole life, and then asking people to come to work every day and lie about who they are.
MS. WOODRUFF: Adm. Mike Mullen, thank you very much for talking with us.
ADM. MULLEN: Thanks, Judy.