Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks to soldiers assigned to Forward Operating Base Airborne, Afghanistan, April 22, 2009. Mullen is on a six-day tour of the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility escorting a USO tour, meeting with counterparts and visiting troops.
COMBAT OUTPOST DEYSIE, Afghanistan, April 22, 2009 – Military support “enablers” are Regional Command East’s most important need in Afghanistan, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here Wednesday.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown clearly that the main units “have to be supported by these enablers.”
Enablers are units such as engineers, civil affairs, military intelligence, helicopters, military police, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. “We are looking throughout the system to generate more capacity to support these units as they flow in here,” Mullen said.
Commanders have had to make hard decisions between Iraq and Afghanistan to get enablers into the country, but they are starting to flow, the chairman said. Some of the units were set to deploy to Iraq, but have been switched to Afghanistan.
The military has to change institutionally to meet this demand, Mullen said. “One of the discussions in Washington right now is the fiscal 2010 budget,” he said. “The big decision in that is to focus on these enablers.” Army and Marine Corps leaders have increased the capacity, and though it takes time to train and equip the units, they must do it as quickly as possible, he added.
Part of the purpose of the chairman’s trip is to meet with the men and women who are on the leading edge of the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. “I’m very encouraged with what I see here,” Mullen said. “Just the discussions we’ve had about development and the local people who are feeling more supported than they did a few months ago.”
Mullen emphasized that the Afghan people are the center of gravity in the struggle. “What I’m most heartened by is that our people understand that,” he said. “Everything I’ve heard since I’ve been here today is focused on the Afghan people, and that’s the right answer.”
Mullen cited progress here in Paktia province, noting road development that contributes to commerce. But he acknowledged the strategy in Afghanistan will take time to work.
“I’m hard-pressed to say whether this is going to take time,” he said. “I think we need to make a lot of progress in many areas in the next couple of years.”
What happens this year and next will give planners a much better idea of how long the campaign will take, the chairman said.
Mullen said he’s noticed “significant improvement” since a visit to Afghanistan last summer. “But I can’t measure that and say we’ll be here three years or four years or five years,” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
U.S., NATO and NATO-allied forces are working to train the Afghan security forces, and civilian agencies are sending people to the country to help with the economy and governance. “It isn’t all about combat for an extended period of time,” the chairman said. “There’s a lot more to it than that.”
The Taliban in Pakistan are a problem inside Afghanistan. Commanders told Mullen that Taliban forces are flowing back into Afghanistan after a winter spent training and refitting in Pakistan. The addition of U.S. combat power in Afghanistan means the Taliban won’t find it so easy to come back, Mullen said, and the border issue is getting attention. “I’m comfortable that we understand the challenges of [the Afghanistan-Pakistan] border, and that we need to address this challenge regionally on both sides,” he said.
Pakistan’s Frontier Corps has improved greatly its border security in the past few months, the chairman said. Pakistani units have launched operations on their side of the border, but these have to be sustained, he said.
“I believe the Pakistani military has to increase pressure as pressure increases on this side to stop that insurgent flow,” the admiral said. “They have the capacity to do that, but … switching from a conventional mindset to a counterinsurgency mindset is one of the big challenges the Pakistanis have.”
Commanders in Afghanistan are interested in the information operations part of the campaign, wanting to get out ahead of the Taliban’s message, Mullen said.
“To me, that’s an important statement and goal,” he said. “The whole idea is to provide security for the Afghan people so they have more confidence in our forces, they have more confidence [in themselves], and they develop more confidence in their own government. And all of our operations are done with Afghan forces. We have the strategy, and the commanders on the ground understand it.”