Adm. Mullen: ‘Clarity’ on Afghanistan should come after fighting season

The outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the U.S. should have more clarity about the situation in Afghanistan later this year, when battles against the Taliban and other hostile groups are over.  

“I think we’ll have a much better fix in terms of clarity towards the end of this year in terms of longer-term … potential outcomes — and when those might occur — than we do right now,” said Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

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The Obama administration is in the early stages of deciding how many U.S. troops can be removed from Afghanistan as part of a partial drawdown that begins next month. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is crafting a slate of withdrawal options to present to President Obama. 

U.S. forces will be locked in combat with Taliban forces as the  administration and Pentagon debate withdrawal plans.

“This is going to be a very difficult fighting season. We’re in the teeth of it right now,” Mullen said. “We’re seeing the Taliban come back, not unexpectedly, to try to re-take territory that they lost last year.”

But U.S. officials feel like “we’re in a better position this year,” Mullen told reporters during a breakfast meeting in Washington sponsored by the Center for Media and Security. He acknowledged “substantial “challenges remain, but said “the trend is headed in the right direction.”

The shape of the partial withdrawal plan and the “outcomes,” as Mullen called them, of the 2011 fighting season will play out as lawmakers express doubts about the military situations in which the U.S. is engaged.

While the fighting season will help influence the future of the U.S. operation, “all of us believe there is a political solution” to be had, Mullen said.

The House last Thursday, in a close 204-215 vote, defeated an amendment to a military policy bill that would have required the Defense Department to develop a plan for an “accelerated transition of military operations to Afghan authorities.”

Six days later, House Republican leaders pulled from the floor schedule a measure offered by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) that would force a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Libya. 

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) introduced an alternative one-page bill Thursday that says the House “does not approve United States intervention in Libya” but does not require the removal of American forces. 

Meantime, the “governance piece” in Afghanistan — meaning the local and national institutions that provide services, maintain security and run the country — still troubles Mullen.

Since the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last month, members of Congress from both parties have argued American aid to Pakistan should be cut off or restricted.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) last month called the bin Laden situation a possible “chance for a restart” with Pakistan, urging that conditions on future assistance be “strengthened.”

What’s more, U.S. officials “have to be willing to cut off or suspend” aid, if Pakistan’s actions warrant such moves, Cardin said. 

Congress should review and strengthen the stipulations it places on aid to Pakistan, House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told The Hill shortly after bin Laden was taken out by U.S. commandos.

"We should be looking at how we can make Pakistan a more active partner versus groups that threaten us and them," Thornberry said.

Mullen, who will step aside later this summer after two terms as chairman, disagrees with such calls.

“The worst thing we could do is cut them off,” the Joint Chiefs chairman told reporters.

U.S.-Pakistani relations were strained for years after “we did that in the 1990s,” Mullen said.

“This is not the time to hammer each other,” he added.

Mullen reiterated the Obama administration’s stance that they have collected no evidence showing Pakistani officials were aware of bin Laden hiding on their soil.

Pakistani military officials have launched an internal review to determine how the al Qaeda leader could have been hiding there and whether any of their subordinates knew.

U.S. officials should give Pakistani officials “time and space” to complete that “introspection,” Mullen said.

Pakistan is a “critical country … in a critical region,” one that is “tied directly” to the Afghanistan conflict and the war against al Qaeda, Mullen said.

The outgoing chairman warned against a severing of diplomatic and security ties with Pakistan, noting the two nations only have been involved in “three or four years of serious re-engagement.”

Mullen confirmed there has been a “very significant cutback” by Washington on the number of U.S. military forces training Pakistani security forces. He did not offer up a timeline for when U.S. trainers might be sent back.

Finally, the outgoing top U.S. military official said it is too soon to make declarations about the impact of bin Laden’s death on the Afghanistan conflict.

For instance, American officials still are pouring through all of the materials taken from bin Laden’s compound. That alone “will take months,” the chairman said.

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