Interview with Admiral Mullen on "Meet the Press"

Interview with Admiral Mullen on "Meet the Press"

By Meet the Press - August 1, 2010

MR. GREGORY: Good morning. July is now the deadliest month for U.S. troops in the nearly nine-year war in Afghanistan. With us, our lead newsmaker interview this morning, the president's principal military adviser, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

ADM. MULLEN: Good morning, David.

MR. GREGORY: We just played for our viewers very strong comments by you this week about these leaks. You indicated those who are responsible for making these secret documents public may already have blood on their hands, a strong statement. What specifically do you mean?

ADM. MULLEN: These--the, the, the scope and the volume of these leaks are unprecedented, and, and the specifics of them, and I've been through some of them, but we've still got a lot of work to do to, to really put the details together. But I think the, the leaks themselves don't look clearly at the war that we're in. There is an ability to put this kind of information together in the world that we're living in and the potential for costing us lives, I think, is significant. I said, when it first occurred, I was appalled--I remain appalled--and that the potential for the loss of lives of American soldiers or coalition soldiers or Afghan citizens is clearly there.

MR. GREGORY: But how can that happen based on this?

ADM. MULLEN: Well, I would speak to--actually the Taliban spokesman has come out in the last day or so and said that they're looking at the names, and I think that's evidence of what that potential is. So...

MR. GREGORY: These are Afghans that they're looking at?

ADM. MULLEN: These are--there are Afghan names that are, that are listed in the documents and specifically the Taliban spokesman said that they're going to look at that. I think people that aren't...

MR. GREGORY: They could be killed is the point.

ADM. MULLEN: They--exactly. And people that aren't in, in a fight like this, that don't do this for a living, don't understand what the potential is for something like this in terms of the kinds of information. And a piece of information may seem very innocent in and of itself, and a lot of this is old information, but being able to net it together is--there's potential there that it could have a much bigger impact than just as is evident on the face of, of a piece of information.

MR. GREGORY: What endangers you as troops?

ADM. MULLEN: The, the fact that they would look at what our tactics are, how we report, where we're fighting, who's involved, the, the kinds of things that we do. And, and yet, there's--the volume is such that we really haven't put it all together to be able to say this is exactly what the potential is in terms of that.

MR. GREGORY: You are looking at a suspect, a private who you believe may be responsible for obtaining this information, ultimately leaking it. What should happen to those responsible?

ADM. MULLEN: I think anybody in our--in the, in the national security apparatus has, has got to take full cognizance of their responsibility for the safeguarding of classified information. I mean, I wouldn't go into the specific details of this investigation or of the case, the case of this private...

MR. GREGORY: But is it treason?

ADM. MULLEN: Again, I'll let the investigation run its course, and we'll see where it goes, specifically. But the concern, obviously, is for the leaking of classified information that is going to endanger people, operations and, potentially, depending on how serious it is, outcomes.

MR. GREGORY: There, there are some who have argued that the fixation about the leak perhaps is a distraction from the larger point of these documents, and that is that it goes in an unvarnished way to the core question of whether the strategy is actually working. The New York Times, as part of its reporting, made this piece of analysis--and I'll put it up on the screen--on Monday: "The documents--some 92,000 reports spanning parts of two administrations from January 2004 through December 2009--illustrate in mosaic detail why, after the United States has spent almost $300 billion on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban are stronger than at any time since 2001." Don't you think the public gets a look at these documents, and the bigger concern here is, not the leak, but the fact that this war may be a lost cause?

ADM. MULLEN: I don't think that the Taliban being stronger than they've been since 2001 is, is news. I mean, I've been concerned about the growing insurgency there for a number of years. We really are at a time in Afghanistan, after the president's review, where we've got the right strategy, the right leadership, and the right resources. And, and we really are in the second year of that aspect of Afghanistan. I certainly understand it is the ninth year, it is a long time, the sacrifices have been significant, and yet, at the same time, I think the strategy's right. And the release of these documents, best that I can tell, have not affected the strategy. Many of them were very, very old. That said, it's still--I think we've got to work our way through exactly what the potential impact would be; and I think, from my perspective, we're headed in the right direction.

MR. GREGORY: But the reality is still the same, whether it's news or not, the disillusionment with the--among the American people about the fact that the Taliban is stronger and not weaker--go back a year ago, nearly, you were on this program, and I asked you about the mission, and here's a portion of what you said.

(Videotape, August 23, 2009)

MR. GREGORY: We're rebuilding this nation?

ADM. MULLEN: To, to a certain degree, there is, there is some of that going on.

MR. GREGORY: Is that what the American people signed up for?

ADM. MULLEN: No, I'm--right now, the American people signed up, I think, for support of getting at those who threaten us, and, and to the degree that, that the Afghan people's security and the ability to ensure that a safe haven doesn't recur in Afghanistan, there's focus on some degree of making sure security's OK, making sure governance moves in the right direction, and developing an economy which will underpin their future.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: The problem with that a year on is that, again, the Taliban is stronger and there appears no evidence that they're willing to do the core thing, which is to turn their back on al-Qaeda. Isn't that the case?

ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think, again, that is the main mission is to make sure that, that Afghanistan can't become a safe haven again. They are indeed stronger. And yet the president approved additional forces, most of which are there, but there are still additional forces yet to come this year. So we've said for many, many months this would be a very difficult year; you pointed out the, the losses that have occurred in the month of July, the highest ever. We recognize that this is a tough fight, but we think we've got the resources right, the strategy right. There's also a regional piece of this, a lot of effort gone on the Pakistan side, a significant effort on the part of Pakistani leadership, Pakistani mil to address that--military to address that as well. But we're not there. We're at a point now where, over the course of the next 12 months, it really is going to, I think, tell the tale which, which way this is going to go.

MR. GREGORY: But another problem area, in terms of achieving the goal, is indeed Pakistan. I've talked to people who say the strategy, in effect, boils down to this, with General Petraeus on the scene: Bloody the nose of the Taliban to the point that they are willing to turn their back on al-Qaeda, Pakistan can broker a deal where there is some power-sharing in the country where the, the Taliban have a seat at the table and control some part of that geography, and in return, al-Qaeda's out of the picture. That's still a big "if," and here's one of the reasons why: Look at Pakistan's record; start with this Pew Research Center survey poll from this week: "How do Pakistanis view the U.S.?" Nearly six in 10 see the United States as an enemy. We know that the Taliban is operating from within Pakistan, from safe havens, and escalating their attacks. David Cameron, the conservative leader now of the U.K., prime minister said this, as reported by the Financial Times on Wednesday: "The U.K. prime minister used his first public appearance in Bangalore to warn Pakistan to stop `promoting terror' or face isolation in the international community." And these, these documents demonstrate what a lot of people knew, which was the intelligence service for Pakistan was helping the Afghan Taliban. Is Pakistan working against our interests there?

ADM. MULLEN: I've said for a long time, clearly the--a, a critical key to success in the region is going to be Pakistan and our relationship with Pakistan, which was one that was broken in the late '80s and which we've worked hard to restore. That there are elements of the Pakistani intelligence agency that are connected or have had relationships with extremists is certainly known and that has to change. I just came back from, I think, my 19th trip to Pakistan since I've been in this job, spending time particularly with military leadership, General Kayani. And he has, he has actually directed his military to take on the, the insurgent threat in his own country. We--and he's made great strides. We recognize that part of that is to focus on the Haqqani network and--as well as the other Afghan Taliban.

MR. GREGORY: They operate in that tribal area?

ADM. MULLEN: They do. And they, and they have a safe haven there, and that causes us great problems in Afghanistan as well. That we are anxious to have that addressed is, is well known to him. So this isn't going to turn overnight. And you, you laid out one possible outcome. I think it's a little early to say exactly what the outcome would look like specifically. Suffice it to say, I think we have to be in a stronger position in Afghanistan vis-a-vis the insurgency overall. We have to continue to develop this relationship and evolve this relationship with Pakistan. There's a regional approach here, and certainly India, which is where Prime Minister Cameron spoke from, India is certainly more than just concerned with the overall outcome here.

MR. GREGORY: But true or untrue, the big fear is that Pakistan's working against us and not with us?

ADM. MULLEN: In many ways, Pakistan is working with us. I mean, their, their military, their intelligence agency. I mean, we've got a very strong relationship in the positive sense with, with their intelligence agency. That doesn't mean there aren't some challenges with some aspects of it.

MR. GREGORY: They are actively supporting elements killing U.S. soldiers.

ADM. MULLEN: But they have, they have shared intelligence with us, they've killed as many or more terrorists as anybody, they've captured them. And certainly, the, the focus on changing the strategic shift, if you will, in that agency so that that doesn't happen at all, is a priority for us.

MR. GREGORY: Fair to say that among the outcomes you would look at would be a scenario where the Taliban would have some power in the country?

ADM. MULLEN: I think in any of these kinds of insurgency over history, in the political solution, those who have been insurgents at some point in time have been in a position of political influence at some point down the road. But I think we're way too early to say how--what that looks like or when it might happen.

MR. GREGORY: It--it's--it seems to be an important point, if you look at the cover of Time magazine, which has a pretty striking photograph of a young woman whose nose was cut off by the Taliban, a--just one indication of how brutal and horrific these people are. And, and they've done this when they were in power and, indeed, even when they've been out of power. The grim reality, if that's an argument for why the U.S. should not leave, is that our central mission, the central mission of the United States is not to protect the women of Afghanistan. Is that fair?

ADM. MULLEN: I think the central mission in Afghanistan right now is to protect the people, certainly, and that would be inclusive of everybody, and that in a, in an insurgency and a counterinsurgency, that's really the center of gravity.

MR. GREGORY: But you said a year ago our central mission was to get at those who threaten us. Our central mission is not to protect the women, who could still be brutalized if the Taliban comes into power in any fashion.

ADM. MULLEN: Well, the Taliban are incredibly unpopular with the Afghan people, even as we speak, and they have--as they have been for a long period of time. The mission--the overall mission is to dismantle and defeat and disrupt al-Qaeda. But we have to make sure there's not a safe haven that returns in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has to be stable enough, has to have enough governance, have to--has to create enough jobs, have an economy that's good enough so that the Taliban cannot return to the brutality of the kind of regime that you just showed.

MR. GREGORY: However, the United States could still withdraw and, and do so having achieved the mission, and yet women like, like those on the cover of that magazine could still be in danger.

ADM. MULLEN: Certainly, the, the, the long-term goal is to make sure that the--with respect to the population in Afghanistan, that there's a governant--governance structure that treats its people well. And I--but to say exactly how that's going to look and what specifics would be involved, I think it's just way too early.

MR. GREGORY: I just want to ask you a couple of questions about Iran, another threat that this administration is facing. The consequences of Iran developing a nuclear weapon are vast, and something that the administration certainly wants to prevent. This is what you said back in April of 2010, I'll put it up on the screen, at Columbia University: "I think Iran having a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. I think attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome." Keen analysis, but my question is, which is worse?

ADM. MULLEN: Actually, when I speak to that, I talk to unintended consequences of either outcome. And it's those unintended consequences that are difficult to predict in what is a, an incredibly unstable part of the world that I worry about the most. What I try to do when I talk about that is, is identify the space between those two outcomes, which is pretty narrow, in which I think the diplomacy, the kind of sanctions, the kind of international pressure that, that is being applied, I am hopeful works. I, I, I recognize that there isn't that much space there. But, quite frankly, I am extremely concerned about both of those outcomes.

MR. GREGORY: But leaders have to make a decision. You're a leader, the president's a leader. Which is worse, Iran with a nuclear weapon or what could happen if the United States attacks?

ADM. MULLEN: Well, certainly for our country, the president would be the one making those decisions, and I wouldn't be one that would, would pick one or the other along those lines. I think they both have great downside, potentially.

MR. GREGORY: The president has said he is determined to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. He doesn't just say it's unacceptable, he says he's determined to stop it. Is force against Iran by the United States on the table in a way that it has not been even in our recent history, past six months, a year?

ADM. MULLEN: No, I, I think the military actions have been on the table and remain on the table, and certainly in that regard it's, it's one of the options that the president has. Again, I hope we don't get to that. But it's an important option, and it's one that's well understood.

MR. GREGORY: There was a concern among Israelis, among Americans, that there weren't very many good options when it came to attacking Iran, should it come to that. Is that still the case?

ADM. MULLEN: I think that's the case.

MR. GREGORY: There aren't very many good options.

ADM. MULLEN: No, no. I mean, there aren't--it depends on what you mean by that. None of them are good in a sense that it's certainly an outcome that I don't seek, or that, that we wouldn't seek. At the same time, and for what I talked about before, is, is not just the consequences of the action itself, but the things that could result after the fact.

MR. GREGORY: But the military has a plan, should it come to that?


MR. GREGORY: Admiral Mullen, one final question of something I'm sure deeply troubles you, and that is the rate of suicides in the military. And the concern is not just that they have been increasing, but that commanders in the field have not been attentive enough to the, the problems that are leading to the suicides. What should be done about that?

ADM. MULLEN: Well, I, I think it was addressed this week very well by General Chiarelli, specifically. I mean, the purpose of the review, which was widely reported on, was to understand as much as we could about what the problem was. It is not a problem that exists just in the Army, because the suicide rate is up in all our services. And we don't have the answers. I'm one who believes that the pressure of these wars and the repeated deployments is a significant factor, but there's a significant population that have committed suicide that have not deployed. So it's a, it's an incredibly complex, vexing problem. I think what General Chiarelli did was, was correctly focus on leaders to be all-attentive to this in every single way and know that we certainly, we're not even close to solving it. It's an enormously complex problem nationally for us, and certainly we are a microcosm of that. But our rates now exceed the norm in the country, and it's something we absolutely have to continue to focus on.

MR. GREGORY: Admiral Mullen, thank you very much.

ADM. MULLEN: Thank you, David.


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