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CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: NATO has set 2014 as the year they want to turn over all security in Afghanistan to the Afghan government. Not soon enough for critics of the war, but too soon for others who worry that the complex and risky tableaux of politics and violence in Afghanistan may defy a solution for years to come. 655 coalition troops, including 451 Americans, have been killed in Afghanistan so far this year, now the deadliest year since the war began in 2001.
Joining me now to discuss the way forward in Afghanistan and more, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thank you, Admiral Mullen, for being here.
ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN (USN), CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Good morning.
CROWLEY: Appreciate it. Let’s start with 2014. Vice President Joe Biden was on “Larry King” and earlier and he called it a drop-dead date. What does 2014 mean to you? What does that mean?
MULLEN: Well, I’m very encouraged by what happened in Lisbon over the weekend. NATO, 28 nations, who are member nations in addition to another 20 nations who contribute troops, all affirmed 2014 for the time that we turn over security responsibilities to the Afghan security forces. So President Karzai and his leadership will have responsibility for his own country in terms of security.
We think that’s a reasonable goal. Obviously, there’s a lot between now and then. NATO also affirmed that that transition would start in the spring. We don’t know exactly where it will start, but I’m confident of that date.
CROWLEY: Province by province is what you’re looking at?
MULLEN: We are — actually, we’re looking at district by district, which we expect will start in the spring.
So we’ve laid out a plan. We think that’s a good target, with an expectation that it can be achieved.
CROWLEY: Well, when the vice president says drop dead, does that mean no matter what, U.S. combat forces will no longer be in Afghanistan in 2014?
MULLEN: Just like Iraq, I mean clearly there will be a transition point, that’s it, and we will still have forces to — and I think the president said it yesterday as well — to train and assist. But in terms of combat forces, that’s certainly the plan at this point.
CROWLEY: And that’s true for NATO forces and for U.S. forces?
MULLEN: That’s correct. One of the agreements that was signed this weekend was a long-term agreement between NATO countries in Afghanistan as well. All of this speaks to the long-term commitment to Afghanistan, though Afghanistan clearly must take the lead.
CROWLEY: And what is the footprint that you envision will be left in Afghanistan after 2014? We know there are still 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, although combat forces had been brought out. What’s it going to look like in Afghanistan?
MULLEN: Very difficult to know, Candy, at this point what it would look like. It’s just too far off. Clearly we have an expectation that it will be dramatically reduced from where it is now. We have almost 100,000 troops there today. But in terms of specifics, it’s just too soon to tell.
CROWLEY: Do you have a ballpark? I mean, could it be — do you foresee that you might need more troops to help with the training and that sort of thing, after 2014 than you’d need in Iraq, given the complexity of Afghanistan?
MULLEN: No, we really don’t — we really haven’t sat down and done that detailed work right now. There is just too much uncertainty between now and then to say this is what the footprint size would be at 2014.
CROWLEY: Let me try to get you to subtract how many forces are currently, U.S. forces, are currently in Afghanistan that you would categorize as combat forces?
MULLEN: Well, right now, there’s a substantial number. Specifically, I mean, we’ve added upwards of 60,000 since President Obama came in. The vast majority of those are combat forces. But we’ve also focused on establishing large footprint in terms of training Afghan security forces, but the vast majority of them are combat forces
CROWLEY: Let me ask you about these M1 Abrams tanks that you’re sending over to Afghanistan nine years after the war began. These are big, heavy-duty kind of Cold War machines. Why do you need them?
MULLEN: Well, in fact, they really were deployed in the area with the Marines who had gone over there, specifically, and they will be part of their force package, if you will, in the south. And the Marine leadership there felt it very important to have that additional capability there. It’s not a significantly large number, but it’s really tied to the campaign itself and what we think will be an important part of executing that campaign.
CROWLEY: The fire power, you needed the fire power. They needed it.
MULLEN: They do need — actually, the fire power, the force protection, as well as the maneuverability and the range.
CROWLEY: Let me ask you about something that — I spoke with former President Bush last weekend. We were talking about whether or not enough forces were sent to Afghanistan to begin with, and he said something interesting. I want you to take a listen to it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: What happened in Afghanistan was that our NATO allies turned out — some of them turned out not to be willing to fight. And therefore, my — our assumption that we had ample troops, U.S. and Afghan — and NATO troops — turned out to be a not true assumption.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: Would Afghanistan have played out differently had NATO forces stepped up to the plate with combat troops?
MULLEN: We really, from my perspective, fought Afghanistan for years from an economy of force standpoint, and I have said for a long time that we didn’t have enough forces there. We didn’t have enough U.S. forces and we didn’t have enough NATO forces. That was, from my perspective, because we have — we were heavily focused on Iraq, and I was literally looking at the resources that were headed in both directions. And so I’m — as we have changed the strategy, focused and gotten the resources right over the course of the last year, this is the first time we really are where we need to be in terms of executing a comprehensive strategy.
CROWLEY: But would you agree with the premise that some NATO forces did not perform in the way you expected them to perform in terms of combat?
MULLEN: I’d actually come at it from a different point of view. We’ve worked with our NATO forces, our NATO partners over many years now, and in fact, as we have increased forces over the course of the last year, they have also added additional — added an additional 10,000 forces. So while it was under resourced sort of across the board, I think now we have the resources and the unity in NATO that we just didn’t have before.
CROWLEY: I want to read you something, and I know you probably have read yourself, this came from President Hamid Karzai in an interview with the Washington Post where he said, “The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan, to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life.” I have to tell you, when I read that, I thought most Americans would say great, bring them home.
MULLEN: Well, I think what President Karzai is expressing is his concern as the head of state of a sovereign country that he has and that his people have — and certainly we recognize that, in terms of the challenges that are there.
CROWLEY: You know, we’re over there helping him, and he’s in the front page of the Washington Post going, I wish you guys would leave.
MULLEN: Well, I think, again, these are concerns that he raised over an extended period of time. Each one of them specifically — and as I look at President Karzai and look back over the last year, certainly we have taken these concerns into consideration in what we’ve done. We need to do that. We need, as the president has said, we need to listen to him, but he also needs to listen to us. And I think that’s an important part of this partnership, specifically.
President Karzai is also, you know, some measure of him, from my perspective, is what he’s actually done and what we’ve been able to do. It’s not just been the discussion or the rhetoric specifically, so I measure him in that regard from a partnership standpoint. And in that regard, he’s been supportive. General Petraeus has met with him frequently and very recently and walked him through what our plan is, and President Karzai is supportive.
CROWLEY: But a difficult relationship.
MULLEN: Well, it’s one, certainly, that has had its ups and downs, there’s no question about that.
CROWLEY: Let me ask you about North Korea. It is making some news today. They took a U.S. scientist through a — what he described as a very modern facility. They looked prepared to be able to enrich uranium there. What do you make of the timing of this, and what is North Korea trying to say?
MULLEN: Well, from my perspective, it’s North Korea continuing on a path which is destabilizing for the region.
MULLEN: It confirms or validates the concern we’ve had for years about their enriching uranium, which they’ve denied routinely.
And that when I look at this, I look at the sinking of the Cheonan a few months ago where they killed 46 South Korean sailors, you know, all of this is consistent with belligerent behavior, and the kind of instability creation in a part of the world that is very dangerous.
CROWLEY: And just on a scale of one to 10, how worried are you that this kind of continuing belligerence might lead to some sort of — a rather larger military conflict than some of the smaller ones we’ve seen?
MULLEN: Well, I’ve been concerned for a long time about instability in that region and, quite frankly, North Korea has been at the center of that. We’ve worked hard with other countries to try to bring pressure on them to have them comply. They haven’t done that.
And this, in fact, violates the United Nations Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874. It violates what they said they’d do in 2005 with respect to getting to the six-party talks. So they’re a country that routinely we are unable to believe that they would do what they say.
CROWLEY: I want to you stick with me for a minute. We’re going to be right back.
Up next, what will it take for President Obama to get a new nuclear treaty with Russia? And the repeal of “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.” Much more with Admiral Mullen when we come back.
CROWLEY: The president is playing against the odds in a head-on confrontation with Republicans over a missile deal with Russia known as START. He wants Senate ratification before Congress leaves for the year.
The Republican point man on the issue, Arizona’s Jon Kyl, pretty much blew up that timetable this week, writing in a statement: “When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so, given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization.”
Russian President Medvedev and President Obama signed the new START treaty in April, but the White House claims if the Senate does not approve it before leaving, U.S./Russia relations will suffer at a time when the Obama administration is trying to bolster Russian support for the war in Afghanistan, and its dealings with Iran.
A two-thirds vote in the Senate is needed to approve a treaty, meaning the White House needs every Democrat and nine Republicans on board, 14 if the issue spills into next year and the new Senate. They are pulling out all the stops and a Republican hero.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is a continuation of a bipartisan policy started with Ronald Reagan in this case.
OBAMA: But keep in mind that every president since Ronald Reagan has presented an arms treaty with Russia and been able to get ratification.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: We’ll get Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mullen’s take on this when we come back.
CROWLEY: We are back with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Let’s move to the START treaty. The president has said, he said it again at this NATO meeting, there’s an urgency, he wants the Senate to ratify this treaty before they leave by the end of the year.
We’ve had this treaty since April, waiting to be ratified. We haven’t had inspectors in Russia looking at their missile facilities for a year. What is the rush now?
MULLEN: Well, I’m extremely concerned just because of what you said, because we haven’t had what we had before, which is a level of transparency, a level of predictability, a level of certainty with the Russians and between the two countries.
This is an arsenal that is — comprises over 90 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world. That dependability in terms of verification, that dependability in terms of understanding each other is something we’ve had for decades in treaties before. So I’ve…
CROWLEY: But you waited a year, can’t you wait another couple of months until the new Senate — I mean, I’m just trying to figure out why this just has to get done by the end of the year. Is there some threat to U.S. security if it isn’t?
MULLEN: Well, I think that it clearly is a treaty that as time goes on, the lack of the transparency, the lack of predictability with the Russians is something that I worry about a great deal.
CROWLEY: Would it be fatal in some way for it to be done in February or March?
MULLEN: Again, I wouldn’t describe it in any other way than I have in terms of there’s a sense of urgency that I think — and there’s an opportunity to get this done now. And from a national security perspective, I really believe we need to do that.
CROWLEY: Let me move you to “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” and the repeal of that. There has been some criticism this big study that you’ve been doing hasn’t been about whether repealing “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” and allowing people to serve openly as gay or lesbian in the services, whether this survey that you’re doing is about how to implement it or whether or not — or how the troops feel about it, which is this study about?
MULLEN: The study — very clearly this was a study that was initiated to look at if and when the law changes, how we would implement it. Key is the leadership that it’s going to take to implement it when the law changes, specifically.
And to understand as clearly as we could the issues that surface from those it would affect the most, our men and women and their families. We’ve received that data. We are in the final throw throes of putting the report together. That’s being done by General Ham and Mr. Johnson. And that report will be delivered to Secretary Gates here by December 1st.
CROWLEY: And I’m going to assume that this finds a pathway to repeal “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,” simply because so many military leaders have said, look, it’s time and we can do that. You have been quite passionate on this.
I want to ask you about your Marine Corps commandant, General Amos, who, as you know, has been opposed to this, has been opposed to gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.
If the day comes where this is going to be implemented and you’re going to lift that ban, can he serve effectively in trying to get this integrated into the services?
MULLEN: I don’t think there’s any question he can. In fact, I’ve spoken with him as recently as last week, and he recounted a town hall that he had had on the East Coast recently. And he was very clear and very public to his Marines. And he basically said that if this law changes, we are going to implement it, and we are going to implement it better than anybody else.
So I have great confidence in him that if it gets to the change in the law, that the Marine Corps will implement it as he has described.
CROWLEY: And let me circle back around to one subject, Afghanistan, because I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about this report that’s coming up in December, about how things are going in Afghanistan. I’m sure you have seen at least some preliminaries on it.
As far as you’re concerned, are things going well and do you think that will be reflected in this report?
MULLEN: Well, we’ve started to make progress. Things have started to turn. It’s fragile. It’s reversible, and particularly on the security site. The report — the gathering of the data, if you will, has been ongoing here for the last couple of months, and it is really a review that would look at, how we are implementing the strategy? How are we doing?
I don’t expect any great strategic shift tied to this particular review, but it’s focusing on having gotten all of the inputs right, how are we doing in implementation? And it’s starting to move in the right direction.
CROWLEY: So you expect that in the end when you’ve collected all of this, it will say, OK, we’re moving forward?
MULLEN: Well, again, I’m not going to pre-determine what the review will, in fact, generate in terms of outcome, but we’re very focused on putting the information together right now, focusing on the strategy, and seeing how it’s implemented.
And there will be challenges associated with that. This isn’t just about security, because we’ve got development challenges, we’ve got governance challenges, how well are we doing in training the Afghan security forces? Which has gone pretty well, better than we expected.
But we still have challenges.
So it’s a comprehensive review about where we are.
CROWLEY: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, thank you so much for joining us.
MULLEN: Thanks, Candy. It’s good to be with you.