By Tim Kilbride
Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, address an audience at the Brookings Institution on the future of U.S. global engagement. He identified three priorities:
1) Security and stability in the broader Middle East, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan
2) Ensuring the health of the U.S. military force
3) Everything in the rest of the world
Perhaps in a nod to all three challenges, my biggest take-away was that Mullen believes the United States government needs to develop a robust civilian expeditionary capability that can address increasingly complicated international security challenges in conjunction with traditional military approaches. Mullen said it will “take a decade or so to develop the career paths” necessary for such a force to come to full strength, but the value of even “one civilian with expertise makes a huge difference” as is clear from civilian work in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because we don’t know the path ahead, he said having a robustly funded and resourced State Department is an “absolute priority.”
What was made plain is that Mullen believes solving the problem of al-Qaeda and Taliban activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan is necessary to global security, and DoD will sink whatever resources it needs to into that fight. Just as importantly, Mullen said the fight must be conducted intelligently. The U.S. will take counterinsurgency lessons learned in Iraq and apply them where relevant, but operate with the full understanding that Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan are unique from each other. Carrying out the new security strategy requires an adaptable total force that can increase security by encouraging grassroots stability.
While not exactly grassroots, Mullen pointed to military trainers as an example of building domestic capacity in Afghanistan. Of the 21,000 U.S. troops being added to the mix there, 4,000 of them will train the Afghan security forces. Without these trainers, Mullen said no amount of U.S. combat troops would make a difference. He added that the same thing goes for investing in education and the economy. Without those societal enablers, the fight cannot be won. Given their tumultuous past, he explained the people of that region have learned to hedge their bets regarding security, and the U.S. and its allies have to demonstrate we will remain engaged if we expect to win the locals’ cooperation.
While the overall U.S. national security apparatus gradually builds up the broad arsenal of skills it needs, the bulk of the current fight will continue to be carried out by an extremely stressed military ground force, Mullen said. The stresses are tragically apparent at times, he said, but are being met with an internal revolution and commitment by the troops to becoming the “best counterinsurgency force in the world.” That dedication has to be answered by the U.S. government, which Mullen said is “still at the beginning stages” of paying back and caring for veterans even after eight years. “Our future is guaranteed from a national security standpoint if we take care of our people,” he added.
As for the rest of the world, Mullen explained, it “doesn’t take large numbers, but does take constancy of engagement.” The U.S. needs relationships with foreign militaries and governments because “we are very dependent on each other.” For that reason, he said, the U.S. is making sure we are engaged globally as best we can be, given the resources committed to the broader Middle East.
Mullen’s overall assessment (in the view of one audience member): Our troops are in for a hard fight in Afghanistan, especially over the next two years, but DoD is absolutely committed to winning, and the institutional lessons being learned will be extremely valuable for future engagements. In the meantime, the urgency of the fight is forcing action on some necessary fronts: reform of the DoD budget, creation of a civilian expeditionary force, and international cooperation.