Mullen on the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan

President-elect Barack Obama's national-security team is studying several options for improving the situation in Afghanistan, including the military's plan to nearly double troop levels there. But assessments of the seven-year-old war are mostly grim. A report issued last month by the International Council on Security and Development said the Taliban now holds a permanent presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said 2009 could be the toughest year the United States has faced since start of the war. "I'm not convinced we're winning it in Afghanistan," he told Congress in September. Mullen, who was appointed by President Bush and has met at least twice with Obama since the election, ordered his staff late last year to conduct a strategy review for Afghanistan. He recently returned from a trip to the region where he met with, among others, Pakistan's military chief, Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani. On the plane ride home, Mullen spoke with NEWSWEEK's Dan Ephron. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You ' ve met Kiyani eight times in the year or so that he ' s been head of the Pakistani military. What kind of job is he doing?
Mike Mullen: From a leadership standpoint, the military … I don't know of a guy that's in a tougher spot. And I think he's the right guy at the right time. He's very professional, I think he's a courageous leader, and he listens. He's also not afraid of making hard decisions. He's told me he would do certain things and he's done them. He's moved forces to the west to fight the insurgency. He's got some 10,000 or more forces this year in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and North-West Frontier province than he had last year. He's fought in Bajaur, where no Pakistani military has ever fought. He's assigned a leader to the Frontier Corps who is a Pashtun and who has done things for the Frontier Corps in the last two or three months that nobody would have imagined.

How has he handled the Mumbai attack and the aftermath?
I have seen him in this Mumbai crisis as a man of restraint and a leader who wants this to be resolved peacefully. He recognizes the threat from the insurgency and the threat from LET [the Pakistani military group Lashkar-e-Taiba] who executed this Mumbai terrorist act. So given the severity of the challenges, the constant engagement I think is a requirement. Obviously, we in the United States have great interest there. I think it's important we expand the relationship to a comprehensive relationship.

How is the United States perceived by Pakistani military leaders?
Our ambassador here [Anne Patterson] had me at her residence on my second or third visit speaking to 30 or 40 Pakistani officers or college students. These were commanders, lieutenant colonels, captains, colonels—and I spoke for a few minutes and took questions for about 45 minutes … Half of the questions were about India. Now this doesn't surprise me. These were officers who are successful at what they've done, they've been promoted because they have succeeded in that—being stationed on that border and commanding at that level.

And the other half of the questions?
I would summarize the other half by saying that in the Pakistani military there's not one junior officer who doesn't know who Sen. [Larry] Pressler is. In the United States military, there isn't a junior officer who has a clue who Senator Pressler is. Pressler, of course, is the senator who gave us the Pressler amendment, which essentially sanctioned Pakistan for 12 years.

Over the nuke issue?
Over the nuke issue. And in that sanctioning, and I'm not being critical about it, but one of the effects of that was to disestablish the military relationship between the Pakistani mil and the United States military. So from the rank of major to one-star general, we have no relationship, no trust. We are now filling up that trust deficit, you know, one day at a time, one meeting at a time.

At one of your recent addresses, you said that 12-year absence of interaction had led people within the Pakistani military to harbor misperceptions about the United States. What kind of misperceptions?
They don't know anything about us. It's not their fault. Just like if I hadn't been to Pakistan in some time, I wouldn't know anything about them except how I'm informed. So how do you break that down? Before I came to this job, years ago we had a course up in the War College … for captains and colonels. And we bring in one or two U.S. Navy officers, and other than that it's typically captains or colonels from navies and marine corps around the world. And the number of those guys that end up leading their navies or leading their marine corps is extraordinary. So living together in Newport, Rhode Island, with their families for a year they become lifelong friends … And if you haven't had a Pakistani military officer in a school, you've got no relationship.

But the problem with Pakistan is not just a lack of relationship. It strikes me that there are core issues where U.S. interests collide with Pakistani interests.

Operating in the tribal areas. We're encouraging them to do it because it makes our troops in Afghanistan more secure and maybe helps prevent future terrorists attacks. But for Pakistan, it amounts to stirring the hornets' nest.

Terrorism is their problem too. They've lost hundreds of Pakistani citizens to suicide bombers. It is marching closer to their cities, out of the FATA, the North-West Frontier. They know these leaders: Hakani, Basu, Hekmatyar, Nazir, the LET, Latvi, this guy they just wrapped up. And that threat is syndicating now and is becoming more of a threat to them. We didn't have to push very hard. I mean the Marriott bombing really got their attention. And you know, as President [Asif Ali] Zadari has said, they killed his wife. So there's not much pushing [by the United States] that goes with that. There is the freedom in the FATA which has permitted the Taliban to train there. They have a rich relationship with the Taliban … This is the safe-haven issue, and it's got to go away. And in that regard I've pushed him and other leaders very hard, and I'll continue to do that. Then there's the third, and for us, I think the most important threat, which is the freedom to Al Qaeda to live there. Al Qaeda leadership lives there. And we need to continue to exert great pressure there and create as much difficulty for Al Qaeda in that safe haven as possible.

You were in Israel in July. Tell me about that.
I've seen [Israeli Army Chief of Staff Gabi] Ashkenazi a lot. We're very close; it's a key relationship. I also have a great relationship with the Navy chief. He gave me a helicopter ride a couple of years ago. I'm always reminded when we go to Israel how small the country is. [It's] in a tough neighborhood, not a lot of friends, and the timelines are very short so that it doesn't take me long in a helicopter to go from Gaza to the border in Lebanon or Syria.

If U.S. diplomacy fails to stop Iran from moving ahead with its nuclear program, how do you think Israel will respond and what can it do militarily on its own?
I don't want to get into the question of whether will Israel go it alone; that's all just way too sensitive. But … I believe that Iran achieving nuclear status will be incredibly destabilizing in a part of the world that is pretty unstable already. And I worry a great deal about a strike in and of itself and its effects. I also worry about the unintended consequences of a strike on Iran. That's the danger in this.

How do you defuse all that?
There is a full range of options. My strong belief is we need to do it diplomatically, to bring as much international pressure on Iran so that they become a responsible country with respect to the region and modify their behavior accordingly.