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Joint Chiefs Nominee Notes Toll on Military, Need to Plan for Iraq Drawdown

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By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Adm. Michael G. Mullen, President Bush's nominee to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate panel yesterday that the war in Iraq is taking a heavy toll on the U.S. military, warning that American forces are "not unbreakable" and stressing the need to "plan for an eventual drawdown" of troops.

Appearing in a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mullen, 60, acknowledged that the increase in U.S. forces cannot continue past April 2008 under the military's current force structure. He also cautioned that Iraqi political reconciliation is not keeping pace with security improvements.

Unless the Iraqi government takes advantage of the "breathing space" that U.S. forces are providing, Mullen said, "no amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference."

Testifying alongside Mullen was Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, 57, the nominee to become vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He heads the U.S. Strategic Command.

In written responses to committee questions, Mullen warned that "there is no purely military solution in Iraq" and that the country's politicians "need to view politics and democracy as more than just majority rule, winner-take-all, or a zero-sum game." Absent that, he said, the United States will be forced to reevaluate its strategy.

Mullen and Cartwright were nominated in June to succeed Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the current Joint Chiefs chairman, and Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., the vice chairman, respectively. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said at the time that he decided not to nominate Pace again out of concern that the confirmation hearings would prove a "divisive ordeal" for the nation. Pace's two-year term will end on Sept. 30.

At the end of more than three hours of testimony, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, praised Mullen's candor and indicated that both nominees are likely to win confirmation.

Mullen, who is the chief of naval operations, told the panel that the U.S. troop increase in Iraq "is giving our operational commanders the forces they needed to execute more effective tactics and improve security." He added, "Security is better; not great, but better."

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), noting Mullen's commitment to capping tours of duty in Iraq at no more than 15 months, asked if the Pentagon faces a de facto timetable for ending the buildup by April "because we simply will not be able to put manpower on the ground unless we extend rotations."

Mullen replied, "Yes, sir, that's fair." In his written responses, he pledged to take an active role in any contingency planning for a withdrawal but warned that "U.S. vital interests in the region and in Iraq require a pragmatic, long-term commitment that will be measured in years, not months."

Levin expressed skepticism that Iraqi politicians can take steps toward political reconciliation. They "remain frozen by their history," he said. Levin added that the Iraqi parliament is "at a standstill," with nearly every session since November adjourning because too few legislators showed up.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) asked Cartwright about the effect on U.S. troops of risking their lives while the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "is absolutely failing." The Marine general replied: "They believe in their mission . . . but there comes a point at which they're going to look at that and say, 'How much longer and for what price?' if progress isn't seen."

Asked by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) about the U.S. prospects for "winning" in Iraq, Mullen said: "Based on the lack of political reconciliation at the government level . . . I would be concerned about whether we'd be winning or not."

Mullen also highlighted the "increasingly hostile role played by Iran" as a challenge to U.S. interests. "I find their support for terrorism and their nuclear ambitions deeply troubling." He noted that the Shiite government in Tehran is supporting its former enemy, the radical Sunni Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

That shift "is a big deal," he said, emphasizing that the Iranian technology used in Iraq to create powerful roadside bombs "is now making its way into Afghanistan" and killing U.S. troops and their allies.

In his written responses to committee questions, Mullen listed seven of "the most significant mistakes" made by the United States in Iraq. Among them, he cited Washington's failure to "fully integrate all elements of U.S. national power in Iraq," the failure to "establish an early and significant dialogue with neighboring countries," the U.S. attempt to occupy the country with "an insufficient force," the disbanding of the Iraqi army shortly after the 2003 U.S. invasion, and the pursuit of a de-Baathification process that "proved more divisive than helpful."


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