By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008
The nation's top military officer warned yesterday that the transition to a new American president will mark a "time of vulnerability" as the United States fights two wars, and he said military leaders are already actively preparing for the changing of the guard.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, said the U.S. political transition will be "extraordinarily challenging," particularly as the military is engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan and faces interference in both countries from Iran.
"Iran is not going away," Mullen said. "We need to be strong and really in the deterrent mode, to not be very predictable" regarding Iran, he said in a meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Post.
Mullen spoke on a day when Pentagon officials announced that a second U.S. aircraft carrier group, the USS Lincoln, had arrived in the Persian Gulf for a brief overlap with another carrier. Having two carriers in the Gulf will provide additional air power for strikes and reconnaissance in the combat zone, giving commanders added flexibility, said Lt. Gen. Carter F. Ham, the Joint Staff operations chief. "It allows us, also, to demonstrate to our friends and allies in the region a commitment to security in the region," he said.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that the carrier could serve as a "reminder" to Iran. But its presence is part of a regular fluctuation of U.S. Navy ships in the region and does not mark an "escalation" of force, he told reporters traveling with him in Mexico.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mullen detailed how Iran continues to supply weapons, training and financing to insurgents not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan. He said the Iranian involvement with Taliban fighters "mirrors what they are doing with Iraqis," although on a smaller scale.
"There's training going on, weapons which are entering," as well as technology -- assistance that is "very well connected" with the Taliban leadership, particularly in western Afghanistan, he said.
A State Department annual report on terrorism released yesterday said that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or Quds Force, last year provided to the Taliban grenades, mortars, 107mm rockets and possibly shoulder-fired air defense weapons.
In Iraq, the report said, Iranian authorities continued to supply Shiite militias with advanced rockets, sniper rifles and explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), which have killed thousands of coalition and Iraqi forces. U.S. troop casualties rose in April to 48, the highest number since September, partly as a result of intensified fighting with Iranian-backed militias in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Mullen said recent unrest in the southern Iraqi city of Basra demonstrated that Iran is "very interwoven into southern Iraq in ways that had not been highlighted," adding that "they want to have a weak Iraq."
Offering an unusual insight into how senior military leaders are anticipating the transition to a new president, Mullen said he is continually thinking about how military decisions taken today will play out under a new administration.
"There are very few either briefings or meetings that I'm in that I'm not thinking about 'How does what we're talking about right now transition to next spring?' " Mullen said. He said U.S. commanders in regions overseas, as well as chiefs of the different services, are having similar discussions.
The transition is unlikely to be smooth, predicted Mullen, who assumed his position seven months ago for a two-year term. He said he hopes to offer a stabilizing influence as a military leader who will bridge two administrations.
"We will be tested. . . . I'm preparing that this country will be tested, and I have a role in that regard, certainly providing advice to whoever the new president's going to be," he said. He said his current priority is to develop military strategies for the Middle East and the globe to "tee up" for a new president.
Specifically, Mullen said he hopes that the change in politically appointed leaders will unfold at a wartime pace, rather than at a "peacetime" one. "I think it's important for us to get as many principals in positions as rapidly as possible in a time of war," he said.