Building Our Best Weapon

By Mike Mullen
Sunday, February 15, 2009

Thomas F. Madden's book "Empires of Trust" begins with the story of Rome's conquest of Locri, a small Italian city-state.

A Roman lieutenant named Pleminius maintained order there in a heavy-handed manner, sacking and looting religious shrines and enslaving the Locrians. When Locrian ambassadors later assembled in the Roman Senate chamber, it was not, as many senators expected, to beg for forgiveness and charity but to lodge a complaint.

Pleminius, they charged, was a tyrant. "There is nothing human except his face and appearance," cried one. "There is no trace of the Roman except in his clothing and speech."

Though they had rebelled against Rome -- siding with archenemy Hannibal -- the Locrians expected better. "They trusted the Romans to act responsibly," writes Madden, "and even when that trust was violated, they trusted the Romans to make it right."

Such was the reputation for equanimity and fairness that Rome had built. Such were the responsibilities of leadership.

We are not Romans, of course. Our brigade combat teams are not the legions of old. Madden makes that clear. But we in the U.S. military are likewise held to a high standard. Like the early Romans, we are expected to do the right thing, and when we don't, to make it right again.

We have learned, after seven years of war, that trust is the coin of the realm -- that building it takes time, losing it takes mere seconds, and maintaining it may be our most important and most difficult objective.

That's why images of prisoner maltreatment at Abu Ghraib still serve as recruiting tools for al-Qaeda. And it's why each civilian casualty for which we are even remotely responsible sets back our efforts to gain the confidence of the Afghan people months, if not years.

It doesn't matter how hard we try to avoid hurting the innocent, and we do try very hard. It doesn't matter how proportional the force we deploy, how precisely we strike. It doesn't even matter if the enemy hides behind civilians. What matters are the death and destruction that result and the expectation that we could have avoided it. In the end, all that matters is that, despite our best efforts, sometimes we take the very lives we are trying to protect.

You cannot defeat an insurgency this way.

We can send more troops. We can kill or capture all the Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders we can find -- and we should. We can clear out havens and shut down the narcotics trade. But until we prove capable, with the help of our allies and Afghan partners, of safeguarding the population, we will never know a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan.

Lose the people's trust, and we lose the war. The strategy reviews for Afghanistan recognize this and seek military, economic, political, diplomatic and informational approaches to regaining that trust. We know that the people are the real long-term hope for success. No single solution or preventative measure will suffice in protecting them.

We also know that we must take a regional approach. Afghanistan and Pakistan are fighting a common foe. Extremists punish both nations for their attempts to resist an increasingly violent ideology. Any effective strategy must be inclusive of the security challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan, if not also the countries surrounding them.

Looking through that regional lens is difficult given our trust deficit with Pakistan. A whole generation of Pakistani military officers either doesn't know the United States, doesn't trust us or both. What they do know is that military aid restrictions went into effect under the Pressler Amendment in 1990. We basically cut them off for 12 years, and in the process cut ourselves off.

As one Pakistani official put it recently, "The U.S. abandoned Pakistan, and that mutual distrust didn't allow and still in many ways does not allow both parties to find a common strategy to defeat terrorism."

We are working to turn that around. Already, a small contingent of U.S. military experts is assisting in the professional development of Pakistani counterinsurgency trainers. Pakistani officers will increasingly be invited to attend our war colleges. And I am hopeful that more U.S. aid and technical assistance may flow to the border regions.

For my part, I have made it a priority to develop closer ties with the head of the Pakistani military, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, and other military and civilian leaders. If I'm in the area, I go to Pakistan. Trust cannot be won over the phone. You build it one person -- and one issue -- at a time.

The Romans knew this. After hearing out the Locrians, Roman senators immediately sent a team to investigate the allegations of mistreatment. When they proved true, the generals were promptly recalled. Locrian wives and children were returned to their families. And double the amount of money stolen was refunded to the Locrian treasury.

Rome restored the trust it strove to earn -- not just for self-interest but also for honor and selflessness. Madden calls this one of history's "rarest treasures."

Maybe he's right, but it doesn't seem so rare to me. I see this sort of trust being fostered by our troops all over the world. They are building schools, roads, wells, hospitals and power stations. They work every day to build the sort of infrastructure that enables local governments to stand on their own. But mostly, even when they are going after the enemy, they are building friendships. They are building trust.

And they are doing it in superb fashion.

We don't always get it right. But like the early Romans, we strive in the end to make it right. We strive to earn trust. And that makes all the difference.

The writer is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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