Mullen gives Marines both a pep talk and a warning

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discusses the Afghanistan mission with soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discusses the Afghanistan mission with soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky. (Christopher Berkey/associated Press)
By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned troops on Monday to exercise greater discipline in Afghanistan to minimize civilian casualties and to win Afghans' support as they implement the administration's new war strategy.

Mullen addressed soldiers and Marines at bases in Kentucky and North Carolina on the same day the Pentagon announced the deployment of 16,000 troops to Afghanistan. The additional personnel will make up the vanguard of reinforcements approved by President Obama after a three-month-long strategy review.

"Don't just assume because you've had a tour [in Afghanistan] that it will be like it was the last time," Mullen said. He was referring to changes in the overall strategy and new rules of engagement that place tighter limits on the use of deadly force in cases in which Afghan civilians' lives might be at risk.

"It is going to take very agile, nimble leaders to know when to be aggressive and when not to be aggressive," he told Marines at Camp Lejeune. But he said that in the long run, more-restrictive rules on U.S. firepower will win the support of the Afghan people and shift the momentum in the fight away from the Taliban. "It's going to turn this thing around more quickly," he said.

As Mullen addressed soldiers and Marines -- some of whom are weeks away from shipping out -- Obama met Monday in the White House with the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and the top general charged with prosecuting the war there.

On Tuesday, Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, will testify before Congress on their plans for implementing the new strategy and the prospects for success.

Lawmakers are likely to probe for signs of disagreement between McChrystal, who favored a swift increase in the size of the U.S. force, and Eikenberry, who had privately expressed a desire to postpone committing to a large-scale increase until Afghan President Hamid Karzai demonstrates he is serious about reducing corruption in his government. Both McChrystal and Eikenberry told Obama that they supported the new strategy before last week's rollout by the White House, U.S. officials said.

On Monday, Mullen warned Marines preparing to head off to Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan, that the United States does not have much time to reverse the course of the war. "We have 18 to 24 months," he said. "The slope on this insurgency is going in the wrong direction and we have got to turn [it] around."

Marines at Camp Lejeune fired back with their own questions about whether the 30,000 new troops will be enough to weaken the Taliban, and whether the plan to begin pulling troops out by July 2011 would provide enough time to put the eight-year-old war on a better footing.

"Honestly, do you think 30,000 troops is going to be enough right now?" asked one Marine private first class at a town hall meeting.

"We worked a long time to debate and wring out the strategy for the president," Mullen said in describing the review, which stretched far longer than most in the administration anticipated. "I think it is right. I think it is the best shot we have, and I think 30,000 is enough."

To speed the flow of U.S. troops into Afghanistan, Mullen said the United States will build at least one new airfield in the land-locked country to accommodate U.S. cargo planes carrying new mine-resistant vehicles and weaponry.

"As we deploy more forces, it is going to hit the insurgency right in the face," Mullen said in an interview. In the near term, that will likely mean more casualties for U.S. forces. "I think 2010 will be a pretty violent year," he said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company