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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, center, listens to a question during a town hall meeting at the Africa Command headquarters Thursday in Stuttgart, Germany. Mullen told those in attendance that the U.S. must be more flexible in today's ever-changing world.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, center, listens to a question during a town hall meeting at the Africa Command headquarters Thursday in Stuttgart, Germany. Mullen told those in attendance that the U.S. must be more flexible in today's ever-changing world. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

STUTTGART, Germany — You’d think he was running for office as the candidate of "change."

Change how the government and military work together. Change how funding works so it moves more efficiently. Change how people are recruited into the military, retained and promoted.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael G. Mullen invoked "change" dozens of times Thursday while speaking at the new U.S. Africa Command, itself a harbinger of potential new military thinking.

"We need to back this up into Washington and make those kinds of changes in Washington as well," Mullen said. "There are significant challenges we have to address."

He was speaking of Africa, where vast resources and stable governments co-exist with famine, disease and despots with failing states.

AFRICOM has broad support in Congress, Mullen said.

"I don’t see a lack of support; I see a lack of understanding," he told the audience. "I don’t see [Congress] pushing back, I see them asking questions."

But the changes for which Mullen preached were directed beyond the fledgling AFRICOM and the 400 or so civilians and military members sitting on benches inside the Kelley Barracks gymnasium.

After the all-hands meeting, he noted the tectonic shifts within the U.S. military that had occurred since Sept. 11, 2001.

The lumbering superpower has become a counterinsurgency force, he said. It now hustles "lessons learned" into operations manuals in one year instead of six. It started, stopped and recalculated a global military transformation.

"The whole issue of how much we’ve changed across the board is pretty dramatic," he said. "Sometimes it’s difficult to step back and really look at the differences in our military between 2001 and now. It’s been pretty extraordinary."

During his question-and-answer session, Mullen dodged a hot potato from the audience on how he would advise "President Barack Obama" should the Illinois senator become president. Obama has vowed to withdraw combat troops from Iraq.

"First of all, it’s June and not January," Mullen said, hesitatingly, as the audience laughed. "And I don’t know who’s going to be sitting in that office.

"From the standpoint of a new president, whether it’s Sen. [John] McCain (R-Ariz.) or Sen. Obama, there’s going to be change that occurs. I’m sure there will be policy adjustments. I’m confident we will transition well through a new administration."

A Navy reservist posed another thorny question — whether Pentagon planners were mulling long-range solutions on how to integrate the on-call troops in "a more stable way." Thousands of reservists and guardsmen have volunteered or been called up, some unwillingly and multiple times, to deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, muddling their lives and jobs back in the United States.

Before 9/11, no one projected that they’d have been tasked so heavily, Mullen replied.

He told the reservist he’d get back to him with an answer. "It would surprise me if we’re not looking at a more comprehensive way to do this, which I’ll pull on to get you an answer," Mullen said.

After the session, Mullen said change is easier said than done.

"We’re living in a world that’s got to adapt to change, be more flexible," he said. "Individuals need to be, units in the military need to be, and I think our government structures need to be as well. We can be very, very slow and, in that regard, unresponsive.

"I do worry," Mullen said. "In a time of change, you worry about heading in one direction and by the time you get there, it’s time to change [again]."


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