Mullen's legacy as chairman defined by two bold moments

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen addresses the media on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility, Md., July 28, 2011. Mullen is on a five-day USO tour with comedian Jon Stewart, NBA Legend Karl Malone and magician David Blane visiting troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.


By KEVIN BARON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 29, 2011

WASHINGTON — In 43 years, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the son of a Hollywood publicist, has graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, deployed to Vietnam, commanded an aircraft carrier strike group and the Second Fleet, detoured through Harvard Business School and become the nation’s highest-ranking naval officer.

But Mullen, for the last four years the top military officer and senior military advisor to two presidents, likely will be remembered most for two bold moments.

First, Mullen gave what may be the most influential speech by anyone in Washington toward ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

But it is what Mullen did last week that may be most remembered: He called out Pakistan.

In his last words to Congress, Mullen accused the Pakistan government of aiding terrorist attacks against U.S. troops and for “choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy.”

When White House officials distanced themselves from Mullen’s strong words, the chairman held firm.

Mullen has staked much of his chairmanship and global political clout on building closer relationships with military leaders in Pakistan, China and the autocracies of the Middle East. He frequently traveled to those countries, met military chiefs face to face and listened intently to their grievances and concerns.

When Cairo and Bahrain were roiling in the early days of the Arab Spring, Mullen kept on with plans to tour the Persian Gulf and show U.S. military support for those militaries in the region likely to be torn between their leaders and the citizens they’d sworn to protect.

“My relationship is with the leaders of the military, and so it’s very natural to continue to meet with them,” he said, hopping between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t all share concerns.”

Mullen’s belief: Engagement was better than silence between men in charge of armies, arsenals and, in some cases, nuclear weapons.

The chairman made 27 trips to Pakistan, giving more attention to Pakistan’s Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani than perhaps any other senior U.S. official, and with good reason. The so-called Pressler Amendment passed by Congress in 1985 had created a 12-year economic and military blackout between the U.S. and Pakistan, intending to stop Pakistan’s post-Soviet push for nuclear weapons. But the measure had a countervailing effect, cutting off a generation of American and Pakistani military officers, Mullen said.

Mullen had counseled Barack Obama on the subject before he took office. At the time, the incoming Democratic president had promised to shift American war efforts from Iraq to Afghanistan and was criticized for saying U.S. troops could chase terrorists across the border into Pakistan. At a moment when the U.S. needed Pakistan’s help more than ever, Mullen was scrambling to win Pakistani officers’ trust to fight a war against terrorists inside their own borders, against other Pakistanis.

Pakistan eventually signed on, taking thousands of casualties fighting Taliban elements in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan border and allowing a major escalation of CIA drone strikes.

In September 2009, during his confirmation hearing, the White House was debating whether to send additional troops to surge into Afghanistan. Mullen said the U.S. “probably” should.

Then, in 2010, his “don’t ask, don’t tell” speech stunned Washington.

“No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” he said.

Mullen’s statement cut through what dissent existed among the Joint Chiefs of Staff and provided Obama with the four-star political support he needed. Along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the pair established an impenetrable defense against conservative repeal critics.

Meanwhile, reports continued to surface linking Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency to terrorist groups, including the prominent Haqqani Network.

In February, Mullen met Kayani with other U.S. war officials secretly in Oman to iron out lingering issues over cross-border raids, a sign Islamabad was not capitulating as desired.

In May, U.S. troops did not alert Pakistan before entering its sovereign territory to kill Osama bin Laden. Mullen did not tell Kayani until after the al-Qaida leader was dead. Through an anti-U.S. uproar, Kayani had to defend his ties to Washington and Mullen defended Kayani.

But Pakistan’s military and ISI were humiliated. And Mullen’s patience with the entire Pakistani government began to wear thin.

In July, he accused the agency for backing the murder of an outspoken Pakistani journalist. Then, a September truck bomb in Wardak province wounded nearly 80 American servicemembers and killed five Afghans.

Mullen was asked last week if he was wrong not to close his fist on Pakistan sooner, if his approach for the last four years was wrong.

“It’s going to go up and down,” Mullen said. “We’ve had a very tough patch here over the last several months.”

The next day, the chairman walked into his final Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, armed with a blunt message to Islamabad. The truck bomb was the work of the Haqqanis, he said, with the help from the Pakistani government.

“Despite deep personal disappointments in the decisions of the Pakistani military and government, I still believe that we must stay engaged,” Mullen said. “While Pakistan is part of the problem in the region, it must also be part of the solution. A flawed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement. We have completely disengaged in the past. That disengagement failed and brings us where we are today.”


Twitter: @StripesBaron

Official U.S. Navy file photo of Michael G. Mullen