The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the National Security Conference of the American Bar Association that the arc of instability stretches from Lebanon to Pakistan.
Iran is a problem in the region, Mullen said, as the country continues to work toward nuclear weapons capability.
“I believe this will continue to destabilize that part of the world,” he said, noting his belief that the Iranian move could spark a regional nuclear arms race.
Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and is at the center of the region’s terrorism network, the chairman said. Iran sponsors and supplies Hezbollah and Hamas, two terror groups active in Lebanon and Gaza. The groups also work in Syria, he said, and all can be traced to active support from the theocracy in Tehran.
The United States has between 70 and 80 percent of the military forces available focused on that area, Mullen told the group.
Turning to Iraq, Mullen said the troop surge tamped down violence in Iraq and made it possible for the economy and governance to develop.
“The improvements there … are truly remarkable,” Mullen said. “It’s a great credit to Gen. Dave Petraeus, whose strategy was put in place, but I give a greater amount of credit to the young men and women who actually fought in that surge in the toughest fighting of the war – lived and died in that surge — and their families. They are the ones who carried it to the success that it has seen.”
Iraq remains fragile, he said, and more needs to be done. “Still, it has given the people of Iraq … a growing umbrella of security under which the economy has started to grow,” he said.
Afghanistan is not going well now, the chairman said.
“The vector in Afghanistan is one of concern to me, because the insurgency is growing,” Mullen said. He told the lawyers that Afghanistan cannot be viewed alone. Pakistan is part of the problem of the area, he said, because al-Qaida and the Taliban are using the tribal areas of western Pakistan as a safe haven to rest, train and infiltrate into Afghanistan.
Afghanistan needs more troops, he said, and even with the 6,000 to 7,000 more U.S. troops that will go into the country in the next few months. “Even when they arrive,” he said, “we will still be short of troops that the commander needs there.”
More needs to be done to build the economy of Afghanistan, Mullen said, noting that it is one of the poorest countries of the world, with total revenue of only $700 million. Iraq, by contrast, has a budget surplus of $65 billion to $70 billion.
Progress in Afghanistan will hinge on providing the security needed to build the country’s security forces so they can be the shield for the Afghan people, Mullen said. Progress in building the Afghan National Army is good, he told the group, but he acknowledged that police training lags in all parts of the country.
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan also are causing concern at the highest levels, the chairman said. Al-Qaida and the Taliban use civilians as human shields, he said, then when they are killed, the terrorist group trumpets the deaths around the country, blaming NATO or coalition forces.
“It’s going to take that dedicated, comprehensive international effort in the long run, to get to a functioning central government that enables the tribal leaders in the provinces … to put in place the rule of law in a country that hasn’t had that,” Mullen said.