WASHINGTON, March 31, 2009 – Executing President Barack Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is the U.S. military’s top priority, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told defense leaders from Central Asia who met here today.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to defense leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan at a conference sponsored by U.S. Central Command.

Mullen said the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan requires Americans to look at the situation through the eyes of the people in the region. “This is why conferences like this are so important,” he said. “This is an opportunity to address the challenges together. It will provide a better path for us all to succeed.”

The comprehensive strategy is important to success, he said. Wending its way through Congress is a bill that would provide $1.5 billion in nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, Mullen said. The money would funnel through Pakistani agencies to pay for schools, hospitals, roads, agricultural aid and many other things. It would show the Pakistanis that the United States will confront the root causes of extremism, he explained.

Mullen stressed that the nations must maintain communications, and said young officers and noncommissioned officers need to meet and understand one another and each others’ nations. Building relationships among members of the various militaries will pay off better than simply providing equipment, he said.

The trends in Afghanistan and Pakistan are worrisome, the chairman acknowledged. Violence is up in both countries, and many people in both countries identify with the Taliban. The comprehensive strategy attacks extremism where it resides, he said.

An attack yesterday on the police academy in Lahore, Pakistan, is an example of the trend, Mullen noted. Still, he added, Pakistani leaders understand what confronts the nation and he has “great confidence” in the Pakistani military to handle the situation.

America’s main target in the region remains al-Qaida.

“Al-Qaida is the group that killed 3,000 Americans,” Mullen said. “They live there. They are not going away. They are plotting against us as we speak.” Obama said in announcing the new strategy last week that al-Qaida is a threat to America and its allies.

The Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan give these foreign extremists safe haven, Mullen said. “They provide them with places to train and live, and actively support them,” he said. “It’s my view [that] if we don’t get Afghanistan right, Afghanistan becomes a safe haven again for the same group. That’s why defeating al-Qaida is the single most important part of this strategy.”

The chairman said he is concerned about other areas, such as Somalia and Yemen, possibly becoming safe havens for the group. “Al-Qaida is a sworn enemy of the United States,” he said. “They see us as an enemy. They’ve killed a lot of Americans. They’ll continue to do so, given the opportunity.”

Mullen stressed the civilian portion of the comprehensive plan, and said the United States has learned from its experience in Iraq.

“We don’t have a good track record,” he said. “In Iraq, it took us a couple of years to generate the kind of capacity that we need to generate this year and get in place in Afghanistan.

“There’s a sense of urgency that we must deliver otherwise the whole thing just gets drawn out to the right,” he continued. “The military side isn’t enough — can’t do it alone. We need to generate this capacity to support these elections to get to the governance level at every level — local, provincial and national — as quickly as possible.”

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