The generation of Americans now serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are learning lessons that will serve the world well, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said at the American Legion convention in Louisville, Ky.
“I truly believe that anything is possible with good leadership,” the chairman said. “The best leaders know that listening and learning are critical to success today and in future engagements, and we must develop and retain professionals ready to do just that.”
Mullen told the members of the veteran service organization that today’s military is the most combat-experienced in America’s history. Today’s servicemembers have “see a lot, done a lot, bled a lot and accomplished a lot,” he said.
The young men and women in the services today are the senior officers and noncommissioned officers of tomorrow. America cannot afford to lose this talent, Mullen said, and he vowed to do what he must to help them and their families.
These young Americans are being shaped by their service just as his generation was shaped by the war in Vietnam, Mullen said. They are learning how important relationships are in the broader Middle East. They are learning the importance of engagement, and the importance of understanding other cultures and their perspectives.
Today’s servicemember must understand and engage these people, a process that will take time, he said. “Understanding takes time, and without consistent engagement — a willingness to see things from another’s perspective — there will always be a trust deficit,” Mullen said. “And where trust is lacking, partnerships falter.”
Leaders must have this perspective and trust, he said. “You have to see and hear firsthand what the issues are,” Mullen said. “You can’t hope to see problems through someone else’s eyes if you aren’t looking into those eyes.”
And the solutions must be their solutions. In Iraq, he noted, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the political and military leadership are working on solving their own problems: “Iraqis solving Iraqi problems,” the chairman said. “Or, in Prime Minister Maliki’s words: ‘Building a state on the ruins of dictatorship.’”
Mullen has made it clear to the Iraqis that the United States is leaving Iraq. “Now is the time to establish the long-term relationships we both need to be able to help foster a secure Iraq,” he said.
Local solutions also apply to Pakistan and Afghanistan, he said. “We’ve got to help them,” he said. And relationships, he added, are at the heart of that help.
Mullen created a Pakistan-Afghanistan coordination cell in the Pentagon to work exclusively on the area’s issues. The cell’s personnel will rotate in and out of the country to meet leaders and build trust between the militaries.
But as far as this can go to build stability, the chairman acknowledged, it cannot go all the way. The region needs more than military solutions. “What the people of Afghanistan need is rule of law, not the law of armed conflict,” he said.
Americans should continue the debate on the conflict, the nation’s top military officer said. “I’ve seen the public opinion polls saying that a majority of Americans don’t support the effort at all,” he said. “I say, ‘Good, let’s have that debate.’”
Mullen added that he wants Americans to examine the country’s fight and the reasons behind it. “I’d rather see us, as a nation, argue about the war — struggling to get it right — than ignore it,” he said. “Because each time I go to Dover [Air Force Base, Del.] to see the return of someone’s father, brother, mother or sister, I want to know that collectively we’ve done all we can to make sure that sacrifice isn’t in vain.”
To Mullen, it is a fight worth fighting. The terrorists who launched attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, are still at it, he said. “They live and plan and train in safe havens along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border,” he said. “They’d like nothing better than to see either country — or both — fall prey to the grip of an extremist ideology.”
If al-Qaida and like groups succeed, America becomes more vulnerable, the chairman noted. “My mission, the one given to me by the president, is to prevent that from happening, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Mullen said.
The war in Afghanistan, he said, is about defeating Al-Qaida and its allies. “But to do that we have to defeat the choices those extremists are forcing on the people of that country,” he told the audience. “This isn’t just a war against something; it’s a war for something — the trust and confidence of the people of Afghanistan who, if given the chance, will choose not to allow themselves or their land to become a safe haven again.”