Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the talks are nearing their conclusion, predicting that Obama will announce his decision “in the near future.”
Mullen told participants in the National Guard Bureau’s Joint Senior Leadership Conference that he’s satisfied by the depth and breadth of the discussions as the team addresses the challenges in Afghanistan and makes recommendations to the president.
“It’s been a … very healthy discussion, very open to different views, and that really has been, from a process standpoint, very good,” Mullen told the group.
The chairman said he’s particularly gratified by the clear recognition that the best solution goes beyond military might.
“This isn’t all just about the military. This isn’t all just about the number of troops, because we can’t do it alone,” he said. “We have to have the security side of this – that is the necessary side. But … you have to have a development plan. You have to have a governance plan that goes hand-in-glove [with the security effort] as we move forward.”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates noted the role the National Guard plays and will continue to play in Afghanistan and other anti-terrorism operations around the world.
Some 300,000 National Guard members, about 70 percent of the Guard force, have served in these roles since the 9/11 attacks, he said. In addition, nearly 65,000 Guardsmen are deployed in support of overseas operations. Defense Department officials recently announced that the Iowa National Guard’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team will deploy to Afghanistan in 2010.
Gates said he expects the Guard to continue to play a significant role in Afghanistan, and in areas beyond combat operations: agricultural, rule of law and governance, among them.
He cited, for example, the benefit of agricultural development teams, Guardsmen who bring agricultural expertise to the effort. “When you send Guardsmen with this kind of experience, it has a huge impact,” he said.
While recognizing these capabilities, Gates made clear he sees reserve-component servicemembers conducting these noncombat missions as only a temporary solution until other agencies and organizations step in with sufficient civilian expertise.
Mullen called the challenges in Afghanistan the top issue that keeps him up at night. Iran, and its impact on the broader Middle East, is another longer-term concern, he said.
As he focuses on these issues, including continuing a responsible drawdown in Iraq, Mullen said, he never loses sight of another pressing concern: the well-being of the force. He noted the stress multiple deployments have put not just on military members, but also on their families, and emphasized the importance of increasing “dwell time” at home between deployments.
“This is clearly one of the things that we have addressed, and will continue to need to address,” Mullen said. “How do we get that right?” He noted the challenge of tapping into mission capacity while focusing on families and relieving pressure on the force.