WASHINGTON, Dec. 8, 2009 – The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visited the men and women who have to carry out the new strategy in Afghanistan today with stops at Fort Campbell, Ky., and Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Fresh from testifying on Capitol Hill on President Barack Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen thanked the soldiers and Marines who will have to carry out the strategy.

“I just want you to know how much I appreciate what you do, that you serve, and the difference you make at this extraordinary time in our history,” the chairman said at Fort Campbell. “For those of us in the middle of this, sometimes it’s a little difficult to see what’s going on as that history is being written, and it is being written by the best military we have ever had.”

Mullen stressed in both places that the mission in Afghanistan is to go after al-Qaida in its home. The terror group plotted the 9/11 attacks from safe havens in Afghanistan and still is plotting from safe havens along the Afghan-Pakistan border, he said.

Complicating the situation is that Pakistan — which is being challenged by al-Qaida-supported Taliban — has nuclear weapons. “My worst nightmare is terrorists with nuclear weapons,” Mullen said. “Not only do I know they are trying to get them, but I know they will use them.”

The military must succeed in its missions, but also must balance the force over the long run, Mullen said. Far more than half of the audience at Fort Campbell had deployed to either Iraq of Afghanistan in their military careers. Mullen said the services need to work on balancing the load that personnel and their families deal with as America fights its wars.

The chairman told the soldiers and Marines that time is short. He said there was a lot of discussion during the president’s strategy review about the July 2011 target date for beginning the withdrawal from Afghanistan. “You are going to be at the leading edge” of the fight in Afghanistan, he said.

The counterinsurgency effort paid off in Iraq, and the president believes it can pay off in Afghanistan as well, Mullen said. “All the lessons we learned in Iraq, specifically in what goes into counterinsurgency and how we think about it, we learned just in time to have the impact we need to have over the next couple of years in Afghanistan,” he said.

“In the long run, [Afghanistan] is not going to be about killing Taliban,” Mullen told the Marines at Camp Lejeune. “In the long run, it’s going to be because the Afghan people want them out.”

Just as Iraq did, the chairman said, he expects Afghanistan will go through a process of negotiation and reconciliation. “But there has to be enough security to do that,” he added.

It is more than a military effort, the chairman said in both Kentucky and North Carolina. U.S. civilian employees and those in international and nongovernmental organizations must be able to provide assistance to the Afghans. “We’ve got to create other options for young 15, 16, 17-year-olds than joining the Taliban,” he said.

And the strategy isn’t just about Afghanistan, the chairman stressed. He said Pakistan, the other countries of Central Asia and India also are important. Mullen noted he has been in Pakistan more than a dozen times since taking office more than two years ago. Each time, he said, the Pakistanis ask him if the United States is going to be a good ally and stay, or if America will turn its back as it did when the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989.

“You heard the president say … it is our intent to have a long-term, stable and prosperous relationship with both these countries,” he said.

Mullen stressed that leadership at all levels is crucial not only to progress in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also for the future of the military.

“Leading in these tough times, leading and understanding the fight you are going into, the need to lead and understand we need to take care of each other, the need to lead and understand we need to take care of those who were wounded and lost and their families – there’s just a host of things connected with that,” he said. “These are very, very challenging times, but … the best solution is great leadership.”

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