Washington Jewish Week / September 28, 2011
By Larry Luxner
Israel maintains one of the world’s most professional armies, the war in Afghanistan is “heading in the right direction,” and Pakistan remains a crucial U.S. ally in the struggle against terrorism — despite grave disagreements between Washington and Islamabad over that country’s continuing sponsorship of homegrown terrorist groups.
These were among the most relevant points in a synagogue lecture Tuesday night given by the nation’s highest-ranking military man, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen’s appearance at Washington’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue was part of the Jewish Primary Day School’s Yitzhak Rabin lecture series, which in past years has featured such luminaries as Elie Weisel, former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The talk by Mullen — accompanied on the bima by veteran New York Times political columnist David Brooks — preceded by only a few days his explosive accusation that Pakistan’s ISI spy agency assisted Afghan militants during their Sept. 13 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, as well as a truck-bombing in Wardak province two days earlier that injured 77 American troops.
“From my perspective, the Israel Defense Forces are as skilled as any military in the world,” said Mullen, 64, reminiscing on his first meeting with the IDF’s chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, shortly after Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon to stop Hezbollah shelling of towns and settlements in northern Israel.
“Ashkenazi’s challenge was to focus and learn from the lessons of 2006, and I think he’s done that,” said Mullen. “I’m always reminded — no matter how many times I go to Israel — that it’s a tough neighborhood, and that it’s not getting any better. I’ve watched the IDF evolve over the last several years, and quite frankly, we’re underpinned by the same values, and the same views in many cases. And both of us as countries certainly seek a Middle East that’s a whole lot more peaceful.”
The audience of 450 people, most of whom paid $20 each to hear the admiral speak, included a number of dignitaries including Gen. Amos Yadlin, former head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate; Stuart A. Levey, former undersecretary of treasury, and Rudy de Leon, former deputy secretary of defense.
Mullen, lauded by many in the Jewish community for having extended U.S. military cooperation with Israel to unprecedented levels, has announced his retirement early next month after nearly four years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The high point of his job, he said unabashedly, was the May 2 killing of Osama Bin-Laden. The low point came barely three months later, when insurgents shot down a U.S. helicopter over eastern Afghanistan, killing 30 American soldiers in the single deadliest incident of the decade-long war.
Mullen said he’s proud of the armed forces he commands, noting that “we’re an all-volunteer force and we’re incredibly good.” But he’s concerned about the “disconnect” between the U.S. military and American society as a whole.
“America knows we’re at war, but they don’t know that our special forces have been deployed 16, 17, 18 or 19 times,” he said. “Spouses have what they call secondary post-traumatic stress. Our suicide rate has doubled and now exceeds the national average. This has generated a lot of stress for us, and we’re working hard to deal with it.”
Reminding his audience that “an awful lot can happen” between now and 2014, Mullen insisted that the war in Afghanistan is nevertheless moving in the right direction.
“Helmand and Kandahar provinces are in much better shape. We’ve also built up 300,000 of their security forces and we have a good training structure. They’re fighting well, and they’re trained to a much higher level,” said Mullen. “We see Afghan security forces making the kind of progress that needs to be made in order to lead. So from the standpoint of where we are versus a couple of years ago, it’s headed in the right direction.”
Yet relations with Pakistan — a country Mullen has visited 27 times in the last four years — are clearly strained. He said that despite the difficulties, Pakistan has nuclear weapons and that “part of the price we’re paying now” is a result of Washington’s decision to downgrade ties with Islamabad more than 20 years ago.
“There’s a complete lack of trust generated in the 1990s, when we had no relationship with Pakistan. That young generation, which didn’t know us at all for 12 years, is now coming into more senior positions of leadership. So I worry that the relationship will be in tougher shape down the road than it is now.”
Asked if he thinks anybody in the Pakistani leadership knew where Bin Laden was hiding, Mullen responded simply: “I’ve seen no evidence that they knew.”
In response to a question about whether the United States was losing its leverage over Egypt in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow earlier this year, Mullen said the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military assistance to Egypt has been a wise investment.
“My counterparts in Egypt certainly tell me that they’re heading for democracy, but I think we have to give them enough room to define their version of democracy,” he said, adding that “this whole Arab Spring is going to take years to sort out, and to expect any immediate solutions is probably too optimistic at this point. But they’ve been a great ally for a long time and we certainly hope it will continue.”
Another member of the audience, noting last year’s incident in which IDF troops killed nine Turks aboard the S/S Marmara in the eastern Mediterranean, asked what might happen in the event Turkey tries to send another aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip.
“I’m increasingly concerned about the Turks turning away from Israel,” said Mullen. “I hope the political leadership in both countries would figure out a way to make sure we don’t have a recurrence of what happened not long ago. Those are very tough, confined, dangerous situations, and it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen when you board a ship.”
A light moment occurred when Kate Sosland, a fifth-grader at JPDS, asked Mullen why her Israeli cousin Katja — whom she had visited over the summer — will get to serve in an IDF combat unit but that women here don’t have that same opportunity.
“Do you think American girls like me will ever have the chance to be warriors and peacemakers like you?” she asked the admiral.
“The battlefield has changed, and women have served and sacrificed and are great warriors in so many ways that a few years ago critics thought couldn’t happen,” Mullen replied, choosing his words carefully. “All fields are not yet open to women, but by the time you’re old enough, we’ll be in a different place.”