Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Michael Mullen tried to shed a little light -- very little -- on that meeting of high ranking U.S. and Pakistani commanders aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln in the Indian Ocean. The message from America’s top military officer on what is a rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan: there are no easy answers and don’t expect a solution any time soon.
At times during the briefing he sounded frustrated at the lack of Pakistani progress in combating insurgents on their side of the border. “There are areas that we can do better. There are areas that the Pakistani military can do better. We understand that. It's an area, I think, we can all improve on. But it is not going to be something that gets solved overnight.”
The roster of attendees at the Lincoln summit included pretty much every high ranking U.S. officer in the region. In addition to Mullen, there was Gen. David Petraeus, who is taking over at CENTCOM, NATO commander Gen. David McKiernan, Adm. Eric Olson, head of Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen Martin Dempsey, acting Mideast commander and Rear Adm. Michael LeFever, military liaison to the Pakistani high command. Representing Pakistan was Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parves Kayani and an entourage of senior military leaders. Mullen said the meeting was planned about a month ago and that many of the U.S. officers that attended just happened to be in the neighborhood.
Mullen repeatedly used the word “complex” to describe the situation in the lawless border area between the two countries and said progress there is "just going to take some time." The military sees evidence of greater coordination among extremist groups in the area and what Mullen described as an “almost syndicate like behavior” that has resulted in new and ever more sophisticated attacks on U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. He said that insurgent “save havens” in the border regions provide “launching pads” for Taliban attacks and must be eliminated.
He pointed to both the attack that killed 10 elite French paratroopers east of Kabul this month as well as a coordinated suicide bomber attack last month on FOB Salerno, located near the Pakistani border. Salerno is one of the largest bases in all Afghanistan, for those who’ve spent time in Iraq, it’s almost as big as FOB Victory at Baghdad International Airport. The size of the well guarded base makes the attack even more puzzling as the suicide bombers, ten in number, had essentially zero chance of breaching the outer perimeter, getting past the Hesco barriers and into the base itself where they could reach any soft targets. Why the Taliban would waste that many suicide bombers on such a hardened target is difficult to determine, particularly in light of the obvious sophistication of recent insurgent attacks.
Mullen gave few details on any decisions that might have come out of this week’s super secret meeting, no real surprise there. About all he would say was that he was “encouraged” that the focus of the Pakistani military is where it needs to be. He said the meeting with Kayani, Mullen’s fifth, “was a chance to understand a very complex challenge in a critical part of the world and try to do that through the eyes of a leadership that lives and fights there.”
Mullen said the thinking among American commanders is that three additional combat brigades are needed in Afghanistan, although the total number of troops sent there could change over time. Mullen was unable to answer clearly why no additional troops are currently on the way to Afghanistan, despite repeated requests from commanders for more troops, an urgent requirement that has sat on the shelf for some time. “We are working very hard to add additional troops,” he said. But when pressed on why the war in Afghanistan remains, at least in terms of troop commitment, a secondary front, he was unable to provide a clear answer.