In addition to all the photos and office bric-a-brac that Adm. Mike Mullen packed away with him after leaving as Joint Chiefs chairman, he took something else that he believed was of great value: His relationship with the chief of Pakistan's military.
In trip after trip and meeting after meeting, Mullen built close ties with his counterpart, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, which, as he told Congress and reporters, went a long way toward keeping things together even as the rocky relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan strained almost to the breaking point.
It may not have looked like it from the outside, but it's possible that Mullen and Kayani's relationship may have been key to the smooth operation of the things we don't see in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, including drone strikes, intelligence sharing and special operations. (Then again, it's also possible their vaunted "relationship" was itself a smokescreen to try to make it appear that the two sides were getting on better than they actually were.)
So no matter what it was worth, who's taking up the mantle now? Well, no one in particular. Still, a top DoD spokesman said the military relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan has been improving since May's raid against Osama bin Laden, and a number of other top officials also are making an effort to bridge the gap Mullen left. Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby said Monday that CentCom commander Gen. James Mattis visited Kayani only a few days after Mullen's now-infamous testimony.
"I'm sure he is going to continue to engage, as is [ISAF commander] Gen. [John] Allen." So will there be a uniformed leader who will be the main point of contact with Pakistan? "I'm sure that will occur across the chain of command," Kirby said, "But I don't know about a single point of contact. We're going to approach this across the board."
There is every reason to expect that Mullen's successor, Gen. Martin Dempsey, will log just as many air miles on the way to Pakistan as Mullen did, partly to follow his example and partly of pure necessity: As the top brass keeps saying, the U.S. simply has no option but to keep up close military ties with Pakistan, even though, as Mullen made clear, the Pakistanis are effectively waging a proxy war against America at the same time they function as a key ally.
But that will take time -- Monday is Dempsey's first day on the job, and he may need a little time to get his bearings in Washington before he makes a trip to Islamabad or anywhere else.