Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen readies for new boss, Afghanistan challenges

Adm. Michael Mullen, America’s top military officer, is preparing for a new commander in chief as well as major budget and operational challenges in 2009.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday that the military was making “a very robust effort” helping the McCain and Obama presidential campaigns prepare for a possible transition. In working with those who represent the next commander in chief, the Pentagon is “not seeking “ them out but is “there to assist,” Admiral Mullen told a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters.

Transition was in the air Thursday, with the White House announcing that President Bush has established a team with the goal of ensuring “a seamless presidential transition,” said White House Press Secretary Dana Perino.

The next president will inherit oversight of a war the US is helping to fight in Afghanistan. Mullen previously has warned that the “most likely near-term attack” on the US is likely to come from the Afghan-Pakistan border. American intelligence agencies have determined that Afghanistan is on a “downward spiral,” with the Afghan government unable to counter the rise of the Taliban, according to news reports Thursday.

“The trends across the board are not going in the right direction,” Mullen said Thursday morning. “When we get into conflict, and we do that fairly significantly with the Taliban, with the insurgents there, we do quite well.” But he noted that "it is a matter of having enough forces, particularly in the south and the east. The north and the west are reasonably quiet, but the south and the east are very, very tough. It has been very tough fighting this year, and it will be tougher next year unless we adjust in a way to get at all aspects of the challenges in Afghanistan.”

Since taking over as chairman in 2007, Mullen has argued that the US does not adequately fund some of its defense capabilities. But he acknowledged over breakfast that the current economic crisis would make it even harder to win the additional money he thinks the Pentagon needs.

“Certainly I have concerns with respect to the impact of the crisis tied to my desire to have a discussion and a debate about what we need to adequately fund the national security requirements of our country,” Mullen said. He said he recognizes that “the country has got some very significant fiscal challenges outside national security … [and that] all the fiscal challenges are clearly going to be intensified or heightened due to the current fiscal crisis.”

But he added, “I do think it is really important we have a discussion, have a debate, make a conscious decision about what the United States is going to do from a national security standpoint. In these times we have challenges that are global. We are fighting two conflicts. We are increasing the size of our forces, which we need to do, and the investments to support that are very, very important.”

Mullen mingled with reporters before the session and stayed after its formal end for 15 minutes to respond to additional questions. His ease with the press is not surprising. His father, Jack Mullen, was a respected Hollywood press agent whose clients included Ann Margaret, Anthony Quinn, Julie Andrews, and Gene Autry.

Mullen was especially gracious when, in introducing him, I said, “He and his wife, Deborah, have a daughter as well as two sons who are graduates of the Naval Academy.” It turns out that Mullen’s wikipedia entry is wrong and that he does not have a daughter. When I apologized for the mistake, his response was, “my wife will love that.”

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