.Pakistan Pledges to Attack Al-Qaeda `Epicenter of Terrorism,’ Mullen Says
President Barack Obama’s top military adviser said Pakistan’s army has pledged to go after militants the U.S. wants targeted in an area harboring al-Qaeda that has become “the epicenter of terrorism.”
Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said his Pakistani counterpart, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has given assurances he will mount an offensive the U.S. has long called for in North Waziristan along the Afghan border.
Mullen cited as evidence for his optimism Pakistan’s offensives against the Taliban and related groups elsewhere in the country during the past 1½ years.
“He’s committed to me to go into North Waziristan and to root out these terrorists as well,” Mullen, 64, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Conversations with Judy Woodruff” to be broadcast this weekend. “He clearly knows what our priorities are.”
Mullen said he hadn’t read Washington journalist Bob Woodward’s latest book on the administration’s strategy debates, “Obama’s Wars.”
While not taking direct issue with the book’s suggestions that the military limited Obama’s Afghanistan options during a strategy review last year, Mullen said the military provided its best advice.
He said the goal was to defeat al-Qaeda and ensure Afghanistan wouldn’t again become a haven for the group as it had been before the U.S. ousted the Taliban from power after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
“That’s how I approached my best military advice to the president,” Mullen said.
In addition to the military campaign in Afghanistan, Obama is relying on neighboring Pakistan to help rout al-Qaeda and related groups that threaten troops across the border and may be preparing further attacks in Europe or the U.S., such as the May 1 car-bomb attempt in New York’s Times Square.
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation struggling with an economic crisis and newly re-established democratic rule, says its army is stretched by the fight against militants in tribal areas and a flood that inundated a fifth of the country in July.
It’s “just a fact of life that significant military resources have been drawn away to help deal with this terrible flooding situation they have,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters traveling with him to a meeting in Brussels today at the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which leads the 47-nation coalition in Afghanistan.
“So the question is, at what point do they return to the offensive,” Gates said, adding “the sooner, the better.”
North Waziristan “is the epicenter of terrorism,” Mullen said in his interview. “It’s where al-Qaeda lives.”
Kayani, who has been an ally of Mullen, has shifted more than 70,000 troops from the country’s border with India, its traditional rival, to the northwest, mobilizing a total of 140,000 forces, Mullen said.
Threat to Country
“They’ve sacrificed, they’ve lost a lot of citizens and they are really concerned, urgently concerned, about the threat to their own country from terrorists,” Mullen said. “Two years ago, that wasn’t the case.”
Still, Mullen didn’t give a time frame for a possible offensive in North Waziristan. He said Kayani has primarily targeted groups that pose an internal threat, not those the U.S. considers most dangerous.
Mullen, who took office in October 2007, said he has probably been to Pakistan 20 times, seeking to rebuild ties that frayed in the 1990s.
The U.S. relationship with Pakistan “comes from what I call a very dark hole where we left them,” Mullen said. “So to assert certainties right now I think is a real challenge.”
Pakistan’s military also is hampered by its government’s failure to establish firm civilian control in areas where the army has routed the Taliban, Mullen said. He cited the Swat Valley about 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of the capital Islamabad, where the Pakistani Army swept out guerrillas in a 10-week military campaign beginning in May 2009.
“He’s got no government to build behind” the offensives, Mullen said. “So he’s got his forces literally pinned down in Swat until the government can actually come in, provide the security, the police.”
While military action by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan has degraded al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden “is still running” the group, Mullen said.
“He’s struggled doing that to some degree over the last couple of years,” Mullen said. Still, the threat to the U.S. is “every bit as intense as it has been. And it’s still a threat that needs to be eliminated.”
The war in Afghanistan is showing signs of progress in reversing Taliban gains and strengthening legitimate authorities, Mullen said. The U.S. is “very committed” to beginning a troop withdrawal that Obama called for when he authorized 30,000 additional U.S. forces last December, Mullen said.
“I’m sure we’ll be able to start that transition,” he said. “We don’t know exactly where that will be or how much.”
Veterans returning from that war and from Iraq will face new battles, said Mullen, who has urged communities to embrace their former fighters with jobs and other assistance.
Science still doesn’t know enough about traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, soaring military suicides and homelessness, especially among female veterans, Mullen said.
“There is a sea of goodwill out there that wants to help,” he said. “We have to figure out how to connect with them.”
Mullen said he has “great confidence” in Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Obama’s chosen successor to replace retired Marine Corps General James Jones. Woodward wrote in his book that Gates said Donilon would be “a disaster” as a national security adviser.
Mullen also said the latest round of sanctions by the U.S. and the United Nations to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons is having “a very significant effect on Iran, more so than many people anticipated, including the Iranians.”
“We need to continue to increase that pressure to get their attention, to force them to the table,” Mullen said. “They’re still strategically intent on having a nuclear weapon.”
Iran continues to work with North Korea, Mullen said, calling the Asian communist nation “the number one proliferator of nuclear weapons technology in the world.”
On China, Mullen declined to say whether he thought the biggest Asian economic power would provide the insight into its military intentions that the U.S. has sought.
Gates’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart this week in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi and the accompanying invitation to visit Beijing will at least restore some connections, Mullen said. U.S. officials have recently expressed more concern that the absence of military talks between the two powers could result in miscalculations.
“The longer that we are not in contact, I think, the more dangerous the potential longer-term outcomes are,” Mullen said.