The American military presence in Iraq has been put on a timeline — President Barack Obama has indicated that he would like to see American combat forces gone from there in 16 months.

Were it to happen, the move would ostensibly end our long, often painful presence there. But American withdrawal would not bring peace to the Middle East. What’s more, even if Iraq does become a non-factor for U.S. troops, those same troops would not be coming home, but rather moving just a little farther across the desert to Afghanistan. And once there, thorny questions concerning Pakistan, Iran, India, and international ties with U.S. allies come into play.

At the center of these issues is Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen will come to Princeton University’s McCosh Hall on Thursday, February 5, at 4:30 p.m. to present “Global Trends and National Security,” a major policy address on America’s state of affairs in the Middle East. The event is free and open to the public and media. For more information call 609-258-5988.

Mullen, who was named the 17th chairman of the JCS in October, 2007, is the principal advisor to the president, the secretary of defense, and the National Security and Homeland Defense councils. A native of Los Angeles, Mullen graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1968 and has a master’s in operations research from the Naval Post Graduate School. He also is a graduate of the Advanced Management Program at Harvard. Having commanded three ships, Mullen has served as vice chief of naval operations and was commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe.

Much of Mullen’s talk at Princeton is expected to center around the growing push by President Obama to wrap up Iraq and return American attention to Afghanistan’s Taliban government — the first government engaged after the September 11 attacks. While he is the top military advisor in the country, Mullen has repeatedly state in public that his job is not to decide what will happen in the Middle East, but rather decide how to carry out the orders of the president.

“Military leaders are also working hard with the national security team as they craft the new strategy for the way forward in Afghanistan,” said Mullen in a White House press conference in January. “The president has made it clear that he wants that strategy to be appropriately inclusive of our relationship with Pakistan as well as other nations in the region. I will not get out ahead of this effort, though we have on the joint staff been thinking our way through this for many months and are ready to contribute to it.”

The Taliban. With American attention diverted to Iraq for most of the past decade, Afghanistan’s highly conservative Taliban government has grown stronger and stretched its influence. Neighboring Pakistan, considered at the time of the American entry into Afghanistan in 2001 to be a controllable entity, has become more and more uncertain, Mullen said at the press conference. “The flow of militants across the border with Pakistan continues,” he said, adding that it is a major reason why popular support for toppling the Taliban must come from within Afghanistan itself. “The Afghan people, not the Taliban, are the real centers of gravity in this war. And their security must be the focus of our operations,” he said.

Part of the push to stabilize the region could come from a pilot program in the Wardak province to arm citizen groups to fight the Taliban. This program is similar to the Awakening project used in Iraq. It is, to say the least, a controversial plan, and one that has raised fears that arming Afghan citizens will be more problematic than helpful.

Mullen said that it will be a controlled, small-scale program, and that Awakening showed that similar concerns did not come to bear, as seen in the project’s success in Iraq’s Anbar province.

Security, said Mullen, will come from “having an Afghan face on this and Afghans providing for their own security. We think that is a critical part of the future of succeeding in Afghanistan.”

Allies. The U.S. relies on its allies in Europe, Asia, and Australia to help it combat terrorism and instability in the Middle East. But Europe, in particular, while it had offered some assistance in Iraq, has largely remained cold on American military engagement.

While Mullen recognizes international criticism of American efforts has been ubiquitous, he points to the fact that NATO allies have supplied an additional 10,000 troops to assist the U.S. in the last year. But more than military support, Mullen has said, the United States needs “across the board” support from its friends — philosophical unity, moral support, and services support count for a lot. “We have requirements across governance and economics where we need that kind of assistance,” he said. “I’m certainly hopeful that our new president will ask, and that his counterparts will respond.

What of Iran? “Iran, as a bordering state, plays a role,” Mullen said. “And to the degree that we are able to dialogue with them, find some mutual interests, there is potential there for moving ahead together. But I leave that to the diplomats to lead with that dialogue.

Mullen has long been a supporter of engaging Iran, if not militarily, then at least in finding common ground. However: “Iran is unhelpful in many, many ways in many, many areas, and so I wouldn’t be overly optimistic at this point. But there are mutual interests and I think that that might offer some possibilities.”

But there is still the nuclear question. Iran does not yet have the bomb, but it has been working on it for some time. “The issue is of great concern to me,” Mullen said. “I consider it to potentially be very destabilizing in a region that doesn’t have a lot of stability right now, although we’re working in a more positive direction.”

And India? India, like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, have an obvious stake in seeing a stable region. Therefore, Mullen said, “I think the strategic leadership and views, opinions, and support provided by India will be very clear. India has taken significantly positive steps to invest in Afghanistan, and yet there’s certainly a historic tension that’s there between Pakistan and India.

These tension exploded in Mumbai in December, but could have grown out of control, Mullen said. And that gives him at least some optimism. “I am comforted that the strategic leadership in both Pakistan and India has been such that we have not had any kind of conflict break out as a result of Mumbai,” he said. “Continuing in that direction is important.”

Terrorist groups. “With respect to al-Qaida, the biggest concern we have is the existence of them in the FATA and Pakistan and the need to make sure that that threat, that safe haven is eliminated, and isn’t created or recreated in Afghanistan or some other place like Somalia or Yemen,” Mullen said. “Look at what’s happened with al-Qaida in Iraq. They’re still there. They still can create spectacular tragedies, if you will. But they are very much on the run and diminished from where they were as recently as a year ago.”

Closer to home. Violence borne of drug wars in Mexico has become so total that many policy advisors, pundits, and even non-reactionary thinkers have publicly stated that the government there is in danger of imploding. Were that to happen, it would create an unstable country adjacent to us.

“I am extremely concerned about that border and the drug war,” Mullen said. “Kidnappings and murders that have occurred over the last couple of years, and the rapid increase in that has all of our attention. And I know General Renuart, who engages as our combatant commander with Mexico, shares that concern, and we want to do as much to assist and support our neighbor in that regard as we possibly can.”

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