In an interview with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he would not change "a word" of the testimony he gave the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
"I phrased it the way I wanted it to be phrased," Adm. Mike Mullen said.
Mullen unleashed a diplomatic firestorm between the United States and Pakistan when he said that an anti-American extremist organization in Afghanistan is a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's spy agency. As we reported today some U.S. officials pushed back, saying Mullen's assertion was "overstated."
But Mullen stood firmly by what he said, adding that he decided to talk about Pakistan's "linkage" with the Haqqani Network after the orgnazition was found to be responsible for the June 28 attack against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul, the Sept. 10 truck bomb that killed five Afghans and the Sept. 13 attack against the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. That, he said, plus what he called a "strategic linkage" with the ISI and "general support" from the Pakistani government compelled him to talk about it publicly.
"It is that linkage that I felt for a long time has to be broken," he said. "I'm not asserting that the Pak mil or the ISI has complete control over the Haqqanis. But the Haqqanis run that safe haven. They're also a home to al-Qaida in that safe haven. And I am losing American soldiers. The Haqqanis are killing American soldiers. And from that perspective, I think it's got to be addressed, which is the reason I spoke to it."
The Pakistani government has vehemently denied those claims. In an interview with Steve on Tuesday, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said having "links" to those networks doesn't mean Pakistan is involved in an attack.
"I can assure you that your intelligence agency would have links with the same people, maybe," she said.
Mullen struck back.
"And you spoke earlier, Steve, about what Foreign Minister Khar said, which is, certainly contacts are understood," he told Steve. "But this is more than contacts."
Steve asked Mullen directly if the Haqqanis are "acting out the will of the Pakistani government at the direction of the Pakistani government."
"I've talked about them supporting it," he said. "When [Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Pakistan's top military official] and I have talked about this in the past, he's not a big fan of the Haqqani Network. It's a very lethal, very virulent insurgent terrorist group that you just can't – you just can't walk up to and eliminate. So it isn't anything that could be done anywhere close to overnight. We talked about how to do it in the past, and that's really up – from my perspective, that's really up to the Pakistanis to figure out."
Mullen and Khar do agree on one thing: Though the relationship between Pakistan and United States is frayed, it must be maintained, they both said.
Mullen acknowledged that Pakistanis have a "huge trust deficit" with the United States and that it's a "difficult relationship," but, he said, the two countries have worked through tough times before.
"I'm just one that believes we need to continue to work on it and, if we don't, the longer-term dangers of not having a relationship and not trying to close this gap far outweigh what we're going through right now," he said.
Mullen's last day is Friday, so Steve also asked him about a few other topics. Among the highlights:
-- On the repeal of the don't ask don't tell policy:
"I felt it was an integrity issue. I felt it was an issue that was driven, you know, inside an organization that values integrity, which has been bedrock to me since I was a midshipman in the '60s, and I could never reconcile the fact that integrity is one of our values and yet I would ask thousands to show up to work every day and in some cases die for their country and then have to lie about who they were.
"So it wasn't – for me, it wasn't overly complex – a very difficult issue, I understand that, about an issue that, one, I think now is behind us and, two, is a very positive change in terms of – in terms of our people."
-- On the upcoming cuts to the budget, Mullen addressed what could happen to the military if the super committee does not come to an agreement and the government is forced to cut spending across the board:
ADM. MULLEN: The supercommitee – yeah, does not do what it's supposed to do and a sequester goes into effect, the way that gets executed, it affects almost every single account. So it — from my point of view — it has a very, very strong chance of breaking us. And in the world we're living in right now, I think that would really be dangerous.
MR. INSKEEP: Breaking you – what does that mean?
ADM. MULLEN: It means eroding training and readiness. It means not being able to modernize it, because of the way it hits every single account. So it will break programs and it has great potential to dramatically hollow out the force and do it very, very rapidly. So I'm arguing for – certainly we're tasked right now with finding over $450 billion in savings over the next 10 years. I think we can do that. There's risk associated with that. It's very hard but it's manageable. I think if we double that, we'd be in trouble.
Much more of Steve's interview with Adm. Mullen will air on Morning Edition Thursday and Friday. Tune into to your local member station to listen. We'll post audio of the as-aired interview on this page on Thursday. We've also posted a full transcript of the interview.
DAVID GREENE, Host:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
We're going to talk next with Admiral Mike Mullen, who is not ending his career quietly. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's top military officer, retires on schedule at the end of this week, just days after causing an uproar.
Admiral Mullen testified before Congress last week. He accused Pakistan's intelligence service of supporting militant groups, and people took him very seriously. Mullen has been a constant visitor to Pakistan, seeking to engage its military with the United States.
Yet Mullen said a group called the Haqqani Network was a, quote, veritable arm of Pakistan's intelligence agency. And that group is blamed for an attack on the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan recently. This week, however, other U.S. officials have backed away from Mullen's remarks.
JAY CARNEY: Well, it's not language I would use.
INSKEEP: That's White House spokesman Jay Carney, who was struggling yesterday to frame the White House's position.
CARNEY: But there is no question that they have safe havens in Pakistan, the network has safe havens in Pakistan, and that Pakistan has not taken action to eliminate those safe havens.
INSKEEP: On this program, Pakistani foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar was dismissive of Admiral Mullen's claims.
HINA RABBANI KHAR: Pakistan has lost 30,000 of its men, women and children to the same war that your country is fighting. Imagine how the U.S. would react if such a number had lost their lives, and then comments would come from other countries which said that you are the problem, you are part of the problem.
INSKEEP: Pakistanis were infuriated, sending relations with the United States to a new low. And all of that prompted a question when we sat down with Admiral Mike Mullen yesterday at the Pentagon.
Why now? Why did you make that statement now?
GREENE: Well, certainly, the Haqqani Network that everybody's talking about has been one that we've been concerned about for a long, long time.
And it was really sort of the sequencing of recent events, from the InterContinental Hotel to the bombing of one of our bases the other day, to the embassy, and the strategic linkage that the ISI has had for a significant period of time and really, through the ISI, the Pakistani military, and in that regard, the, you know, general support from the Pak government.
And it is that linkage that I have felt, for a long time, has to be broken. I am losing American soldiers. The Haqqanis are killing American soldiers. And from that perspective, I think it's got to be addressed, which is the reason I spoke to it.
INSKEEP: The Pakistani foreign minister said to us earlier this week: Of course there are links that our intelligence agency would have with these guys. Your intelligence agency has links with militants.
But you used the word proxies. You said groups like the Haqqanis are acting as proxies of the Pakistani government. What do you mean, in this specific context, of these raids that you're talking about?
MULLEN: I mean that the ISI specifically has enough support for the Haqqanis in terms of financial support, logistic support, and actually sort of free passage in the safe haven. And those links are part of what enable the Haqqanis to carry out their mission. And the Haqqanis are focused on doing as much damage in Afghanistan as they possibly can.
INSKEEP: Are the Haqqanis, in your view, acting out of the will - acting out the will of the Pakistani government, at the direction of the Pakistani government?
MULLEN: I've talked about them supporting it. When General Kayani and I have talked about this in the past, he's not a big fan of the Haqqani Network. It's a very lethal, very virulent insurgent terrorist group that you just can't walk up to and eliminate.
So it isn't anything that could be done anywhere close to overnight. We've talked about how to do it in the past. And that's really up - from my perspective, that's really up to the Pakistanis to figure out.
INSKEEP: Let's explain for people that General Kayani is the chief of army staff in Pakistan.
MULLEN: Correct. He's the most powerful military man in Pakistan.
INSKEEP: The closest counterpart to you.
INSKEEP: You've had many, many meetings with him over the last several years.
MULLEN: Right, right.
INSKEEP: You're said to have a good relationship.
MULLEN: I do.
INSKEEP: You've just said he doesn't like the Haqqanis. And yet Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, which is under him, in your view, is supporting them. Is ISI out of his control?
MULLEN: When I - no. I don't believe that. In fact, I believe it's within his control. And if I could just - you asked about proxies. It's part of the strategy, from my perspective, that is there to enhance the security of the country. That's how it is thought about there. I...
INSKEEP: You're saying the Pakistanis think of these groups as weapons that they can use at some point?
MULLEN: Clearly to ensure that their security is going to be improved. And certainly, contacts are understood. But this is more than contacts. And we've spoken to that - I've spoken to that many, many times, not just with General Kayani, but with lots of other people. And it is the intensity, the severity, and quite frankly for me as a senior military officer in America, the fact that it is so intently focused, right now, on killing Americans, that I felt it necessary to speak up.
INSKEEP: Given that in the last few days, there seem to have been a few officials walking away from your statement, do you want to reword anything that you said last night?
MULLEN: Not a word.
INSKEEP: You phrased it the way you want it to be phrased?
MULLEN: I phrased it the way I wanted it to be phrased.
INSKEEP: And given the strong reaction in Pakistan, not just from the military but among civilians, where people briefly seemed to be talking as if they thought they were going to war with the United States, is that the reaction that you wanted?
MULLEN: One of the challenges of this relationship is that first of all, we need it to be sustained. And I met with General Kayani about 10 days ago, and we both agree on that. It's a very difficult relationship. It's always not going to go well. But there have been parts of it that have gone well and are going well right now. I mean, the coordination across the border, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, between our forces and the Pakistani military, has never been better.
We are - the ISI and our intelligence agencies are sharing information and rounding up some significant players, with respect to terrorists, for example. So there's a sharing and a desire to work together that I think we have to continue to focus on and try to sustain for the future.
INSKEEP: Because when I heard your - when I heard about your testimony last week, I almost felt like you were telling people that all your efforts at engagement with this country had failed, that they hadn't worked out.
MULLEN: Well, I made a conscious decision very early in this tour that it was important to engage, in particular, General Kayani, back to his being the most important military officer in Pakistan and I, as the senior military officer in America, and the desire to have a relationship - which isn't unusual, quite frankly, for me and lots of other countries. And so - and recognizing there's a rich and, in ways, spotted history between our countries and particularly, between our militaries.
I mean, when you listen to them, which I try to do, to try to understand their problems, how they view the world, what their interests are, where they overlap, and you look back throughout their history, they would tell you we abandoned them - or we didn't support them in '65, we didn't support them in '71, we left in 1989. And so there's a huge trust deficit, and it's probably bigger than I realized.
And so back to your point about the demonstrations, etc., we're not very popular with the Pakistani people - America is not - and I think those demonstrations that you speak to are a reflection of that. And the trust deficit is huge. I'm just one that believes we need to continue to work on it. And if we don't, the longer-term dangers of not having a relationship, and not trying to close this gap, far outweigh what we're going through right now.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: Admiral Mike Mullen is the top American military officer. Pakistanis are still responding harshly to his statements. In televised remarks today, Pakistan's prime minister called for an end to the blame game, and said what he called Pakistan's sensitive national interests should be respected.
Now, on this program tomorrow, we'll talk with Admiral Mullen about his role in ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which has been enacted quietly, just at the end of his term.
MULLEN: While it's a major change, the message I get from the troops in the field, and the deck plates on ships, is we've got a lot of other things on our plate, a lot of other things more important, we need to move on.
INSKEEP: And we'll have that from Admiral Mullen tomorrow, right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.