WHEN ADMIRAL Mike Mullen retired last week as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, years of frustration toward the Pakistani government came out in full force. It was as if Mullen, who had made a strong relationship with the Pakistani military the foundation of his strategic efforts in the region, couldn’t restrain himself any longer. He directed his strongest criticism at the Pakistani spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), asserting that it colludes with terrorists who attack Americans.
Mullen’s sharp comments may have reflected his opinion alone, as the Obama administration has insisted. Or he may have been sending a tough message with the winking approval of the president. What should be clear from Mullen’s impressive four-year term is that his views are always well-considered. A skilled commander and sophisticated strategic thinker, Mullen should be a model for future chairmen of the Joint Chiefs. Coming after two predecessors who were so deferential to the Bush administration that they came off like actors posing as generals, Mullen knew how to be respectful of his civilian bosses while still being the independent voice on military matters that the nation needs. His successor, General Martin Dempsey, should take note.
At his last Senate hearing earlier this month, Mullen stated that the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated militant group in Afghanistan that has been blamed for attacks against the US military and diplomatic personnel, was “a veritable arm’’ of the ISI. Pakistan, he argued, was playing a dangerous game to protect its own strategic interests in the area. In the process, it has supported a group that US officials believe was responsible for the 20-hour-long attack on the US embassy in Kabul last month. No one in the US government had so directly linked the ISI to terrorist groups publicly.
Pakistan’s outrage was predictable. The US government, hoping to maintain a relationship with a country that remains a crucial partner for stability in the region, was quick to distance itself. “It’s not language I would use,’’ said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. Some military personnel claim that Mullen overstated the links.
Whether Mullen’s comments were a purposeful strategy to shame Pakistan into distancing itself from the Haqqani network and other terrorist groups is now a Washington parlor game. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sat alongside Mullen during the hearing and did not contradict him. Congress is also considering legislation to tie billions of dollars in aid and military support to Pakistan’s capability and effectiveness in fighting terrorist organizations.
Ironically, Pakistan had no stronger backer than Mullen, who worked hard to build ties with the Pakistani military. Asked later about his comments, Mullen simply stated, “I phrased it the way I wanted it to be phrased.’’ A decade of disingenuous statements and actions by the Pakistanis, with US soldiers among the victims, could not be left unchallenged, even if - or possibly because - the man saying them was on his way out.