The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said he "couldn't give the Pakistani Army anything but an 'A'" for how they've conducted their battle so far, after eight-months-plus of fighting to clear militants from the Swat Valley. He was speaking to those of us traveling with him, after he spent the day touring the now-conquered Swat Valley with Pakistan's Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Kayani . (For the record, after so many visits with U.S. and Pakistani military officials and diplomats in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last few days, he looked worn. But so did we.)
(AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
"He planned well, and he's been very deliberate about how much he can get done and when he can get it done," Mullen said. "I think that's a very realistic approach to the operations."
He said that includes how the Pakistani military is currently conducting their counterinsurgency campaign there—trying to boost economic and political development there, after taking that territory. That's a new way of fighting for the Pakistani army, and one many U.S. military analysts and officers had publicly doubted they could pull off.
Mullen's comments are also unexpectedly high praise from American's top military commander in uniform -- at a time when U.S. officials are often quoted in the media saying Pakistan is not doing enough to fight the Afghan Taliban, which threatens U.S. troops across the border in Afghanistan. The Pakistani army continues to fight the militants, but they're concentrating on the Pakistani Taliban, who have waged a deadly suicide bombing campaign in their country, and bypassed areas populated by some of America's enemies.
You could cynically say Mullen's warm comments are good preparation to soften the Pakistani leadership up, before asking them to do more. But Mullen is a known for being more matter of fact than manipulative. And he's not known for being overzealous in handing out praise.
His staff explained he really thinks the Pakistani army in general, and Kayani in particular "get it." "They're a learning force," one official said. They learned the hard way, by taking hundreds of casualties early in this campaign, and finding out that if you don't hold territory after you take it from the Taliban, you just have to take it again, and lose more troops in the process.
And as the U.S. military learned in Iraq, the official explained, they've also learned that it's easier to "clear and hold" the first part of counterinsurgency, than it is to "build and transfer"—as in building hospitals, schools, roads, and bringing in jobs and business, and then transferring the area to a stable government and security force.
Admiral Mullen said it's something Kayani and his military commanders brought up a lot in their tour today – that while they'd conquered much of the territory they'd gone after, the economic aid and support from their own government and the international community wasn't coming in fast enough to both get people back to work, and keep them satisfied enough to keep them from supporting the Taliban again.
"That's something he is concerned about," Mullen said. "He has got to hold this territory, until the building starts. So that's where his main focus is."
Mullen is taking that message back to Washington – what is essentially a polite pushback from the Pakistani military that they are fighting as hard as they can, as fast as they can, but they're taking care of their own business, and their own direct enemies – the militant groups responsible for a string of bloody bombings across Pakistan—before they go after America's enemies.
That said, the admiral said he did bring up Washington's desire that Pakistan pursue the Afghan Taliban, aka Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and crew, thought to be sheltering in Pakistan, as well and the militant Haqqani tribe, which straddles Afghanistan and the Pakistani territory of Northern Waziristan. Mullen said Kayani "gets" that too.
"He is very aware of the additional insurgents that are out there, and he is likewise focused in getting at them," Mullen said. "I say that broadly. That's without exactly how that's going to be done or when that's going to be done."
And that sounds to this reporter like two military commanders getting together and saying to each other, we know what needs to happen, and we also know how fast the politicians want it to happen. But we also both know that from a military standpoint, it doesn't happen that fast on the ground.
Call it a diplomatic version of "back off, and let us do our job." But you won't hear a general, or an admiral, saying that to a reporter out loud.