- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

SAMARRA, Iraq | Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen walked through the streets of Samarra toward the Golden Mosque, where the sounds of prayer have replaced those of explosions and shooting.

The admiral, recruited by the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1964 to play basketball, towered over a crowd of young children in ragged clothing who followed him. Forty years after beginning his military career, he is now charged with overseeing 2.2 million troops and two very different theaters of war.

“We need to know how to look through the eyes of the people,” he told The Washington Times later aboard Air Force II during one of several interviews on a recent a nine-day trip to Germany, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Pakistan. “I don’t think any plan is to succeed in Iraq or Afghanistan unless we engage with the people, unless we understand who they are and what they need.”

In Iraq, that understanding has come late. A U.S. decision to invade in 2003 with a relatively small force and inadequate planning for a post-Saddam Hussein administration created chaos and led to an insurgency and sectarian violence. In Samarra, the Golden Mosque, a revered Shi’ite Muslim shrine, was attacked by Sunni insurgents in 2006 and then bombed by al Qaeda operatives in 2007.

Now, it is being rebuilt and has become a symbol of fragile progress.

Adm. Mullen said he wanted the people of Samarra to know they had not and would not be forgotten. He squinted as he looked at the blue and golden tiles that reflected off the shrine and listened to the prayers that echoed throughout the city.

“He wanted to have his boots on the ground,” said Capt. John Kirby, the admiral’s spokesman and a colleague for nine years. “He really is a remarkable man that truly cares and never stops learning.”

Back aboard the plane, the admiral sat at a desk in a private compartment, relaxing in Navy sweats. He talked about how his career began.

A life in the Navy was not what anyone would have expected for him, he said. His father was a Hollywood press agent, Jack Mullen, who represented famous actors such as Steve McQueen and Ann-Margret. Adm. Mullen said he decided to attend the Naval Academy not only because he received an athletic scholarship but because he wanted structure.

“I knew I needed discipline,” he said. “Most of my friends from home were dropping out and attending junior colleges.” His academic career was bumpy. He said he graduated in 1968 with a ranking of 611 out of 836 in his class.

A major turning point was also his biggest failure, he said. In 1973, when he was given his first command over a gasoline tanker, the USS Noxubee, the then young lieutenant crashed into a buoy the first time he got underway.

The crash fouled the port propeller and could have ended his career. But the mishap instead spurred him to greater efforts. “It was my first time really learning from failure and what it meant to get back up again,” he said.

“I’m a pretty persistent guy,” Adm. Mullen added. “I waited 11 years to screen for my next command.”

His second command “was a very successful deployment and tour,” he said, that eventually led to his rise to chief of naval operations and finally chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Life at the top hasn’t always been easy, however.

According to Bob Woodward’s latest book, “The War Within,” Adm. Mullen complained to retired Gen. Jack Keane about the latter going to Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush behind the backs of the Pentagon brass to advocate sending more troops to Iraq in 2007.

“I don’t want you going to Iraq anymore and helping [Gen. David] Petraeus,” Mr. Woodward wrote that Adm. Mullen told Gen. Keane. “You’ve diminished the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”

Adm. Mullen conceded that he was uncertain that plans to increase troops in Iraq in 2007 would work.

Retired Adm. William Fallon, who resigned last fall as head of Central Command, told The Times that Adm. Mullen and other top officers were not opposed to the surge as such but wanted to be sure there was a strategy that would benefit from the addition of more U.S. troops.

“He’s got a lot of experience,” Adm. Fallon said of Adm. Mullen. “He’s got good instincts in terms of what’s right for the country, where, as we in the Navy say, the rocks and shoals are.” He credited Adm. Mullen, for example, in “sensing early on that Pakistan was really critical” and forging a close relationship with Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.

Adm. Fallon predicted that Adm. Mullen, who is about one year into his two-year term, would have a closer relationship with the next president than he did with Mr. Bush.

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, said Adm. Mullen was “OK” but not on a par with previous chairmen including Colin L. Powell, Hugh Shelton and John Shalikashvili.

Mr. Korb said that Adm. Mullen had been late to address Afghanistan and similar to his immediate predecessor, Gen. Peter Pace, is defending administration policy on Iraq. “Until last summer, he was saying ‘In Iraq, we do what we must while in Afghanistan, we do what we can,’” Mr. Korb said.

However, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, a former commander of Central Command, praised Adm. Mullen as a good listener who seeks and absorbs advise from specialists and former senior commanders.

“I’m a big Mike Mullen fan,” Gen. Zinni told The Times. “He’s brilliant, he listens to all points of views, and he has a good relationship with his counterparts overseas. He also has a good relationship with [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates.”

Gen. Zinni said he has known Adm. Mullen for at least 15 years and had dinner with him just a few weeks ago.

“He likes to meet one on one, and he takes a lot of notes,” Gen. Zinni said. He also spoke approvingly of a new strategy Adm. Mullen is putting together to deal with the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan in part by temporarily boosting U.S. forces there. “It’s the right time to put the pressure on the Taliban,” Gen. Zinni said.

Adm. Mullen said he expects people to be honest with him. If he doesn’t feel that he’s getting all the information necessary to understand a particular issue, he searches out the answers in books.

He said he was so impressed by the book, “Three Cups of Tea,” about a mission to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that he has met twice with the author, Greg Mortenson.

Of Afghanistan, Adm. Mullen said, “It’s an extraordinary country with extraordinary people. We have a mission, and it’s a very complex mission that requires a deep understanding.”

The admiral and his wife, Deborah, spent four days of the trip with the USO. After the tour group and his wife left the region, he spent several days traveling to forward operating bases in Afghanistan, visiting Marines and other troops in the nation’s eastern, southern and western provinces.

A senior staff member, who asked not to be named because he was revealing private conversations, recalled one early morning meeting that Adm. Mullen had with three of his generals. The first general talked about continued fallout from the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Another brought up recent attacks on U.S. convoys in Pakistan. The third discussed cholera outbreaks in Africa and drug cartels in Mexico.

“The admiral pushed his chair back, smiled and said ‘There is no bull we can’t juggle,’” the senior staff member recalled. His dry sense of humor, ability to learn from mistakes and even temper are reasons why “he is so respected by those who know him,” the staff member said.

Barbara Slavin contributed from Washington.

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