The following are excerpts from an interview with Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, which aired on Al-Jazeera TV on December 18, 2009. The transcript is based on the simultaneous Arabic translation.
Admiral Michael Mullen: The decision to increase our troops in Afghanistan was made because the President believes that this serves national security, and that Al-Qaeda and its operatives are still planning to carry out attacks similar to the attacks they carried out in 2001. In my view, we cannot afford, under any circumstances, to let this happen again.
Then there is the issue of the Taliban in Pakistan, where the Taliban took measures to spread instability. Pakistan is a nuclear country, with nuclear material, and we know that Al-Qaeda strives to obtain nuclear material and weapons. If this happens, it will be the worst possible scenario. If they manage to get their hands on these weapons – and I'm talking only about "getting their hands" on them, because they have said that if they obtain these materials, they will use them... These are national security objectives that President Obama had in mind when he made the decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan.
Personally, I believe – just like President Obama – that the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan is the epicenter of terrorism in the world. There is a growing concern about the growth of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, in addition to the connections it has established in Somalia. Al-Qaeda is spreading in the world, but its leadership resides in that border area. That is the area we want to make sure does not become a base for planning attacks, and for the future that Al-Qaeda wants. By this, I am referring to extremism and the distortion of the Islamic religion. The Islamic religion is important to us all.
This is why we are focusing on that border area. This does not mean that we are not concerned about other places, but the central headquarters that we are monitoring is where Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri are, where the senior Al-Qaeda operatives are concentrated and do the planning. This is why this area is more important than any other area, but this does not mean that we shouldn't focus on other areas.
Interviewer: Does that mean that you disagree with some voices, even the official ones that we often hear from Pakistan, which say Osama Bin Laden is not in Pakistan?
Admiral Michael Mullen: The best information I have is that all indications are that Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri are in Pakistan, and that they are very well protected by the Taliban. One of the things I have seen in the last couple of years is the collaboration of these terrorist organizations, be it the Taliban in Pakistan, which threatens the country, or the Afghan Taliban, like the Haqqani network and others. In Pakistan, there are ties between the Lakshar-e Taibe Army and branches of the Taliban. I have seen these networks come together, in a way that is increasingly dangerous to both countries, and actually, to many countries in the world.
We have clearly shifted our main effort from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan. For many years we under-resourced the Afghanistan campaign, whether it had to do with forces, diplomacy, or intelligence. Because our priority, to be honest, was Iraq. That priority has now shifted. We are about to leave Iraq, and it's in that shifting that I think there is good opportunity, with very positive things happening in Pakistan, with respect to the attitude toward the radicals there, with the newly elected president in Afghanistan, who is committed to change, not to mention additional troops, with the right strategy, the right military leadership on the ground, and the right diplomatic leadership there. I believe there is a real opportunity for all of us to be able to carve out a way ahead that really stabilizes Afghanistan, and puts us on a path to a positive relationship.
The same is true of Pakistan. We abandoned it three times in our history. When I go to Pakistan, I often hear the question: "Will you abandon us again?" That is a real problem – that issue of abandonment of those countries. The president has made it clear that we are striving for a long-term relationship. That's the difference from the past. That's why I think that in a partnership with President Karzai, we can move ahead.
Well, I've been one that believed for some time that the outreach, dialogue, and engagement with Iran that President Obama was committed to has been very important. I worry a great deal about their goal of developing nuclear weapons. I think having nuclear state like Iran in that part of the world is destabilizing. I am concerned about the window of opportunity that closes over time with regard to that nuclear program. I would have liked to have seen a better outcome in the discussions with the IAEA, which condemned Iran. All of that, from my perspective, is headed in the wrong direction. Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, is threatening Israel, and quite frankly, it is threatening other states in the region. I have friends in several countries there who are concerned about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. I'm telling you once again that things with Iran are not going in the right direction. I hope the political leadership in all countries in the region, including Iran, will resolve this issue, and move in the right direction.
From a military standpoint, I'm telling you that we've always had military options, they have always been on the table, and they continue to be. Certainly, my preference is never to use those, but I think we all need to operate from a position of strength. Where Iran is headed right now is a great concern to me.
Interviewer: Does this mean that you are considering using military options at some point?
Admiral Michael Mullen: Well, I would never go any further than to say that there are military options. There have been military options, and there will be in the future. That is a decision that I don't want to make. You spoke about politicians in the US who are concerned, and there are politicians in many countries who are concerned about Iran's conduct. Again, it's a growing concern. I was hopeful that this engagement would move us in the right direction, and I'm still hoping that will be the case.