By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 24, 2009 – The detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed, the Pentagon’s senior military officer said here today.
“I have advocated for a long time now that it (Guantanamo) needs to be closed,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a wide-ranging interview with ABC’s “This Week” television news program host George Stephanopoulos.
President Barack Obama has pledged to shut down Guantanamo by next January, Mullen noted. The U.S.-military-managed Guantanamo detention facility was opened shortly after the start of the war against terrorism. It currently houses about 240 detainees.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military is working to meet the president’s deadline to close Guantanamo, Mullen said. The detention facility, he said, has served as a recruiting symbol for Islamic extremists to take up arms against the United States.
“So, I think that is at the heart of the concern for Guantanamo’s continued existance, in which I spoke to a fews years ago for the need to close it,” Mullen said.
Mullen acknowledged that closing Guantanamo poses a challenge, with regard to finding another place to hold some very dangerous people. Yet, he said, a number of terrorists are already being held in some high-security prisons in the United States.
“We’re working hard now to figure out what the options are and what the best one would be,” Mullen said, “and that really is a decision the president is going to have to make.”
Mullen also fielded Stephanopoulos-posed questions on Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, gays in the military, and the performance of U.S. servicemembers.
It’s clear that Iran intends to develop nuclear-weapons capability, said Mullen, pointing to Iran’s recent successful ballistic-missile test.
Iran’s strategic objective “is to achieve nuclear weapons, and that path continues,” Mullen said. “Their leadership is committed to it.”
If Iran were to have nuclear weapons, he said, it would be an “incredibly destabilizing” event in the Middle East region and for the world.
Meanwhile, the current U.S. policy of employing diplomatic dialogue with Iran to persuade it to jettison its nuclear weapons ambitions is the right path to take, Mullen said.
Turning to Iraq, Mullen said the recent increase in insurgent-committed violence there still remains much lower than that experienced at the height of fighting a few years ago.
And, the U.S. military is “still very much on track” in its plans to remove its forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, Mullen said. Today, there are more than 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Mullen said current plans call for a reduction to between 35,000 and 50,000 U.S. forces from Iraq by August 2010.
The situation in Iraq “is still fragile,” Mullen said. But, he added, the Iraqi security forces are vastly improved.
Though al-Qaida in Iraq is still active, its capacity to commit violence in Iraq has been much diminished, Mullen said. Iraq’s future, he said, will become much clearer over the next 12 to 18 months.
Switching to the topic of Afghanistan, Mullen said the current U.S. troop build up there would bolster efforts to “stem the tide” in reducing violence committed by resurgent Taliban extremists.
However, a military solution “is not enough” to achieve success in Afghanistan, Mullen said.
“We’ve got to have governance capability increased dramatically” in Afghanistan, Mullen explained, as well as economic development.
Turning to the discussion of changing federal law in order to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military, Mullen said that if the law were changed, then the U.S. military would follow suit.
President Obama has said he wants to jettison the U.S. military’s current rules governing homosexuals in uniform, that’s called, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” That policy enables gays to serve in uniform, as long as they don’t openly announce or demonstrate their sexual preference.
Mullen also said that his job regarding a change in the U.S. military’s policy toward gays is to gauge its potential impact and provide his best advice to the president.
If the law is changed, Mullen continued, he would also need to develop an implementation plan.
“We follow the law, and if the law changes, we’ll comply,” Mullen said. “There is absolutely no question about that.”
Mullen also said he is impressed with the president’s thought processes and decisions regarding U.S. military policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“I find that to be a method that gives the military the kind of focus it needs for where we’re going,” Mullen said.
On this year’s Memorial Day weekend, Mullen observed that today’s U.S. servicemembers constitute “the best military I’ve ever been associated with in my 41 years of wearing the uniform.”
Mullen cited the “tremendous resolve” demonstrated by America’s servicemembers as they fight two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
America’s men and women in uniform “have performed incredibly,” Mullen said, noting that they deserve the support of their fellow citizens.
On Monday, this Memorial Day, Mullen said he’d like America “to remember those who’ve served and those that we’ve lost and their families.”
Mullen also saluted the nation’s support of its wounded warriors.
Communities across America “reach out to these young people,” Mullen said, noting wounded warriors have “gone forward, sacrificed greatly,” to protect their fellow citizens.