Mullen is writing specifically about U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. But the unequivocal moral code he lays down has sweeping implications -- for the interrogation of prisoners (that is, for the policies initiated by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush et al, implemented at Bagram and Guantanamo and then transferred to Abu Ghraib); for Israel in Gaza; for pilotless drone attacks in Pakistan, for all counterinsurgency efforts, and ultimately all warfare.
We have learned, after seven years of war, that trust is the coin of the realm -- that building it takes time, losing it takes mere seconds, and maintaining it may be our most important and most difficult objective.
That's why images of prisoner maltreatment at Abu Ghraib still serve as recruiting tools for al-Qaeda. And it's why each civilian casualty for which we are even remotely responsible sets back our efforts to gain the confidence of the Afghan people months, if not years.
It doesn't matter how hard we try to avoid hurting the innocent, and we do try very hard. It doesn't matter how proportional the force we deploy, how precisely we strike. It doesn't even matter if the enemy hides behind civilians. What matters are the death and destruction that result and the expectation that we could have avoided it. In the end, all that matters is that, despite our best efforts, sometimes we take the very lives we are trying to protect.
You cannot defeat an insurgency this way.
Mullen does not directly address the impact on 'trust' of the U.S.'s pilotless drone attacks on the tribal regions of Pakistan. But he does lay responsibility for a poor working relationship with Pakistan largely on U.S.'s doorstep:
I have never read anything like Mullen's back story for the failures of antiterror efforts in Pakistan over the past seven-plus years (though complaints are common that the U.S. disengaged from Afghanistan once the Soviets pulled out). The near-universal media take was that the Bush Administration shelled out billions without conditions or oversight, and that Pakistan's antiterror efforts were essentially bogus or at best ambivalent. Mullen is reaching back to an earlier era to explain why the "alliance" has failed to be effective. Add this to the roster of official and quasi-official U.S. apologies for past missteps.
Looking through that regional lens is difficult given our trust deficit with Pakistan. A whole generation of Pakistani military officers either doesn't know the United States, doesn't trust us or both. What they do know is that military aid restrictions went into effect under the Pressler Amendment in 1990. We basically cut them off for 12 years, and in the process cut ourselves off.
As one Pakistani official put it recently, "The U.S. abandoned Pakistan, and that mutual distrust didn't allow and still in many ways does not allow both parties to find a common strategy to defeat terrorism."
We are working to turn that around. Already, a small contingent of U.S. military experts is assisting in the professional development of Pakistani counterinsurgency trainers. Pakistani officers will increasingly be invited to attend our war colleges. And I am hopeful that more U.S. aid and technical assistance may flow to the border regions.
For my part, I have made it a priority to develop closer ties with the head of the Pakistani military, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, and other military and civilian leaders. If I'm in the area, I go to Pakistan. Trust cannot be won over the phone. You build it one person -- and one issue -- at a time.
Like the 16 generals who flanked Obama when he signed his executive orders banning torture and closing Guantanamo within a year, Mullen is providing cover for Obama to implement a more restrained, nuanced, "sensitive" and multi-faceted approach to foreign policy, national security and war.