The Al Qaeda network is not located in Afghanistan, but clearly headquartered in Pakistan, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen told Congress Thursday, and warned that if the Taliban takes over Afghanistan again, it would mean the return of al Qaeda to Afghanistan to plan and plot attacks against the US reminiscent of 9/11.
Appearing before the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mullen stated categorically, "Al Qaeda is not located in Afghanistan--they are headquartered clearly in Pakistan," and explained, "What I have watched over the last couple of years is this growing integration between Al Qaeda and the Taliban and the various networks of the Taliban--whether it's Haqqani, or Masood or Hetmakyar and that has alarmed me in its growth and its integration."
"And, it's that quite frankly, is also extent in Pakistan, which is moving toward Islamabad," he said. "So, clearly, with the Al Qaeda resident in Pakistan, we can't send troops in there to do anything about that--I understand that."
Mullen said that "the Taliban may not be some monolithic or homogenous body in make-up or ideology. But they do have governing ambitions. It's not just about instilling fears or spreading violence. They want Afghanistan back."
"We can't let them or their Al Qaeda cohorts have it," he asserted. "We can't permit the return of the very same safe havens from which the attacks on 9/11 were planned and resourced. And, yet, we can't deny that our success in that regard may push them deeper into Pakistan."
Mullen said that this is why it is imperative "why the investment in, support of, a relationship with the people of Pakistan, the military of Pakistan is so important, because in the long-run, the only way we are going to get at that is with them and through them, and that's going to take some time."
He said that "there is no corner of the world--none--that concerns me more than this region Afghanistan and Pakistan are two very different countries, but very much linked not only to each other, but inextricably to the national security of the United States. Indeed, our national interests are tied to this region, perhaps more than to any other right now."
Mullen said ever since he took over as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, his time had been consumed "intently focused on the challenges in this region and on developing personal and professional relationships with leaders there whose decisions will remain indispensable to our common desire for security and stability."
Taking a hefty swipe at the armchair pundits and analysts at think tanks here, not to mention members of Congress, Mullen said. "Through the years, if I learned nothing else, it is that nothing that we do here in Washington will matter much in the end if it doesn't reflect our earnest desire to reestablish lost trust, and regain lost opportunities to prevent either nation from being crushed in the grip of extremism."
"You don't need to look very hard at the headlines to see that we are not making enough headway in that regard," he added.
During the interaction that followed with lawmakers, Mullen acknowledged that he couldn't say for sure if the infusion of US troops into Afghanistan wouldn't destabilize Pakistan by pushing the insurgents into Balochistan.
He said he has discussed this at length with the Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani "and we all share the concerns for that."
But, he argued that "where I am comfortable is that is that at least we are planning for it and having some expectation will allow us to address that and that's going on."
However, Mullen reiterated, "Can I 100 percent be certain that won't destabilize Pakistan? I don't know the answer to that. I don't think it will, because we are aware of it and Pakistan is further away from being totally destabilized than a lot of people realize."
"The military and civilian leadership recognizes this potential and so we are addressing it ahead of time," he added.