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Joint Chiefs Chairman: Quit Talking, Start Demonstrating U.S. Benevolence

The head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told military members on Friday that Muslims abroad live in fear of terror but at the same time doubt the United States -- with its feeble message development -- will live up to its pledge to help them. 

Adm. Mike Mullen said that "strategic communication" is doing nothing to improve the image of the United States in the Muslim world because Muslims don't hear "talking points."

"Our biggest problem isn't caves, it's credibility," Mullen said in a message for the Armed Forces appearing in Joint Forces Quarterly, the chairman's journal on security and military studies published by the National Defense University Press.

He said Al Qaeda resides not in caves, but among the Muslim world, and suggested the terror network intimidates, controls and communicates with Muslim people "from within," and isn't "just out there shooting videos" to make its point. 

"They deliver. Want to know what happens if somebody violates their view of Sharia law? You don't have to look very far or very long. Each beheading, each bombing, and each beating sends a powerful message or, rather, is a powerful message," Mullen said

Mullen added that even when the Afghan government fails to provide services, the Taliban never does.

"Got a governance problem? The Taliban is getting pretty effective at it. They've set up functional courts in some locations, assess and collect taxes, and even allow people to file formal complaints against local Talib leaders. Part of the Taliban plan to win over the people in Swat was to help the poor or displaced own land," Mullen said of the Pakistani valley where the Taliban holds ground.

Mullen's critique is very unusual for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his discussion of strategic communication, a burgeoning "cottage industry" as he put it, is not something the Armed Services chiefs typically weigh in on. 

The chairman's remarks come as the Defense Department awaits a strategic review of U.S. actions in Afghanistan, where fighting is growing increasingly violent. The U.S. military has lost more troops in July and August of this year than any other time since entering the country after Sept. 11, 2001.

Mullen said he is continuously asked by Afghans on the ground whether America is committed to helping them, and whether the U.S. will stand by their side. He said despite his reassurances, the believability level hasn't reached "Year Zero."

"Our messages lack credibility because we haven't invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven't always delivered on promises," he added.

A spokesman for the chairman said Mullen's commentary is "not so much a 'criticism' as it is an effort to steer the effort in a new direction."

Mullen said the United States relies too heavily on message development, and doesn't match its words with its examples. Citing examples like the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II and U.S. aid after natural disasters, Mullen said strategic communication is no substitute for action. 

"Each time we fail to live up to our values or don't follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are," he said.

Saying that he tweets daily so he understands the value of communication, Mullen suggested relying less on message development. 

"We've come to believe that messages are something we can launch downrange like a rocket, something we can fire for effect.  They are not," he said. "Strategic communication should be an enabling function that guides and informs our decisions and not an organization unto itself."

Mullen said the Muslim community is "a subtle world" that demands appreciation. The U.S. must demonstrate that appreciation if it wishes to succeed at supplanting the "extremist narrative."

"We cannot capture hearts and minds. We must engage them; we must listen to them,one heart and one mind at a time-over time. What we need more than anything is credibility.  And we can't get that in a talking point."