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ATLANTA — When Adm. Mike Mullen took the military's top job in 2007, the war in Iraq raged, Afghanistan was a relative backwater and Osama bin Laden was releasing videotapes taunting America.
Mullen, who steps down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the end of this month, has overseen a drawdown of troops in Iraq, a surge in Afghanistan and provided advice on the raid that killed the al-Qaeda terrorist leader on May 2.
"The best day on the job?" Mullen said. "I'd probably say that day."
His worst? It was Aug. 6, when insurgents shot down a Chinook helicopter, killing 30 U.S. troops.
"I get the casualty figures first thing every morning, and I read each and every one," Mullen said in an interview. "And I know right then that some family's day is going to be lot worse than mine. And I try never to forget that."
The bin Laden raid resulted from lessons learned over the past 30 years in collecting and analyzing intelligence, developing systems to transport troops and equipment in harsh terrain, and training elite commandos for counterterrorism raids, Mullen said.
"It was the culmination of who we are as a military, what we've become and what we need to be in the future," he said.
Although spies and equipment determined that bin Laden was likely living in a compound in Pakistan, Mullen said he was certain the SEALs would succeed. "I had 100 percent confidence that if bin Laden were there, it would be successful," Mullen said.
Mullen has presided at a time of significant change in the military involving not only the handling of wars but policies on gays and spending priorities, experts say.
Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, judged Mullen's four-year tenure "quite good," saying that he properly diagnosed the need to deal with Pakistan in solving Afghanistan's problems and identifying the federal debt as a national security issue. But problems with the budget and Pakistan remain, he said, and it's unclear what strategy the Pentagon has to deal with them.
Mullen advocated for a larger troop presence in Afghanistan and President Obama late in 2009 ordered troop levels raised to about 100,000. He also argued that Obama's planned reductions of troops was "more aggressive" than he had initially recommended.
Still, the counterinsurgency strategy of improving security to allow the Afghan government to provide services and gain support of the people is working, Mullen said. He pointed to security gains in Helmand province, the homeland of Taliban militants, and improvements in the performance of the 300,000-member Afghan security forces. However, the Afghan government must get better, he said.
Mullen also says he is pleased with the planned withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year — unless the U.S. and Iraqi governments agree to leave a small force in place. Four years ago, 160,000 U.S. troops fought a fierce insurgency in Iraq. There are about 45,000 there now.
There has been a drop recently in attacks with Iranian-supplied advanced rockets and roadside bombs used to killed U.S. troops, according to Mullen. He credited the Iraqi government with working to cut off the flow of those weapons.
"We've been very clear with the Iranians that we're not going to tolerate that," Mullen said. If they don't, the U.S. will take "appropriate actions," which he would not specify.
Mullen declined to say whether he thought the war has been worth the effort, adding that he'd leave that judgment to historians. Iraq, he said, has the potential to have a vibrant economy and a stable democracy.
"One of the things I've stayed out of and still stay out of is the politics," Mullen said. "I basically have never spoken to that at all."
But Mullen was asked to wade into one major political issue: the law that bars openly gay and lesbian troops from serving in the military.
Mullen testified on Capitol Hill that he supported its revocation, and his view was widely trumpeted by opponents of the law, which will expire next week. Mullen said he expects no problems, noting that 98 percent of troops will have received training on serving with gays and lesbians, and saying that the military won't "allow any harassment to take place."
Mullen attended town-hall-style meetings here and in Miami this week as he prepares for the end of a 43-year career in the military and warned of homelessness among veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Veterans Affairs Department estimates 76,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.
"I see them in environments in which they die and get wounded," he said. "Our country owes them every effort to repay that debt."