Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of the Armed Services, issued a warning to the Democratic presidential hopefuls today. The kind of rapid withdrawal from Iraq that Hillary Clinton has suggested and Barack Obama has demanded would lead to chaos and a breakdown of the gains achieved over the last year. He would carry out such an order, but cautioned against it:

The Joint Chiefs chairman has a word of warning to Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton: A rapid of withdrawal from Iraq would lead to a “chaotic situation” and would “turnaround the gains we have achieved, and struggled to achieve, and turn them around overnight.

Admiral Mullen’s comments came in a response to a question about what the Joint Chiefs are doing to prepare for a new president, given that two of the candidates have called for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.

“We need to be prepared across the board for what a new president will bring,” Mullen said. “I do worry about a rapid withdrawal. . . [that would] turn around the gains we have achieved and struggled to achieve and turn them around overnight.”

Mullen didn’t endorse an extension of the surge, either. He needs to find 4,000 trainers for Afghanistan, which simply aren’t available until some of the troops in Iraq get returned home. However, he wants that to happen rationally, without risking a breakdown in Iraq’s security that could force the US to ramp up again in the future to retake the ground already held.

Mullen found himself an unlikely ally today, as Allahpundit noted earlier, when Angelina Jolie talked about the change in Iraq’s reality since her last visit. NGOs have started expanding operations, and American soldiers want to see the mission through now that success has become much more likely. This points out the problem with Barack Obama and the rest of the Iraq war opponents: they insist on looking backwards at the decision to invade Iraq rather than the reality of what we face now.

This got highlighted in the recent exchange between Obama and John McCain. Obama said he wanted to pull our troops out of Iraq so they can fight al-Qaeda. McCain pointed out that AQ exists in Iraq, to which Obama replied that AQ wasn’t there five years ago. While that’s factually untrue — Ansaar al-Islam existed there and had aligned themselves with AQ — it’s also irrelevant. Al-Qaeda exists there now, and withdrawing before stamping them out would be an invitation for them to follow in our wake to re-establish themselves once again in western Iraq.

One candidate wants to strategize with today’s reality in mind; the other two want to base their policies on 2002’s geopolitical situation. No wonder Admiral Mullen worries about chaos.

UPDATE: Commenter MB4 correctly notes that the JCOS does not have operational command over military forces, thanks to a reorganization in 1986.  However, Mullen did say this: “When a new president comes in, I will get my orders and I will carry them out.”  That was my frame of reference for the opening paragraph.   The JCOS is tasked with ensuring force readiness, so perhaps that is what Mullen meant.