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Here’s a transcript of an interview with Senator John Kerry on US policy in Afghanistan from the PBS news show The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Margaret Warner conducted the interview on October 26 with the influential Democrat after he had delivered a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.
Some pundits have suggested that Kerry, who chairs the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, is ‘running cover’ for President Barack Obama in case the President decides not to meet General Stanley McChrystal’s demand to send more troops to Afghanistan.
Warner: Senator Kerry, thanks for joining us. You said in your speech today that General McChrystal’s plan goes too far too fast. Are you talking about the troop levels or his basic overall strategy of counter insurgence.
Kerry: The breadth of the reach of the counter insurgency that he wants to start with that the numbers of troops can do it immediately. That doesn’t mean you might not get there ultimately, Margaret, but I think you’ve got to show people like me and others that we have the civilian capacity to come in underneath those troops and the governance that’s going to allow us to hold on and the Afghan army members who will be in there with you so it’s not an American face, it’s an Afghan movement immediately. I think those three ingredients are critical and we just don’t have that sufficiently there to say, oh boy, let’s just go deploy this number of troops now.
Warner: So are you suggesting to the President’s recently deferred decision on additional troops?
Kerry: No, I think the President could uh conceivably make the decision, uh with and in many ways he could put in some troops, he could put in a lot of troops. He could do you know any number of options. What I’m trying to suggest that the standard that you use before you put them out into combat and clear an area and start to hold an area, and, and actually implement the counter insurgency component itself, I think you need those ingredients or you’re going to fail.
Warner: But the ingredients you lay out, I mean some kind, some kind of effective local and national governance, Afghan security forces, a much better coordinated U.S. civilian effort. I mean those are big projects, aren’t they?
Kerry: Well, then if you don’t, they don’t have to be that enormous, no. I don’t, I don’t agree with that. For instance, the local governance, you’ve got to identify a district governor or a province governor who knows who the players are, have authority in the tribe, or authority in a particular community, and that they’re wiling to be with you so that if indeed you send your troops in there to clear the bad guys out, those guys will have local authority to begin to help to distribute the services and do the things you need to do rather than an American face, and American soldier trying to translate to people through a translator, this is why we’re here and this is what we’re doing. You want an Afghan face on that. They’ve got to invest in this. On the, on the, on the civilian piece of what you need to come in with underneath there, to some degree the military can take care of part of that. They can use certain funding that we have available, pay people simply to give up their guns and come over, but you’ve got to pretty quickly have something for them to do, you’ve got to pretty quickly begin to engage them in uh, you know open up some kind of commerce and the other kinds of things you need to have sustainability. Uh, otherwise you get into trouble. So I, I want to speed that. I doesn’t mean you don’t deploy some troops. But before you tell them go in and clean out this province, you want to have identified what’s coming in underneath, who’s going in with us on the Afghan army, how many, in what role and who’s going to manage this from an Afghan point of view after it’s done. So those are the important things.
Warner: Let me see if I can understand that what you’re suggesting that President Obama should do right now, in other words he’s got a pending troop request for, if reports are to believed anywhere from 10 to 40 or way more thousands of troops. In the next three to four weeks and you’ve got an Afghan election coming up, how are you suggesting the President calibrate his response to that request?
Kerry: Well by, I very respectfully would suggest to him that they make the kinds of judgments that I laid out in the speech I gave today, uh about how much they feel they can commit at this moment in the relative weight of what we need to do in Pakistan versus what we need to do in Afghanistan, versus what we need to do potentially with Iran, with North Korea with you know other, you know other challenges in the world, balance all of that and then specifically define what, that what, what is it that would have the most impact on advancing our efforts in Afghanistan, that we can accomplish in the, in the least costly, most effective way to start with? See what works. Prove that you can make that difference and as you prove it, you can establish confidence not just in Afghanistan but here at home about further commitments. If you rush in with too many people too quickly, without having the support structure there that they need to make it sustainable, we’re asking for uh, the undermining of our own effort and that’s what I want to avoid.
Warner: So are you saying that if the benchmarks were met then you wouldn’t have any problem with 40,000 additional troops?
Kerry: Aw, it depends again as I said, I think the strategy is reaching a little too far too fast. I want to see these done, the benchmarks met and the process put in place in a way that we can measure so that we have confidence about where we’re going in the future. I would rather not start with 40. I clearly believe we can do with less to begin with and that we can be effective because we have so many troops who just went in there. We’ve tripled the numbers of troops already, and we need to demand more from some of our allies. I do not want this to become such a significantly American effort and we have a right to expect more from those NATO countries that just signed up for this.
Warner: And how you do think the upcoming Afghan election should play into that in terms of for the President, both for the way it’s conducted and the outcome?
Kerry: Well obviously uh we’ve got to have a government with legitimacy. I mean that’s been very critical. That’s one of the things that I thought was so important in the work we did uh, you know a week or so ago, uh which was to try to make sure we had the opportunity to have that government, cause if you didn’t, you’re really in trouble to begin with. I think we’ll come out of there with a government of legitimacy. And then the issue is, how do we get the reforms in place rapidly enough to begin to give people an assurance that business is going to be different in Afghanistan?
Warner: Do you think that the President should use the troop request in a way as leverage with, whether it’s Karzai or Abdullah Abdullah to extract certain commitments?
Kerry: Should use the request?
Warner: Well no, . . .
Kerry: I think the President should absolutely uh leverage the, the significance of America’s participation in what it means to the President and to Afghanistan to achieve a level of sustainability to the effort, of course. Yes, I think he has every right in the world to anticipate that our commitment to do something is going to get their commitment to do something. If you can’t do that, that’s the basics of diplomacy and of friendship, we’re in trouble.
Q: You said that you believe based on your many, many hours with President Karzai just 10 days ago, a week ago, that he is ready to make some changes if reelected. I mean can you tell us well what did he actually say that led you to believe that he understands he’s got a corruption problem, a governance problem and he’s ready to take some tough . . .
Kerry: Well he, he understands absolutely that there are individuals who engage in uh, you know different kinds of behavior that is uh contrary to his interests and to the interests of the country. I think he understands that and, and the question now is identifying them and identifying you know good people who can take their place that he has confidence in and is willing to make that change. Part of the test here what the President, President Obama ought to do will be President Karzai’s response to those needs. If President Karzai tries to stiff the President and the United States on those kinds of changes, I would be very reluctant to say hey, let’s put more troops in here so we can get diddled around by these guys. I, I think that we’ve got to be very smart.
Warner: There were two, this has been a bloody weekend both in Iraq and Afghanistan. I want to ask you whether you think that there’s anything that could happen in Iraq that would slow down our withdrawal there to the point that it would affect the ability to ramp up in Afghanistan as the President may or may not decide to do?
Kerry: Uh, could something happen, the answer is yes. Do I expect it to happen? I think probably not. Uh, because I believe the vast majority of Iraqis would like to see us go. And that is because I think the unsettled differences of Iraq have parties on all sides that kind of feel they’d like to get to the next step which is fighting about it among themselves without us. So I think that you’re going to see some bombs go off. You will see some violence. Now there’s not a lot that one can do to prevent one individual or two who want to blow themselves up, from hurting people.
Warner: And then of course in Afghanistan today, 14 Americans that we know of have already lost their lives today. American public opinion is already barely 50-50 on the question of our engagement there. How long do you think the President with whatever strategy he decides can actually hold on to even that level of support as these casualties mount?
Kerry: Only so long as we are actually demonstrating that we’re having a positive impact and that we’re making progress. Which is one of the reasons why I define the kinds of measurements that I thought today ought to be laid out there. If you can’t maximize, I mean if you’re going to ask some kid to put his life on the line, and you’re going to do it and, and talk to those parents and look them in the eye if something terrible happens, I think we all have an obligation to make certain we have maximized the ability to be successful. That means you’ve got to do things I’ve talked about. Can you try to stumble ahead without some of those things? Yes, but does that empower you to be able to say we did everything possible to prevent this? No. And I think we have an obligation to maximize success. When you send young people into harm’s way, you owe them a strategy that’s equal to their sacrifice. And the only strategy I can see that is, is one that is comprehensive and tries to get the job done to the best of our ability.
Warner: And you don’t think we have that now.
Kerry: I don’t believe we have that. I think we have the capacity for it, but I don’t think we actually have it in place and functioning today, no.
Warner: Senator Kerry, thank you.
Kerry: Thank you.
Photo: A U.S. soldier from the Stryker Brigade patrols in Kandahar city October 26, 2009. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani.