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Afghan Election Further Complicates Efforts to Shape Military Strategy

September 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the White House works to revamp U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., assess the call for more troops, the role of the Afghan election and a shift in U.S. public opinion on the war.

JEFFREY BROWN: Against that backdrop, President Obama held a strategy session this afternoon with Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, Defense Secretary Gates, and General Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command.

And we have our own session now with Senators Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, a Republican on that committee.

Senator Levin, it’s been reported that General McChrystal is telling the president that he needs more forces or the conflict, quote, “will likely result in failure.” What would you tell the president?

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich.: That it’s important that we succeed. I think most of us believe it is important, but that we should focus first on the strategy.

What General McChrystal said repeatedly in that report is, don’t just focus on forces. First, decide on strategy. He’s repeatedly made that point, although it doesn’t seem to come through in the media very well. Don’t just concentrate on how many more troops you might need. Focus on what is the correct strategy for success.

And I believe that the resources that are most needed there will be major increases in the size of the Afghan army earlier, an equipment surge for the Afghan army. We ought to be having a plan, which we yet don’t have, to transfer significant equipment from Iraq to the Afghan army to help them succeed. We ought to help them with logistics.

We also ought to help or devise a plan with the Afghans to reintegrate some of those lower-level Taliban folks, just the way the Iraqi Sunnis were reintegrated into that effort so that they became basically on our side instead of on the insurgent’s side.

Now, all that needs to be done. I believe it would show a real commitment to succeed in Afghanistan. But I would not at this time commit to additional combat forces, because there’s a huge downside there, which is the increased combat footprint would play into the hands of the Taliban that would love to make it appear as though we are the ones who are taking over Afghanistan, that we want to dominate Afghanistan, instead of what we should be doing, which is to help the Afghan army particularly, which is a well-respected institution, get much stronger, much faster.

'A troublesome election'

Sen. Carl Levin
(D) Michigan
That was an election which was supposed to go smoothly when the strategy was first put in hasn't, and that complicates the strategy.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask Senator Chambliss. What would you be telling the president about troops, if that's what he -- if General McChrystal is asking for them, and about what Senator Levin just said, about helping support the Afghan forces?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS, R-Ga.: Well, Jeff, I would tell him that he needs to listen to his commanders on the ground. He's got very good military minds in place, with Admiral Mullen, with General Petraeus, General Odierno in Iraq, and now General McChrystal in Afghanistan.

And he's put them in the right positions. He obviously has a lot of confidence in them. And if General McChrystal says that we need to devise a strategy that's different from what we're doing right now and if we're going to be successful with that strategy, we need more troops, I think it's incumbent on the president to put the kind of faith in his commanding generals to go ahead and authorize additional troops.

And I do agree with Carl that just putting troops out there is not going to guarantee success. General McChrystal has been very clear about that in his report.

But he does say that it is going to require more troops to train Afghans. We've got some difficult pockets of the Taliban in Afghanistan that have got to be uprooted, much like we did in Ramadi and Diyala and other provinces in Iraq.

And we're going to have to do that ultimately to be successful militarily. But just sending more troops is not going to do it. But if General McChrystal says he's got to have more troops with the new strategy in place, then I think we're going to have to send more troops to him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask Senator Levin, how much is Hamid Karzai and the election a complicating factor in the decision as to the American commitment here? How do you make the link between the political situation there and the military situation?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, it obviously complicates it. And one of the reasons why the president wants to take some additional time is to hear not just from General McChrystal about the impact of that election, but also from others on that question.

That was an election which was supposed to go smoothly when the strategy was first put in place back in March. They assumed that the election would go smoothly. It hasn't, and that complicates the strategy.

And it is important to listen to the commander in the field, and including on what is the effect of an election which was marked by significant fraud, on what steps we should now be taking.

But in addition to listening to General McChrystal, which is important, he ought to be listening to his commander, General Petraeus. He ought to be listening to their commander, Admiral Mullen, who's the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and, of course, ultimately, to the secretary of defense.

These are important people in the chain of command. They all deserve to be heard very carefully by the president. Prior to the decision in Iraq to send additional combat forces, there was a three-month debate inside of the Bush administration.

So when the president wants to take some weeks here to take a look at this strategy following that election that you referred to, which is a troublesome election, I think we should not begrudge the president that kind of time and consideration.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Senator Chambliss, how do you factor in the Karzai -- the election? Is there a point, for example, where we might have to say that this election lacked legitimacy to the point where President Karzai might have to step aside if the U.S. is to up the ante, in terms of forces?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, certainly, I think that would be difficult for us to do. The presumption is that the Iraqi people had the opportunity -- or, excuse me, the Afghan people had the opportunity to go out and vote. We know for a fact that it didn't go like it should have. It was not a free and open election.

But beyond that, this government of Karzai is just so corrupt. And the corruptness has got to be cleared up at the end of the day in order for there to be any confidence on the part of the Iraqi people that there's going to be stability there.

You have to remember, though, that when the surge was initiated in Iraq, the Maliki government was not very stable. We didn't have the corruptness there that we see in Afghanistan. But the government itself was not particularly steady.

Once we had the security of the country in place, then all of a sudden you saw the Iraqi people get on board with our troops, get on board with our philosophy, get on board with the Maliki government, and we've seen much more stability in the government of Iraq.

Until we have security in Afghanistan, I just doubt that you're going to see any confidence in the Karzai government. And at some point, we're going to have to root out that corruptness. Otherwise, it's going to be doomed to failure.

Public opinion v. national security

Sen. Saxby Chambliss
(R) Georgia
That is going to be a very difficult decision that certainly should have some public opinion involvement. But at the end of the day, it's got to be, what is the right decision for national security purposes?

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you both -- I'll start with you, Senator Chambliss -- because I mentioned in the setup that there is this drop in public support. How much of a factor do you think that should be or will be for the president or for you in Congress as you think about this going forward?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, I dare say that Carl and I have any disagreement over the fact that the most difficult decision we ever have to make is to send our young men and women into harm's way, and that is something that the president needs to weigh very heavily.

Public opinion is important. But at the end of the day, you've got to do the right thing. We've got to make sure that we don't give al-Qaida the opportunity to expand an area of the world in which to train individuals to kill and harm Americans, much like we saw recently here in the United States, what you just reported on in the Philippines, and what we've seen in other parts of the world.

And the way that we're going to be able to succeed in not giving them that territory in which to train terrorists is to root them out of Afghanistan. And that is going to be a very difficult decision that certainly should have some public opinion involvement. But at the end of the day, it's got to be, what is the right decision for national security purposes?

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Senator Levin, in our last minute, what do you make of the drop in public support and the factor it plays?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I agree with Senator Chambliss that, while you would need public opinion to sustain an effort like this, ultimately, this is a very heavy decision which must fall on the president who's going to do the right thing for the security of this country.

I have great confidence that he'll do that. And he'll need and he deserves the kind of time and open advice that he can get, in addition to his commander in the field, which he obviously will put great reliance on, but also the other advisers that he has.

It's a heavy, heavy decision for the president. And I think the people who are trying to press him to make a decision immediately rather than to take the weeks or the month, whatever it will take, to reach the right decision are making a mistake. He deserves the freedom to think through this because of the implications for our security and for the young men and women that wear our uniform.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Senators Carl Levin and Saxby Chambliss, thank you both very much.