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U.S. Policymakers See Potential Shift in Afghanistan

November 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Gwen Ifill speaks with policymakers about the American response to President Karzai's victory this week.

JIM LEHRER: And now Gwen Ifill examines the American response to the Karzai victory.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama said he would not decide whether to send more troops to Afghanistan until the election was over. Now that it is, will a Karzai presidency make that task easier or more difficult?

For that, we turn to Congressman James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who’s called for the U.S. to ramp down its military presence in Afghanistan, and James Dobbins, career diplomat who was a top — the top U.S. official at the international conference that installed Karzai as president in 2002.

He thinks the U.S. military presence should be increased.

Welcome to you, both.

REP. JIM MCGOVERN, D-Mass.: Thank you.

Congressman McGovern, what is your initial reaction to the reinstatement, I guess we can call it, of President Karzai?

REP. JIM MCGOVERN: Well, President Karzai won by default.

You know, this — this whole election process was deeply flawed. We’re told by Peter Galbraith that at least 30 percent of Karzai’s vote was fraudulent.

And, you know, this is the guy that we’re going to rally behind? I mean, do we really think that there can be a happy ending with this man, who has been there now for almost eight years? And corruption is not something new. Corruption has been a problem for all the time he’s been there.

And, in the New York Times dispatch that just came out, he was asked if dealing with corruption might involve changing important ministers and officials, because as — you know that some of the people he’s appointed are of questionable character, his response was, these problems cannot be solved by changing high-ranking officials. We will review the laws and see what problems there are in the laws.

I don’t believe he’s serious about changing the character of his government. And — and I, quite, frankly am very, very concerned about the future of our policy.

GWEN IFILL: James Dobbins, you — not only Mr. McGovern, but also at least 50 of his colleagues agree with him in the House, that this is — this is something the U.S. should be pulling itself out of.

What do you think, in the wake of the election results?

Debating Karzai's legitimacy

James Dobbins
RAND Corporation
There's not a single member of Congress or American president who would get 48 percent of the vote if he was running against 25 other opponents.

JAMES DOBBINS, director, International Security and Defense Policy Center, RAND Corporation: Well, I think that pressure on President Karzai to make reforms and to take a more vigorous role in limiting corruption is entirely appropriate. And I think that it's quite usual for the Congress to play a bad cop role and the administration to play a good cop role, the administration sort of providing positive reinforcement, the Congress branding the stick.

So, I think, from a standpoint of getting Karzai's attention and getting action, this is, up to a degree, useful. I think the election was certainly a setback in terms of the manner in which it was conducted, but even after allowing for the fact that -- even after disallowing the votes that were found to be fraudulent, Karzai got 48 percent of the vote in the first round in a field of 25 candidates.

There's not a single member of Congress or American president who would get 48 percent of the vote if he was running against 25 other opponents.

GWEN IFILL: So, he's as legitimate in your opinion as you can be in this setting?

JAMES DOBBINS: You know, Afghanistan is not surrounded by Italy, France, Germany, and Austria. It's surrounded by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Iran. How many of those have legitimate governments? They don't even have elections.

He -- he was in an election in which there were 25 candidates. There was some fraud. The fraud was met and dealt with by an internationally mandated commission. And he still got a very substantial vote and would have almost certainly run on a second round, if Abdullah hadn't pulled out.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman, you heard President Karzai say today that his goal is to remove the stigma and -- and, at the same time, to reach out to the Taliban, that he has no real opposition party against him.

Do you think he's capable of doing that?

Election was a 'joke'

Rep. Jim McGovern
This is the government that, quite frankly, is the government that the U.S. pushed for. And -- and it's corrupt. And it's incompetent.

REP. JIM MCGOVERN: Look it, I don't know. But let me just say that, after eight years -- that's long this war has been going on -- billions and billions of U.S. dollars, we have lost, you know, countless civilians, and we have lost, you know, thousands of American lives, this is the best that we can get, a president of a country who is now being installed by default?

By all accounts, the election was not only a setback, but it was a joke. And, you know, is this where -- is this where we're going to put all our money? Our men and women are going to die for this?

This is a country, Gwen, that it is not accustomed to a centralized government. This is the government that, quite frankly, is the government that the U.S. pushed for. And -- and it's corrupt. And it's incompetent.

And I -- you know, and I think we have to think twice before pouring more money into -- into this system. And I certainly do not believe that, by expanding our military footprint there, we're going to accomplish anything.

By all accounts, by establishing the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan, we are actually helping the Taliban get recruits. I think we need to move in a very different direction. Our original mission was to go after al-Qaida. Al-Qaida has now moved to Pakistan.

We're told by General Jones that there are less than 100 members of al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Do we need 100,000-plus American troops to go after less than 100,000 members of al-Qaida? We need to rethink this policy and -- and reevaluate what we're doing.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Dobbins, does the outcome of this election, even if, say, for instance, it had gone -- run its natural course and, for some reason, Abdullah Abdullah had won, would it have changed what the president's decision-making should be about what to do as far as troops go?

Election complicates Obama's choice

James Dobbins
RAND Corporation
The irregularities in the election definitely make the president's decision more difficult.

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think that the irregularities in the election definitely make the president's decision more difficult.

And assuming he makes a decision to McChrystal some or all of what he asked for, it will make that decision more controversial. I don't know that, logically, it should change the nature of that decision.

After all, we didn't invade Afghanistan for the benefit of the Afghans. We invaded Afghanistan for the benefit of the Americans, because of the attack on 9/11. And we have not stayed there for the benefit of the Afghans.

We have stayed there for the benefit of Americans, because we don't want future attacks to be launched by -- from Afghanistan or from neighboring societies, all of whom would be radicalized if Afghanistan plunges back into widespread civil war.

GWEN IFILL: The congressman says the focus should be on Pakistan, not Afghanistan, if that's the goal.

JAMES DOBBINS: I -- I think that Pakistan deserves a greater focus than we have given it. I think it was neglected for many years. And I think it's appropriate that a good deal more assistance and a good deal more effort be put into Pakistan.

But I don't think that means ignoring Afghanistan. The border is porous. The terrorists will go back and forth wherever they're under least pressure. The last thing we want to do is succeed in Afghanistan and just have them all come back and take over -- rather, succeed in Pakistan, just to have them all take over Afghanistan again.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman, are you indeed, as Mr. Dobbins suggested, the bad cop here, you and others who have criticized Hamid Karzai, including the envoy to the region, and even the vice president?

Defining a clear mission

Rep. Jim McGovern
At what point does our military contribution to the political solution in Afghanistan come to an end and we can bring our troops home?

REP. JIM MCGOVERN: Look it, I don't know if I'm the bad cop.

I -- what I'm trying to do is call it as I see it. And what I see here is the United States getting sucked into a situation, into a war that has no end. You know, I have repeatedly called for an exit strategy with regard to our military.

You know, I believe, if you're going to go to war, you should have a clearly defined mission. I don't think we have a clearly defined mission in Afghanistan. A clearly defined mission is a beginning, a middle, a transition period, and an end.

You know, I have asked repeatedly, at what point does our military contribution to the political solution in Afghanistan come to an end and we can bring our troops home? I'm not looking for a date certain, but I would like someone to tell me how this all has a happy ending.

I mean, look it, our mission in Afghanistan is very different than it was when Congress authorized the use of force against al-Qaida after 2001. We have not -- this whole -- this mission is very, very different. We should have a thorough debate on this. I think the policy should be reevaluated in its entirety.

And I think it would be a huge mistake to expand our military footprint there. I think it would be -- and especially in the aftermath of this election. I don't want our Americans dying for a government that is corrupt and incompetent and that stuffs ballot boxes.

GWEN IFILL: Is the mission different, Mr. Dobbins?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think -- I think the mission has always been, from the moment that the Taliban was toppled, to try to leave behind a government capable of controlling its territory and denying it to extremists who would plot against the United States and other countries of importance to us. That has been the mission from the beginning.

The mission was grossly under-resourced over the early years. And it's only been in the last year or two that we have devoted the kind of attention to this mission that it justifies, given its importance.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we will be devoting more attention to it as time goes on.

James Dobbins, Congressman Jim McGovern, thank you both very much.