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Afghan Stability Still Elusive as U.S. Grapples With Exit Strategy

June 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Is the long-running effort to stabilize Afghanistan doing more harm than good? A new Senate investigation reveals a grim outlook for U.S. nation-building efforts there. Judy Woodruff gets views from Sens. Robert Menendez, D- N.J., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on Afghanistan, we get the views of two senators.

New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez is on the Foreign Relations Committee. And Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss is on the Armed Services Committee. That panel will take u Afghanistan tomorrow at the confirmation hearing for defense secretary-designate Leon Panetta.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS, R-Ga.: Sure.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ, D-N.J.: Good to be with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Menendez, let me begin with you.

The views we heard today on your — the Foreign Relations Committee skeptical on both sides of the aisle about the course the U.S. is pursuing in Afghanistan. How do you see this argument?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, I’m extremely skeptical — $19 billion over the last eight years, very little to show for it.

I’m not sure that we have a reliable partner in the Karzai government, especially when what we’re in is a counterinsurgency effort, which means that we are fighting insurgents to try to give the government of Afghanistan the ability to stand up on its own, defend itself, governor itself, and that counterinsurgency effort is costing us $10 billion a month.

I have to be honest with you. When I look at the statistics of a 50 to 100 al-Qaida fighters that may exist in Afghanistan, it seems to me that we have the wrong mission at this time with a government that even calls us an occupying force. So, I have a much different vision as to what we should be doing there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Senator Chambliss, you are going to be looking at this tomorrow with the confirmation hearing for Mr. Panetta to the Defense Department. How do you see the course the U.S. is following?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, Judy, we have been there 10 years, and you would like to think that there has been more progress than what we have seen on the ground.

But the fact is that some movement has been made. When we first entered Afghanistan 10 years ago, there were about 900,000 children being educated there. One hundred percent of them were males. Today, there are several million in their schools, thanks to USAID, and 50 percent of them are females.

We made progress militarily, particularly under the leadership of David — David Petraeus recently, particularly in the south and in the east. And we have got to be very careful about the size of the troop force that we pull out, because we don’t want to give up what we have gained. And we have to remember, too, Judy, that you can’t decouple Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While there are not a lot of al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan, they do traverse back and forth across the border. There are a lot of them in Pakistan. And we know that that’s where the training is taking place. And that’s why it’s very important that we look at both these countries.

And that’s why Ryan Crocker’s appointment as the ambassador to Afghanistan is of great significance. He’s been the ambassador to Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Senator Menendez, given what Senator Chambliss is saying and given what this committee, Democratic staff committee, report said about the — frankly, that was critical about what aid money has accomplished, what — what are your specific concerns at this point?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, when I asked Ambassador Crocker, who I think is a great nominee — and I will be supportive of his nomination — but when I asked him, so, for $19 billion, cause we are all — fiduciary responsibilities to the taxpayers of this country — what have we gotten?

And he mentioned the same statistics about education, which I agree. But I looked at the figure on that. That’s a little over $300 million of the $19 billion. When I look at the Karzai government, which I think generally is understood to be incredibly corrupt, it looks to me that we are creating a dependency that, not only is there a dependency, but the sustainability of such an engagement in nation-building and Afghanistan just isn’t, I don’t think, in the national interest of the United States.

Now, I think you could do more of a counterterrorism effort, where you are striking at al-Qaida and along the Afghan/Pakistan border, even striking at the Taliban to just to continue destabilize them, so that you can continue to give the Karzai government an ability to build.

But a country that has a trillion dollars in natural deposits of minerals of great value, it seems to me that they should be doing that exploration, paying for their own future, standing up for their own freedom.

And, at the end of the day, let’s focus on what I believe is our national security concern, which is continuing to strike at al-Qaida and disrupting the Taliban, so that they’re not an entity to give them cover.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Chambliss, it sounds as if Sen. Menendez is saying — I mean, you just heard him. It sounds as if he’s saying that all this money that has been spent on aid, that, really, only on a small portion of it is making a difference, and it has — and, in his words, creating a culture of dependency on the part of the Afghans.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, first of all, Bob’s concerns are very legitimate. His questions are right on target today to Ambassador Crocker.

But I think what we have to remember is that this government has been a very corrupt government from day one. And I don’t know how you measure improvement in corruption. It’s — it’s — pretty foreign to any American citizen, but the fact is that there still is a lot of corruption over there.

And if we’re going to continue to send money, we have got to see signs of improvement in that arena, from a governmental standpoint and from an anti-corruption standpoint, in addition to the issue on the military side.

Bob makes a good point about carrying out counterterrorism operations, but the fact is that we’re never going to defeat the Taliban unless we have got boots on the ground. And Gen. Petraeus will be very quick to say that.

If I were the president, what I would be doing would be listening very, very closely to Ambassador Crocker, as well as to Gen. Petraeus over the next couple of weeks as he makes this decision on troop withdrawal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, before we get to the troop question, Senator Menendez, what about Mr. Crocker, Ambassador Crocker’s statement today? He said — he said — he said, the U.S. goal in Afghanistan is merely to create good enough government. He said, it doesn’t — he said, we’re not after a model democracy there.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, Judy, I agree we’re not after a model democracy, but we’re not at anywhere near a government that is a — in my perspective, an honest partner.

How much more money will the United States’ taxpayers have to spend to get the type of government that even Ambassador Crocker talked about? We’re talking about, in this upcoming budget, looking at another $3 billion, in addition to the $19 billion just on the side of assistance. That’s beyond the $10 billion a month in our counterinsurgency effort.

So, it just seems to me that there must be a different way. And if our national interests and our national security is in striking against al-Qaida and disrupting the Taliban, I’m not sure that we have to continue to spend these enormous amounts of money to prop up the Karzai government.

And I find it very difficult to send the sons and daughters of America to fight in Afghanistan, when you have the supposed person who we’re propping up, at the cost of billions of dollars, saying that we’re an occupying force.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Chambliss, what about that? And let me just tack on to that what President Obama said yesterday. In effect, he said, with the killing of Osama bin Laden, he said — quote — “It’s now time for the U.S. to recognize that a big chunk of our mission is accomplished and it’s time for the Afghans to take more responsibility.”

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: And they’re doing that every day.

Again, Gen. Petraeus is providing the right kind of leadership. And as part of that leadership, he is making sure that the Afghan national army continues to be built up from a force structure standpoint, and that they also continue to take over the various parts of Afghanistan, much like what we did in Iraq.

Are they doing everything they ought to do? No. Are they still a very corrupt and inept government? I think, certainly, they are. And I’m not sure what the answer to that is. That’s why you have people like Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus that you have to rely on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then, Sen. Menendez, by contrast, you have the statement today or in the last day or so by Secretary Gates, outgoing Secretary Gates, urging a more measured approach.

He said, as important as it was in Iraq to have a strategy behind the numbers, he said not just pluck a single number out. He’s talking about the number of troops, as the U.S. thinks about when and how to exit.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, I believe that, in changing our strategy from a counterinsurgency to a counterterrorism strategy, that we would need far less troops on the ground. We wouldn’t be pumping in billions of dollars into propping up the Karzai government.

We could have the Afghans go explore their trillion dollars of natural resources that exist in Afghanistan, and we would save a lot of American lives, while still pursuing the national security interest of the United States. I think that’s the strategy.

Now, there may be those who disagree with that strategy, but I think the American people are more of the view that they have spent enough of their money in Afghanistan, especially with a government that is both corrupt, that is not a good partner in our opportunities to try to create an Afghan government that can sustain itself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a brief final word from you, Sen. Chambliss?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, Judy, it’s — it is a very complex country. It’s a country that has a literacy rate of about 20 percent. That’s why the education of the children over there is so important.

They have been fighting wars for 30 years, instead of educating their children. We have got to make sure that we don’t leave Afghanistan as a country that is a safe haven for terrorists who get up every morning and train in ways that they intend to kill and harm Americans domestically, as they did on Sept. 11, or in some other way.

So, it’s very complex. And that’s why you need people like Crocker and Petraeus and others on the ground observing what’s going on, so that they can give the president, as well as the policy-makers, the absolute best advice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Sen. Robert Menendez, we thank you both.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: Thank you, Judy.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Thank you.