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Kerry: Afghan Troop Push Goes ‘Too Far, Too Fast’

October 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Margaret Warner speaks with Sen. John Kerry about his recent trip to Afghanistan to persuade President Hamid Karzai to accept a runoff election.

JIM LEHRER: That follows our newsmaker interview with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry. He just returned from Afghanistan, where he helped persuade President Karzai to accept a runoff election.

Margaret Warner spoke to Kerry today after he laid out his recommendations on Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Kerry, thanks for joining us.

MARGARET WARNER: 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 counterinsurgency?

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass.: The breadth of the reach of the counterinsurgency that he wants to start with and the number of troops to do it immediately. That doesn’t mean you might not get there, ultimately, Margaret.

But I think you have got to show people like me and others that we have the civilian capacity to come in under 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.

MARGARET WARNER: So, are you suggesting to the president that he simply defer a decision on additional troops? Are you…

SEN. JOHN KERRY: No, I think the president could conceivably make the decision 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.

But 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 actually implement the counterinsurgency component itself, I think you need those ingredients, or you are going to fail.

MARGARET WARNER: But the ingredients you lay out, 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?

Establishing an Afghan face

Sen. John Kerry
You have got to identify a district governor or a province governor who knows who the players are who have authority in a tribe or authority in a particular community, and that they are willing to be with you.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, then, if you don't willing to -- they don't have to be that enormous, no. I don't -- I don't agree with that.

For instance, the local governance, you have got to identify a district governor or a province governor who knows who the players are who have authority in a tribe or authority in a particular community, and that they are willing 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, an American soldier trying to translate to people through a translator, this is why we are here and this is what we are doing.

You want an Afghan face on that. They have 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 have got to pretty quickly have something for them to do. You have got to pretty quickly begin to engage them in, you know, opening up some kind of commerce and the other kinds of things you need to have sustainability.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me see if I understand, though, what you are suggesting that President Obama should do right now. In other words, he's got a pending troop request for, if reports are to be believed, anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000, or way more, thousands of troops.

In the next three to four weeks -- and you have got an Afghan election coming up -- how you are suggesting the president calibrate his response to that request?

SEN. JOHN 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 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, to 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 the undermining of our own effort.

And that's what I want to avoid.

MARGARET WARNER: So, are you saying that, if the benchmarks were met, then you wouldn't have any problem with 40,000 additional troops?

Meetings with Karzai

Sen. John Kerry
He understands, absolutely, that there are individuals who engage in, you know, different kinds of behavior that is contrary to his interests and to the interests of the country.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: 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 we have confidence about where we are going in the future.

I would rather not start with the 40. I clearly believe we can do with less to -- to begin with, and that we can be effective, because we have so many troops we have just put in there. We have 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 to this.

MARGARET WARNER: And how do you think the upcoming Afghan election should play into that, in terms of for the president, both the way it's conducted and the outcome?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, obviously, we have got to have a government with legitimacy. I mean, that's very critical. And that's one of the things that I thought was so important in the work we did, you know, a week or so ago, which was to try to make sure we had the opportunity to have that government, because, if you didn't, you're -- you're really in trouble to begin with.

I think we will 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?

MARGARET 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?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Should use the request?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, no. Should use his decision.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: I think he should -- well, I think the president should absolutely leverage the -- the significance of America's participation and 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.

MARGARET WARNER: 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 he is reelected.

I mean, can you tell us more? 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 political moves?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, he was very direct about it. He understands, absolutely, that there are individuals who engage in, you know, different kinds of behavior that is 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 think that we have got to be very smart.

Moving forward in Afghanistan

Sen. John Kerry
If are you going to ask some kid to put his life on the line...I think we all have an obligation to make certain we have maximized the ability to be successful.

MARGARET WARNER: This has been a bloody weekend, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. I want to ask you whether you think that there is 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.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Could something happen? The answer is yes. Do I expect it to happen? I think probably not, because I believe the vast majority of the 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 would like to get to the next step, which is fighting about it among themselves without us. So, I think that you are going to see some bombs go off. You will see some violence. There is not a lot that one can do to prevent one individual or two who want to blow themselves up from hurting people.

MARGARET 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?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Only so long as we are actually demonstrating that we're having a positive impact and that we are making progress, which is one of the reasons why I defined the kinds of measurements that I thought today ought to be laid out there.

If you can't maximize -- I mean, if are you going to ask some kid to put his life on the line, and you are going to do it 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 have got to do the things I 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 away, 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.

MARGARET WARNER: And you don't think we have that now?

SEN. JOHN 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.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Kerry, thank you.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Thank you.