GWEN IFILL: Next: the international priorities for Congress, from Afghanistan to arms control. For that, we turn to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, and to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Kerry, welcome. Thanks for joining us.
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-Mass.): My pleasure.
MARGARET WARNER: I wanted to ask you first about Afghanistan. What did you make of the comments that President Karzai made this weekend to The Washington Post, and General Petraeus’s response?
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, I completely understand General Petraeus’s response, because what he is engaged in is essential to the strategy that’s being deployed right now.
But I also understand President Karzai’s frustration. He has a lot of pressures, particularly pressures that come from fellow Pashtuns. And I think that he’s reflecting that. I don’t think it should be blown out of proportion.
I’m absolutely confident that we can proceed forward and go to Lisbon and come out of Lisbon with a strong policy definition as we go forward in these next critical months.
MARGARET WARNER: General Petraeus was quite upset. And he conveyed that. In other words, they have been having private conversations. But for President Karzai to go public like this, and essentially say, stop doing a couple of the major things you’re doing, you have spent a lot of time with President Karzai.
You were instrumental in getting him to accept a runoff in the election, for instance. You spent hours with him. What do you think is going on with him?
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, I think President Karzai has a very good understanding of his own country. And, as I said, I think he’s under lots of pressures. And, sometimes, you know, that emerges into a public comment. I think we now know that. And we need to understand that. I think that General Petraeus, appropriately, reacted because it went to the core of the strategy that is in place.
And it’s my belief that we will be able to work through this, because the essential core of the policy right now is to develop as rapidly as possible the Afghan capacity to take over responsibility for security. And the faster that can happen, competently, the happier we will be as well.
So, I think, if we stay focused on the end goal here and work through these kinds of difficulties, which are almost inevitable in this kind of situation, I — I know the personal commitment that President Karzai has to trying to achieve the end goal. But you have to understand that sometimes he thinks we don’t completely, that there are lots of intervening hurdles and pressures that he faces.
And I think he’s just reacting to those. I think we just keep going straight ahead. We’re on the right track. I think the military operations have improved. I think what you’re reading about the Taliban in the newspapers reflects the accuracy of their need or desire perhaps to get to some kind of negotiation at some point in time.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, as you mentioned, President Obama is going to the NATO summit in Lisbon later this week. They’re going to roll out this plan in which NATO will commit to keeping some combat forces there all the way through 2014.
One, do you think that’s the right approach, the right timetable?
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, I think it depends entirely on the structure that is created with respect to counterterrorism efforts as we go forward.
The key here is the training and turnover of responsibility to the Afghan forces that are growing right now every day in their abilities, and, secondly, increased capacity for governance.
I think that Lisbon will be a good chance to evaluate that. In December, we will get a second chance to evaluate that. And I think the president’s schedule is frankly, you know, sort of on target and we’re moving in the right direction.
MARGARET WARNER: And do you think that the American Congress, the U.S. Congress, and public are ready to accept that long an engagement?
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, it’s a diminishing engagement.
Remember, what the president said originally — and everybody, Republican and Democrat alike, bought into it — was the notion that you’re going to begin a drawdown in July. Now, that drawdown in 2011 is going to be obviously subject to the conditions and where we are and what’s happening, the rate of the drawdown.
The fact of the drawdown is not going to be subject. But the rate of it will be determined by a lot of the input that’s going to come in the next few months. I think that you can go down quite far very quickly, providing the Afghans are taking a greater responsibility, and also providing we’re able to continue our counterterrorism efforts from that diminishing platform, which I believe, personally, we will be able to do.
So, I wouldn’t get all — you know, I wouldn’t get very fixated on the notion of 2014, because it could be — I don’t know — I mean I’m just throwing this out there — it could be 10,000. It could be 5,000. I can’t tell you the number it’s going to be. But it’s clearly going to be a much faster turnover than ever occurred in Iraq, if you measure when we actually really began a strategy.
The strategy only began last December. And I think most people would judge that there’s been some progress on the ground in some areas over the course of the last few months.
MARGARET WARNER: OK, new topic: START.
The president told Russian leader Medvedev late last week that that was a top priority, getting this new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to the Senate for him in the lame-duck. Are you going to get it?
SEN. JOHN KERRY: We don’t know yet, obviously.
We’re in discussions right now with Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona. He’s a key player on this, obviously. Vice President Biden and I chatted earlier today. And the hope is that the offer that the administration has put on the table with respect to modernization is sufficient. It’s better than anything that ever existed under the Bush administration.
The director of the laboratories believes that it’s a very significant advance. And our hope is that the administration has acted in good faith all along, sufficiently, that the Republicans will say: You know what? This is one for the country. This is a matter of national security. It advances the security of our nation. It strengthens our relationship with Russia. It puts inspectors on the ground in Russia, which we haven’t had since last December. And it makes America stronger.
And that’s what the treaty does. And we hope that there will be no partisanship, no ideology, but people will vote on the merits, as they did when the Senate voted 95-0 to ratify the Moscow treaty that had absolutely no verification whatsoever.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, Sudan.
You spent quite a bit of time in Sudan in advance of this January 9 referendum, in which the south is expected to vote to secede from the north. Is the north ready to let that go through peacefully and accept the result?
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, the north has said again and again in the conversations that I had in both visits, but in the most recent visit, both north and south have agreed that they want this referendum to take place in January, they want this referendum to be peaceful, and that, no matter what the outcome of the referendum, they have agreed in principle at this point that they will not go back to war.
That’s an enormous step forward, if it actually gets ratified in a public statement somewhere in the next few weeks. Our hope is, obviously, that the critical issue of Abyei, which is this 60-by-60-mile area south of Khartoum, that that area, which is really a huge area of contention between the nine tribes, the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya, which are an Arab tribe that have been mostly under the control of the north, that, if we can resolve that issue of Abyei, I think the chances are very, very good that we could go forward in a quiet, peaceful way and really change the relationship with Sudan.
They say they’re committed to doing that. The next days will be test of that.
MARGARET WARNER: And, so, very briefly, do you think they are negotiating or talking with you and negotiating in good faith?
SEN. JOHN KERRY: I believe they have taken the offer of President Obama, who has changed the equation by putting some new things on the table, I think they have taken that very, very seriously.
They are now trying to wrestle with their internal issues regarding the Misseriya, these — this tribe, which has been so controlled by them. And, in a sense, they have created a problem for themselves that they now have to try to manage.
But, if they can do that and see the virtue of the benefits that come with what President Obama has put on the table, I believe we could not only change the equation with respect to north and south, not only change it with respect to the United States and the north, but also greatly enhance our ability to advance the peace process in Darfur. And — and all of that is to the benefit of both the north and the south, as well as the region. I hope we can achieve that.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator John Kerry, thank you so much.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Thank you.