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Jones: Local Corruption Affects Afghans’ Mindset, Trust in Government

April 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jim Lehrer speaks with National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones about the difficulty of rooting out government corruption in Afghanistan, how the administration is dealing with pirates and about his own job security.
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JIM LEHRER: But first: our interview with national security adviser, Retired U.S. Marine General Jim Jones. I spoke with him a short time ago.

General, welcome.

GEN. JAMES JONES, National Security Adviser: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you.

On Afghanistan, President Karzai said today that foreigners, not Afghans, were responsible for the vote fraud in the presidential elections last year. Is that really true?

GEN. JAMES JONES: Well, I don’t know the context of the president’s remarks. I have heard about them, like — as you have.

But to go back and revisit very briefly, there was an international election commission and a national one as well, and they worked hand in hand together to go through the legality of the elections. And I think President Karzai deserves some credit for listening to the international election commission and following its advice.

And, at the end of the day, we had a — a common position that the Afghan election was legitimate. And we had a president, President Karzai, who was reelected for a second term.

So — but I think the international oversight was fair and honest. And I think we have a legitimate government and a strong partner to deal with.

JIM LEHRER: So, the U.S. has no evidence that there were foreigners who — who caused the fraud in the election?

GEN. JAMES JONES: I don’t — I have not heard of any. And I don’t think there’s any hard evidence, per se, that foreigners were involved in manipulating the election. But, as I said, I don’t know the context of those remarks.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Was this news to you when you — is this — when you — to hear this today, that President Karzai would even say something like that?

GEN. JAMES JONES: It was certainly surprising that it’s happening now. In and around the election itself and, as I recall, in the results of the election, in the heat of the moment, there were things that were said alleging certain things one way or the other, but, frankly, I thought we were past that. I know the president thinks we’re past it.

And we’re working — we’re moving on and working with this legitimate government.

JIM LEHRER: You mean President Obama is moving past that.

GEN. JAMES JONES: Yes, correct. Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you have talked — you and President Obama talked to President Karzai when you made that surprise trip to Kabul a few days ago.

Did you — did you get the impression that President Karzai now gets the message that you all are giving him about corruption, that he’s got to do something about it?

GEN. JAMES JONES: Well, I think, Jim, the — there are a lot of very good messages that have been sent on both sides.

I think President Obama and President Karzai have had several conversations leading up to this visit and will have several more. President Karzai is — has really shown that he understands exactly what needs to be done, what the international community expects in return from its investment, and has a very clear sense of the commitment that the United States in particular is making to the long-term success of his country.

We want him to succeed. Corruption is a serious issue. It’s serious for us. It’s serious for the Afghan people. Good governance is part of it. Fighting the war on drugs is part of it. Providing stable leadership at the local, regional, and national level is part of it. So, it’s a compendium of things, but corruption is one of them.

JIM LEHRER: But you have made it pretty clear, as did President Obama, that you’re not satisfied with how far he’s gone in this, right, President Karzai?

GEN. JAMES JONES: Well, I — it would be wrong to say that we went to Afghanistan to talk about corruption.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Sure.

GEN. JAMES JONES: We went to Afghanistan to see the troops, thank them for their heroic sacrifice…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

GEN. JAMES JONES: … and also meet President Karzai.

And one of the beneficial sidelines was, we met quite a few members of his cabinet, and we heard them speak, which was another issue that we could develop, if you would like, because it was — it was very interesting.

But, on the issue of corruption in particular, it’s been a clear concern of ours for a long time. It’s a clear concern of the Afghan people. And, at every level of that society, I think President Karzai has already put into place a mechanism whereby authorities are delegated to tackle a corruption problem.

It is recent, but it is a positive step. It’s one that we applaud him for. And, of course, now, the question is, we will watch and see how it’s implemented. But he has taken that step of empowering authorities to focus on corruption.

JIM LEHRER: Still a ways to go, though?

GEN. JAMES JONES: Of course, yes. It’s very embryonic, but at least…

JIM LEHRER: Very embryonic?

GEN. JAMES JONES: At least it’s a step.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

GEN. JAMES JONES: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: You know, a lot of Americans don’t understand exactly when — when the word corruption is used in reference to the Afghan government. What — give us an example of what you consider the most serious corruption that still exists in Afghanistan that President Karzai’s got to do something about.

GEN. JAMES JONES: Well, I think the — I think the most far-reaching effects of corruption are — is the corruption that affects the people. You know, you can talk about government contracts and the high-end things, which are — which are deplorable and need to be stopped if — when we find them.

But at the — where it really affects the mind-set of the people, and whether they’re going to support President Karzai and the democratically elected government, and respect us by association with that government, is when the people themselves are impacted by having to pay bribes to do business, or pay off officials, or pay police for protection, or do those things that — they have so little money anyway — do those things that they have to have a corrupt relationship with a local official in order to — in order to exist.

And that — that is something that they massively reject. And it’s something that President Karzai heard about. When he visited the Marjah region and talked to the people, he was very surprised — his own words — he was very surprised at how passionate the citizens were about the corrupt police that they had been subjected to for a long time.

And he went back to his capital and was very agitated about it, and made some positive statements. And we hope he will take positive action.

JIM LEHRER: Would it be correct to say that you were a little bit surprised that the president of — of Afghanistan didn’t know that this was going on in his own country until the American Marines came into Marjah?

GEN. JAMES JONES: Well, I — President Karzai is a smart man. I think he knows. But I think that that had an effect on him.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

GEN. JAMES JONES: And I’m glad it had an effect. And I think the president, President Obama, is reassured that he was positively moved to go back to his capital and empower some of his officials who are focusing uniquely on this.

So, I think he should be applauded for doing that. But, again, we will have to wait and see how far it goes.

JIM LEHRER: More generally, does President Karzai understand and appreciate what costs the United States is contributing to the effort in Afghanistan, in terms of American lives, in terms of American resources, for helping him get from here to there and his government?

GEN. JAMES JONES: I think he does.

I know that — that the senior leadership in his cabinet, who I have worked with for a number of years now, also appreciate that. And, so, I think the sacrifice is — is recognized. I also think that, in President Obama, he is someone who has clearly said that it is time for Afghans to take more control of their own destiny, and has — and that’s why the strategic review that took most of 2009 is now in the implementation phase.

And it has a larger piece of responsibility for governance, economic development, and security with Afghans stepping up to the plate to take charge of their own destiny, as they achieve that capability.

JIM LEHRER: On Iran and sanctions, there are these new signs the last few days. Is it correct to interpret China, that — interpret China’s actions that they may, in fact, go along with tougher sanctions against Iran?

GEN. JAMES JONES: Well, I think — I think the accurate way to report on what — where China is, is that they have participated in ministerial-level meetings, at the P5 level, by telephone conference. President Hu has accepted the president’s invitation to come to the nuclear summit that we will be having here in April.

And the dialogue between us and the other members of the P5-plus-one, which is United Kingdom, Germany, France, Germany — I’m sorry — United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, China, and the United States, that dialogue has been continuing.

And China has signaled — is increasingly signaling that it understands full well the importance of the moment with regard to Iran and the potential of nuclear weapons and a nuclear arms race, potentially, in the Gulf region. And…

JIM LEHRER: And that’s new, is it not, General?

GEN. JAMES JONES: Well, I think it’s evolutionary, but we — those talks have been going on between us and the Chinese and the Russians and our friends in Europe.

And so we’re seeing a positive, thoughtful approach. And we — we welcome it. We will see where — where it takes us. But, clearly, President Obama has done exactly what he said the United States would do with regard to Iran.

We waited all of 2009 to — for them to show their hand and their willingness to accept a very reasonable offer by the IAEA. They have not done so. And now we’re doing exactly what we said we were going to do and moving towards trying to obtain a very tough sanctions regime, if, in fact, Iran doesn’t change its course.

JIM LEHRER: General, also in the news today, the Somalia piracy — a U.S. Navy ship sunk a — one of the pirate ships and captured some of the pirates.

What’s going on over there? Why is the U.S. doing it? And can we expect more of it?

GEN. JAMES JONES: Well, this seems to be a — this has spikes, peaks and valleys. But, clearly, not just the U.S., but other countries have also decided that they’re not going to let these pirates attack shipping, while we have the means to prevent it.

And I think it’s — I think those people who do that are taking a serious risk where the United States is concerned. We have a fairly clear policy on how we view these things. And I think it’s an appropriate response to…

JIM LEHRER: And there could be more of them if there are more pirate attempts.

GEN. JAMES JONES: Right.

JIM LEHRER: And what they do is, they take the ships and then hold them for ransom, right?

GEN. JAMES JONES: Correct. Yes, correct.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

And there’s been — is that — is it not possible to stop this?

GEN. JAMES JONES: It is — it is a problem that emanates from a country that, unfortunately, is fairly lawless, very tribal.

And, you know, I think shipping companies have to take stock of the risk that they run when they navigate too closely to the area of operations for the pirates. But this hasn’t been a — this was a problem last year about this time, and we’re hoping that it’s not going to reoccur. It’s been fairly quiet for a while.

But, last year, we took some pretty strong measures. And that sent a good message.

JIM LEHRER: A message, yes.

GEN. JAMES JONES: And — but these are pirates. They’re — they’re thugs and bandits. And they’re going to do what they can — they think they can get away with.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, General, a personal question about you. National security adviser, you have been there 14 months now. I read a story today in The Financial Times that says you may be gone by the end of the year. Is that — that you’re frustrated sometimes in your work and all this other stuff.

Is that — is that — did I read the story correctly, or is that…

GEN. JAMES JONES: Well, you know, I wish that someone had talked to me about it. I would have given them a straight answer.

I’m — I serve at the pleasure of the president. I came out of retirement to be of assistance. I think the NSC that currently is in operation is a reflection of how he would like us to work. And it’s also a reflection of the 21st century challenges that we have to face, which are multiple.

And, so, we have a system that’s fairly centralized in terms of planning and fairly decentralized in terms of execution, which is what we have to do to address the multiplicity of challenges that roll at us every day.

I am blessed to be supported by some extremely talented people, who rightfully should get credit for being the faithful servants that they are, public servants. It’s an honor to be — to — working as the national security adviser. And my job is to make sure the president is satisfied. And I have no reason to think he’s not.

JIM LEHRER: OK. OK, so you’re not — you’re not — you’re not going anywhere?

GEN. JAMES JONES: I have no — no plans to go anywhere, at least in the near future.

But, you know, we will see what happens. I’m gainfully employed every single day, and I — I’m enjoying what I’m doing.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

General Jones, thank you very much.

GEN. JAMES JONES: Thank you. Thank you, Jim.