Oregon’s first-term senator explains why he feels the U.S. should stop lingering in Afghanistan and outlines how America is suffering domestically as a result of its mission there.
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley
Tavis: Senator Jeff Merkley is serving his first term in the U.S. Senate from Oregon after defeating a two-term Republican incumbent back in 2008. Along with two of his Senate colleagues he wrote an op-ed in “The New York Times” on Tuesday titled “Let’s Not Linger in Afghanistan.” He joins us tonight from Capitol Hill. Senator, good to have you on this program, thanks for your time.
Sen. Jeff Merkley: It’s great to be with you, Tavis.
Tavis: When you say and your colleagues say that we are “lingering in Afghanistan,” can you define the word “lingering” for me?
Merkley: You bet. That means staying after our mission has been completed, and in this case the mission was to take the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan, to destroy the Al Qaeda training camps and to pursue those who were responsible for 9/11.
This is the situation now, we’re pursuing a nation-building mission that was added on, and that nation-building mission is very problematic. We’ve been at it for 10 years. Whether it’s building the police or it’s building the government, it’s not working.
I could elaborate on that, but we need to pull the plug on that experiment and redeploy our forces and redeploy our resources.
Tavis: I’ve heard more than one government official suggest, Senator, that if we were to just pull out, all hell would break loose once again in the region. Your response?
Merkley: Well, all hell is breaking loose right now, after we’ve been there for 10 years. Indeed, let me explain a little bit further. There are those who talk about staying in order to build an effective police, but if you get into the details the literacy is extremely low – less than 30 percent in Afghanistan. The police numbers are completely padded.
There’s an enormous amount of corruption, and as one American adviser put it to me, “The police in Afghanistan are thugs. We equip them, we train them, and now they are equipped and trained thugs.”
On the government side it’s even worse, with every position sold, from governorships on down, sometimes as far down as schoolteachers. That means we’re not creating a strong central government designed to serve the people, but a strong central government that exists to exploit the people. That is not a formula that works.
Tavis: So in short, why do you think, then, that the administration has decided that there’s still reason for us to be there?
Merkley: Well, I think the administration is using some of the language that Senator Udall, Rand Paul and others like myself are using in saying that we need to change our direction, and he’s starting to withdraw some troops. But he’s doing so at a very slow pace that essentially keeps us in this nation-building capacity.
I think it’s very hard to reverse course. That’s proven itself time over time as our nation becomes involved in foreign settings. But every once in a while we need to reevaluate thoroughly, ask ourselves about the fundamental reasons we’re there and ask if the current strategy best serves our national security, and the current strategy does not.
Tavis: With all due respect to you and your colleagues, how do you all know that pulling out troops by the end of next year is a wise strategy? Isn’t that something that those military generals, those military leaders on the ground would know best?
Merkley: Well, we’re not talking about taking and eliminating one strategy and having no other strategy. What we’re saying is this. For example, let’s take on the training camps. We destroyed those long ago. The CIA estimates that there are less than 100 Al Qaeda, perhaps less than 50, in Afghanistan, but we know that there are far more in many other countries of the world.
So we need to have a counterterrorism strategy that takes on the terrorist forces where they are, not trying to create institutions that have never existed in Afghanistan that are not being created in a manner that will actually be enduring in terms of serving the people and creating a national security infrastructure there that is completely unaffordable.
Let me give you an example. The cost of simply maintaining the Afghanistan forces would cost about $12 billion a year. This is a country with a GDP that has until recently been less than $10 billion per year.
So there isn’t a sense of a sustainable strategy, not from the corruption angle, not from the service angle, not from the quality of the military and police institutions we’ve been working to create.
Tavis: I’m not suggesting, Senator, that I disagree with anything you’ve just said. What I’m asking, though, is what role military leaders on the ground have in making a decision when it’s time to leave, and can three senators who sit in Washington make that decision about the best timetable, the best timeline to get out? I’m just asking.
Merkley: Well, let me tell you this – we are founded on a tradition of civilian governance. The military works in relationship to the civilian elected structure, that’s what a democracy is, and so military leaders have weighed in on both sides of this.
If you take a look at the letter that 27 senators sent to the president, it was endorsed by four Army generals – two retired lieutenant generals, two retired brigadier generals – and many more could weigh in. This is a situation where military experts are not simply on one side of the argument.
There are many military experts that are arguing that spending $120 billion a year in Afghanistan in the context of our global national security responsibilities is a misuse of resources, and in fact it’s being spent in a way that is not on a successful trajectory.
Tavis: I want to quote specifically from your op-ed as it relates to what’s not being done here at home. It’s the argument that Dr. King made many years ago during the Vietnam War that it was Americans who were really suffering by this excursion that we were engaged in in Vietnam.
So you write in your op-ed piece, “We have urgent needs at home: High unemployment and a flood of foreclosures, a record deficit and a debt that is over $14 trillion and growing. We are spending $10 billion a month in Afghanistan. We need to change course.”
So I ask, and you’ve pretty much highlighted here, but tell me more about what you think is not being done here at home for the sake of this Afghanistan excursion abroad?
Merkley: Well, a whole lot, and if you want a kind of 30,000-foot view, it’s this: We’re spending far too much on foreign bases and foreign wars and not nearly enough on education and infrastructure.
We right now are becoming the first generation of adults whose children are getting less education than we got because of the high tuition costs and the lower scholarship availability, if you will. We are becoming a generation that is being out-built by developed countries and developing countries around the world.
China is spending 10 to 12 percent of their GDP on infrastructure. Europe is spending about 5 percent. The United States is spending 2 percent and that’s barely enough to repair the infrastructure we currently have.
So between education and infrastructure, any American who has a chance to travel throughout the world realizes we’re falling behind, and in the long term, falling behind on our education and our infrastructure is a formula for America being weaker, not stronger.
So we need to recognize that these resources do make a difference. Just to translate this, if you took $100 billion and said, “Well, how many jobs would that create if say we just employed people thinning forests, planting trees and so forth, the answer would be five million $20,000 jobs, or if we were subsidizing better-paying jobs, 5 million $50,000 jobs.
Oregon’s share of that is about 1 percent because we’re 1 percent of the national population. That would be 50,000 jobs in Oregon paying $50,000. In other words, a huge impact could be made on employment that would put America back to work and stabilize our families, and that’s just one way of trying to frame the costs of this operation in one country, building institutions, and where our funds are actually feeding the corruption that make that strategy unworkable.
Tavis: You are a Democrat. The Senate right now is controlled by Democrats, the body in which you sit. The White House is controlled by a Democrat. What do your fellow Democrats not get, not understand, about what you’ve just laid out? Seems pretty straightforward to me – we’re spending too much abroad, not focusing on issues here at home.
But you Democrats are controlling things right now, to a large degree, in Washington, so what do your colleagues not get about this argument, sir?
Merkley: Well actually, if you take a look at the list of folks who sent the letter to the president, you have on that I believe it’s 25 Democrats. Others who didn’t sign the letter stood up on the floor and made the exact same argument. You have the chair of the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, who has called for a 15,000-troop drawdown this year as being a minimal amount, an amount certainly that is greater than what the president has pursued.
So you see a tremendous shift in terms of both Democrats and Republicans. I’ve had so many conversations with colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the course of seeking to encourage people to sign this letter, and the fact that 27 senators signed it, the fact it was bipartisan, the fact it included committee chairs, shows you a huge shift and a shift that is responding to the American people.
No matter what type of county town hall I’m in, and I have 36 counties, many of them very conservative, folks overwhelmingly, in conservative and progressive counties, overwhelmingly believe that we are misusing our resources and putting our sons and daughters at risk, not in the best interest of the U.S. national security.
Tavis: I’ve got a quick 30 seconds here, but I’d be remiss to let you go as a member of that august body known as the U.S. Senate, to not ask you very quickly your view on this debate about the debt ceiling and the Republicans’ demand to link it to deficit reduction.
We are getting pretty close to DEFCON one here in terms of that August date. Your sense right quick of what’s about to happen on this issue?
Merkley: Well, what needs to happen is that the Republicans need to quit defending all of the programs that they’ve established in the tax code to serve the wealthy and the well-connected. All programs need to be on the table if we’re going to have an honest discussion about reducing deficits. That’s the type of vision that Democrats are fighting for, that we have spending cuts, and spending cuts both in direct spending and spending that is embedded in the tax code.
That can bring us together and forge a document, a budget vision that will serve our country well.
Tavis: Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, calling on President Obama tonight to bring troops home from Afghanistan at a much faster pace than the president has laid out. We will see what happens in the coming months on this particular issue. Senator Merkley, thanks for your time. Good to have you on, sir.
Merkley: It’s great to be with you, thank you.
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