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Kerry Seeks Close Review Of Afghan Troop Request


Democratic Senator John Kerry is among a key small group of people outside the administration who have president's ear on Afghanistan policy. Senator Kerry is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He joins us from the Capitol. Senator Kerry, welcome to the program.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts; Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee): I'm delighted to be with you. Thank you.

BLOCK: How would you articulate what our mission in Afghanistan should be right now?

Sen. KERRY: Well, I think the original formulation the president put out is accurate, which is number one you have to prevent al-Qaida. You have to disrupt and dismantle al-Qaida and prevent them from using Afghanistan as a sanctuary to plot and attack the United States. And secondly Pakistan and its stability is essential to our national security and it's critical concern. Those are the two principle driving security concerns of the United States.

BLOCK: But obviously a lot of disagreement on how you do those things, are you convinced that more troops would make a difference?

Sen. KERRY: Well, that's what we need to look at very, very carefully. I think, you know, we owe it to the troops. And we owe it to ourselves, to the entire country, to make sure that we know that exactly what we're asking them to do is in fact achievable. And I think that what's changed most recently is the deepening of the crisis, if you will, of governance in Afghanistan. The corruption and the inability of the government to deliver services undermines a counterinsurgency strategy. So, I think a lot of people want to measure exactly what is achievable against the request, that's all. It's a perfectly normal thing. Nobody should be getting agitated and excited about this. It's the proper role of the commander in chief to make that kind of decision before he sends troops into harm's way.

And we've learned historically, you know, I remember President Johnson and, you know, Secretary McNamara and General Westmoreland, always asking for more troops without examining the underlying assumptions. We have an obligation to examine those assumptions, that's what we're going to do. It doesn't mean we won't send troops. It just means I think that we'll have a better understanding of exactly how we're going about what we're doing and what is achievable.

BLOCK: And what about the strategy that has been advocated for by Vice President Joe Biden on - a purely counterterrorist strategy using Special Forces, say, Predator strikes targeting al-Qaida largely in Pakistan.

Sen. KERRY: Well, I think Vice President Biden who - I had a long conversation with him the other day, I know is not - he is talking about some level of counterinsurgency necessary to be able to do the counterterrorism. The question really that has to be asked is: What is that appropriate level? How much can be achieved? What is possible on the ground in Afghanistan is a question that's got to be answered. The normal three-legged stool of counterinsurgency is development, security and governance.

Right now, we have a deficit of governance to say the least. We've not been able to do the development because of the absence of security and the absence of security is linked to the deficit of governance. So, all three of those legs are wobbly to say the least. And what we need to do is figure out how we go forward here in a way that actually gets things done and changes the dynamics. I'm convinced that there is a way to change dynamics. We just have to settle on it. And obviously we have to accomplish whatever that goal is that we set.

BLOCK: You keep coming back, Senator Kerry, to the questions that you think need to be answered. It seems, as public support for the war in Afghanistan continues to erode, people want answers now. They don't want to know just what the questions are?

Sen. KERRY: Well, I agree. And that's exactly why I'm probing away. The Foreign Relations Committee is holding hearings. We've had a lot of these things aired, vetted in public. We intend to - we have another hearing this Thursday. We will have additional hearings. I don't think it's asking too much of our country to take a number of weeks here, to make sure we have the answers properly. I think it's very, very important, you know, before you send soldiers into harms way, you owe them a strategy that is commensurate with the sacrifice you're asking them to make.

And I think it is critical for us. I think we have the right larger goals, but we've got to make sure we're implementing these pieces correctly. Nobody should, as I say, work themselves up into a lather over this. This is a - this is really what - what our good governance ought to be about.

BLOCK: I don't know if he's in a lather but your Republican colleague, Senator Kit Bond, has said the administration is dithering on this. He says if we fail to provide troops now, it'll be too late.

Sen. KERRY: Well, I've heard, you know, I've seen - as the saying goes, I've seen that movie before. I remember what happened when the president of the United States and the general in charge of the war kept asking for more and more troops and they never looked at the underlying assumptions. And we lost 58,000-plus young Americans and spent our treasure in the longest war in America's history. And it didn't turn out well. So I think it's important for us to ask these questions. And we owe it to our troops to make sure we're sure of exactly what can be accomplished and how.

BLOCK: Senator Kerry, thank you very much.

Sen. KERRY: Yes, thank you. My pleasure, thanks.

BLOCK: Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, one of a key group outside the administration advising President Obama on strategy in Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.