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Kerry: "We are going to take a hard look at Afghanistan"

In an interview, Sen. John F. Kerry recalls his appearance at Vietnam hearings and says he will hold them on Afghanistan.

Vietnam veteran John Kerry in 1971 testifying against the war at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings. On the right, Sen. John Kerry as chairman of the same committee. (Courtesy John Kerry's Senate office)

WASHINGTON — Sen. John F. Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he will hold far-ranging oversight hearings on the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

“End of summer, early fall, we are going to take a hard look at Afghanistan,” Kerry said in an interview with GlobalPost.

Kerry, whose committee previously held informational hearings that focused on Afghan society and the experience of veterans of the war, has until now held off on a public examination of the administration’s handling of Afghanistan while President Barack Obama’s national security team crafted its own counterinsurgency strategy. That strategy called for an increase of more than 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, which is now underway.

When Congress approved funding for the additional troops, “I think we gave them a fairly defined and limited scope of engagement,” Kerry said. “I remain concerned about the nature of the footprint and how this is going to be implemented.”

Kerry's proposal for hearings comes as just-deployed U.S. Marines undertake an ambitious and perilous offensive against the Taliban in the south, and as suicide bombings and roadside attacks on U.S. troops have escalated. Thursday morning a roadside bomb killed 25 people, including 13 children who were walking to school, in the Logar Province just outside Kabul.

The war in Afghanistan is a potentially divisive issue for Democrats. A sizable group of House Democrats voted against a recent appropriations bill that provided funds for the Obama administration’s additional troop deployments. Some worried openly that Afghanistan could become another Vietnam, and asked why Congress is not insisting on an exit strategy, nor holding oversight hearings on so important a matter.

Between 1966 and 1971, the same committee Kerry chairs, then under Democratic chairman William Fulbright of Arkansas, played an important role in focusing concerns on President Lyndon Johnson’s flawed strategy during the Vietnam War. Kerry, then a 27-year-old decorated combat veteran of that war, rose to prominence as an anti-war leader with his testimony at the committee's hearings.

Now Kerry is in a key position to shape the direction of the war in Afghanistan.

The hearings will be part of an aggressive schedule Kerry — a Massachusetts Democrat who lost to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election — has for the coming weeks. The schedule includes oversight hearings on Iraq, at which U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill will testify, and work to get a global warming bill passed by mid-October.

Senate Democrats may “tweak it” a little, but plan to leave the climate bill passed by the House intact, Kerry revealed.

“We are really working hard to build on what the House did,” Kerry said. “We are not going to try to reinvent the wheel.”

House leaders, with the aid of the White House, painstakingly assembled a complex bill to meet the concerns of the wide range of interests — consumers, utilities, businesses and environmentalists — who helped draft the legislation.

The Senate, Kerry said, will try not to disturb that hard-won consensus. “A lot of the battles we were going to fight here were fought there. We respect the needle they threaded,” he said. “With respect to a lot of those interests we are going to model it on what they did.”