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

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.”

On Afghanistan, Kerry promised that his committee would fulfill its constitutional obligation to serve as a check on the executive branch — even though it is controlled by his fellow Democrats.

“We are not going to abrogate our responsibility,” said Kerry. “We will have hearings.”

Earlier this year, Kerry’s committee held several provocative public hearings on the situation in Afghanistan, quizzing counterinsurgency experts and U.S. troops who served there. But unlike Sen. Fulbright, Kerry has not called the top policymakers within the the Obama administration — such as the secretaries of State and Defense or the regional commander, Gen. David Petraeus — to Capitol Hill to explain and defend the strategy under critical cross-examination.

“In fairness to this administration, they have done what prior administrations did not do, which is accurately define a mission and a rationale for our presence, which is no longer this grand sweeping democratic state and so forth, but is the much more limited mission of achieving a sufficient level of stability, that the Afghans can work things out for themselves,” Kerry said.

That would leave the U.S. with “the ability to prosecute Al Qaeda and not allow them to attack the U.S. from their soil,” he said.

“This is a pretty limited goal,” said Kerry. “The key here is how Petraeus and company actually implement and define the use of those troops. You have to be very careful that this is an Afghan operation and not an American one.”

It’s essential that the U.S. win the loyalty and cooperation of the Afghan people, Kerry said. Victory “depends on whether the Afghans themselves invest and start engaging,” he said. “If a tribe is willing to stand up and protect its own valley, as they used to, then you don’t need a lot of troops on the ground.”

But “up until now there has been no strategy, no global strategy for their country, and a huge growing distrust of Kabul and of the Karzai government and of the corruption,” he said.
Afghans “have to see there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Kerry, and that light can only be provided by an American commitment of money and lives.

“Are we doing it at a level where it will take?” Kerry asked. “That is a good question. That is what our hearings are going to look at. I don’t have the answer for that right now.”

Passport members can read the full transcript of the interview with John F. Kerry.

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