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Afghanistan: Defining the Possibilities

Presiders: John F. Kerry, Senator (D-MA), and David E. Sanger, Chief Washington Correspondent, The New York Times
October 26, 2009
Council on Foreign Relations

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DAVID SANGER: Good afternoon. I'm David Sanger of The New York Times. And welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations event on Afghanistan. Thank you all very much for being here.

Before we begin, a few quick notes. This session for the Council is on the record, something reporters are always happy to say. We ask you to turn your cell phones off so it doesn't interfere with the sound system or, at a minimum, pass them to your neighbor so somebody else is embarrassed when they go off. And after Senator Kerry delivers his remarks, I'll get the discussion rolling with just a few questions and then open it up to all of you.

Our speaker today requires no introduction at all, so I'll be very brief. John Kerry is the senior senator from Massachusetts and, of course, was the Democratic Party's nominee for president in 2004. He is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he first encountered quite famously in 1971 when he testified against continued American participation in Vietnam and asked that question that still resounds in debates over war strategy, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Last month he wrote in The Wall Street Journal that in Afghanistan today, time is running out and troops are dying without a sustainable strategy for victory. In the case of Afghanistan, of course, there have been many Vietnam analogies thrown around, and Senator Kerry has been among those cautioning that at moments we overuse those analogies and sometimes apply them wrongly.

We'll be asking him about that after his comments today, and also about his recent trip to Afghanistan, where he was asked by the Obama administration to stay a few days and help push President Karzai to accept a runoff election. When President Karzai did so -- reluctantly, to say the least -- Senator Kerry was standing next to him.

Senator Kerry, the floor is yours, and we look forward to hearing your comments. Thank you. (Applause.)

SENATOR JOHN F. KERRY (D-MA): Thank you, David, very much for your kind introduction, and more importantly for your terrific reporting over the years.

I think you would all agree, David's most recent book, "The Inheritance," makes the point that while President Obama took office with great promise, his predecessor left him with some very thorny problems and few good options. And nowhere is that inheritance more fraught than in Afghanistan.

On day one, this administration assumed responsibility for a war heading from strategic drift to a dangerous decline. Now it falls to all of us to get this right. I recently traveled, as David mentioned, to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the culmination of several months of asking tough questions and re-examining the assumptions that will drive decisions of enormous consequence.

I believe President Obama has been right to deliberate and take the time necessary in order to find the best policy. And Americans are right to be asking whether the objectives are achievable, and are they worth the sacrifice -- questions, incidentally, that were tragically underscored by the deaths of 14 American troops and civilians in two helicopter crashes today.

Many of us also know too well the price of sending troops into war, where the strategy hasn't been fully thought through. The responsibility to never put troops in that position lies not just with the president, though it is his principal decision, or with the generals. It also lies with all of us as Americans.

What began as a fact-finding trip did, as David mentioned, end with several days of talks with President Karzai to resolve a dispute over the Afghan elections. You may have read that it takes three cups of tea to make a deal in Afghanistan. Well, let me tell you, it took a lot more than that for us, but we got there.

I came home, though, also with a fresh reminder of the extraordinary challenges that we face, but also -- I want to emphasize this -- but also with a belief that there is a way forward. David Sanger mentioned that in 1971 I asked the Foreign Relations Committee, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Thirty-eight years later, chairing the committee, I keep that question very much in mind.

This journey, however, begins in a different place. In September 2001, mass murder was plotted against the United States from Afghan soil, and we needed to remove the threat. With certainty, we all know why we invaded Afghanistan. It was not a mistake to go in.

We now have to choose a smart way forward so that no one is ever compelled to ask whether we've made a mistake in staying. The easiest way to make a mistake, frankly, is to tolerate a debate that sells our country short.

In recent weeks, politics has reduced an extraordinarily complex country, an extraordinarily complex region and a difficult mission to a simple, headline-ready yes or no on troop numbers. That debate is completely at odds with reality. What we need above all and what we deserve above all, what the troops deserve above all, and what we haven't had, is a comprehensive strategy, military and civilian combined.

After eight years of neglecting Afghanistan as vice president, Dick Cheney has now come out of retirement to criticize President Obama for taking time to examine assumptions before sending troops into war; this from the man who, in 2002, told America, quote, "The Taliban regime is out of business permanently." I think this is one time I wish Dick Cheney had been right. But tragically, he wasn't, and he isn't today. And that's why we have to make the tough choices about Afghanistan now.

Make no mistake. Because of the gross mishandling of this war by past civilian leadership, there are no great options for its handling today. One American officer captured well our lack of a strategy when he said, "We haven't been fighting in Afghanistan for eight years. We've been fighting in Afghanistan for one year, eight times in a row." That is our inheritance.

President Obama began his strategic re-evaluation only in March of this year, folks, after he did what he promised to do and sent an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan. Most of them have now just arrived in country. Now he's wrestling with what comes next, with the knowledge that all options involve real costs and significant risks.

I believe that if we redefine our strategy and objectives in order to focus on what is achievable, as well as critical, and empower the Afghans to take control of their own future, we will give all of us the best chance to succeed.

Yes, legitimate questions remain about just what it takes to achieve our goals in Afghanistan. Yes, Afghanistan is but one of a pressing number of national threats, challenges and priorities. The $243 billion price tag to date is staggering. And, yes, many of our stakes there are indirect. But make no mistake, the costs of failure are very real.

In 2001, al Qaeda maneuvered with impunity in Afghanistan. Today we've killed or captured many top leaders, and a few remain there. As a result -- very few, actually, remain in Afghanistan. And as Jim Jones said recently publicly, at any time in one year there may have been a maximum of perhaps some 50 operatives, but at the lower level.

So as a result of this reality that most of them are in the northwest part of Pakistan or elsewhere in the world, many Americans are legitimately asking, why commit our soldiers and tens of billions of dollars to prevent al Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan when they could organize the next attack from Somalia, Yemen, Frankfurt, or even from an Internet chat room? People want to know, why stay in Afghanistan? And especially people want to know why increase in troops.

Well, first, we start from the premise that al Qaeda remains at the center of our mission. They still want to attack us. They are still trying to attack us. And we have interrupted plots globally over the last few years. But it's an awful lot harder to plan attacks when you're boxed in, harassed and living in fear.

We are, as we ought to be, committed to hunt al Qaeda wherever they go. Bin Laden and his deputies in northwest Pakistan haven't gone far. And to keep them on the run, I believe -- and I think others share this belief -- that you have to keep the Taliban, with longstanding ties to al Qaeda, from once again providing terrorists with an unfettered Afghan safe haven just to cross a border that most people view as a mere abstraction.

We also need to remember that our Afghan mission takes place in the context of a global counterinsurgency.

If we, the United States and our allies, are perceived as incapable of doing the job, I think it would help recruit extremists and raise doubt, not just in the region, but globally, about our resolve and our effectiveness.

And I can only imagine -- as chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, but as a senator, from the many conversations I have with leaders around the world, when you sit there and they look at you, and you say we got to do this or we got to do that, and they'll ask you, well, what are you committed to doing? And why should we believe that you are if you move, every moment, to a new place?

Second, what happens in Afghanistan -- and this is critical, what happens in Afghanistan has an impact on Pakistan. Pakistan is not only the headquarters of al Qaeda today, but it could easily become the epicenter of extremism in the world. We have enormous strategic interest in the outcome of the struggle in Pakistan.

It is a fragile democracy that is fighting a determined insurgency. It has a full nuclear arsenal and a longstanding, sometimes violent rivalry with its neighbor, India. While stabilizing Afghanistan is not going to solve all of our problems in Afghanistan, I understand that -- in Pakistan, I mean -- instability in Afghanistan only increases the risk of conflagration where the world can least afford it, next door in Pakistan.

Given the balance of our strategic interests, it should give serious pause to military and civilian strategists alike that the current balance of our expenditure -- between Afghanistan, where there is virtually no al Qaeda, and Pakistan, where there is -- tallies 30 to 1. That's why, regardless of what happens in Afghanistan, and especially if we want to reduce the needs for additional boots on the ground over the long-haul, it is vitally important that we support, that we intensify even, our support and improve our cooperation with Pakistan.

But these are the stakes: Preventing Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for al Qaeda, and destabilizing Pakistan and the region. And the challenge is to establish realistic goals about how to do that. That starts, I think, with a clear definition of success. I define success as the ability to empower and transfer responsibly to Afghans as rapidly as possible, and achieve a sufficient level of stability to ensure that we can leave behind an Afghanistan that is not controlled by al Qaeda or the Taliban.

Absent any truly good choices, we have to ask ourselves the question, what is doable, what is possible, and not set some impossible, far out of reach, or hole-digging strategy. Achieving our goals, my friends, does not require us to build a flawless democracy. It doesn't require us to defeat the Taliban in every corner of the country, or create a modern economy. What we're talking about is "good enough" governance, basic sustainable development and Afghan security forces capable enough that we can draw down our forces.

The truth is, we do need to maintain a sustained, long-term commitment to the Afghan people, and that is something that we do in many countries around the world as a matter of furthering America's national security interests. Doing so gives them assurance -- the assurance that they need to be able to reject the Taliban, whom most, incidentally, already despise.

But the nature of our commitment has to evolve away from a U.S. military dominated effort, toward support for Afghan institutions and Afghan answers. And it only makes sense to continue moving forward if our commitment is reciprocated by Afghans themselves in the form of improved governance and increased Afghan capacity, civilian and military, something that President Karzai, and his cabinet and I discussed at great length, and for which I believe there is now an ability to move to a new relationship.

That's why the cornerstone of our strategy has to be to empower and transfer responsibility to the Afghans. That's the whole ball game. Which means that we need to ask ourselves at every turn: Will what we do -- will this help the Afghan people take responsibility for their country? And where the answer is no, we probably shouldn't be doing it.

So how do we get there? Our strategy, I think, has to be informed by two basic truths on either sides of the pole: First of all, we can't draw down large numbers of troops today, as many would like, in order to shift to a narrow counterterrorism mission. Secondly, we simply don't have enough troops or resources to launch a broad, nation-wide counterinsurgency campaign -- but, importantly, nor do we need to.

We all see the appeal of a limited counterterrorism mission, and no doubt it is part of the end game, but I don't think we're there yet. A narrow mission that cedes half the country to the Taliban could lead to civil war -- there's no doubt in my mind, and put Pakistan at risk.

Moreover, the hardest part of counterterrorism operations isn't killing the terrorists, it's finding them. Developing intelligence assets and capabilities needs to be an even stronger priority for us, because it lets us transition to a more limited presence that still safeguards our interests. And I believe there are ways to set up various platforms and capacities to achieve that far more effectively than we are today. But for now, we need the boots on the ground to get that kind of information and protect our interests.

On the other hand, we cannot and we should not undertake a manpower-intensive counterinsurgency operation on a national scale in Afghanistan. Most experts say it would take 400,000 to 600,000 effective international and Afghan troops for a fully resourced point effort. Now, I acknowledge that is not what General McChrystal is saying he wants to do specifically, but it is encompassed in the larger vision of many people's thoughts about what has to be done in Afghanistan.

Fortunately, achieving our defined mission does not require that kind of commitment, folks. We don't have to control every hamlet and village, particularly when non-Pashtun sections of the country are already hostile to the Taliban. Our allies, together with the populations of these non-Pashtun areas -- which incidentally make up about 60 percent of the country, the Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen, Hazara, all of whom have learned what the Taliban are like, these folks can help to reduce America's principal effort to the Southern and Eastern theaters, and limit it to major population centers.

Now, we've already begun implementing something of a counterinsurgency strategy, but I believe that right now it needs to be as narrowly focused as possible. We need to be extraordinarily wary of overextension, and I am particularly concerned about the potential for us ultimately to be viewed -- no matter how good our intentions and no matter what efforts we make, as foreign occupiers.

Riding around in an armored personnel carrier just the other day, as I did when I was there, and seeing the faces through the window, of Afghans watching these monster vehicles go by, you get a sense of the disconnect that Afghans must experience. It was an image that I recognized very well from 40 years ago -- a look, a stare, if you will, that I came to know and understand.

Look, we're not the Soviets. We're not there to colonize, to conquer, to remake Afghanistan in our image or to impose ideology on its people. But it is just too easy for our well-intentioned presence to be misread, and for civilian casualties to stoke resentment and resistance.

The administration is right to be deeply concerned by the reality that, as our footprint has increased, so have the number of insurgents. I am convinced, from my conversations with General Stanley McChrystal -- and I'm grateful to him for the time he gave me there, and even on the telephone since, he understands the necessity of conducting a smart counterinsurgency in a limited geographic area -- but I believe his current plan reaches too far too fast.

We do not yet have the critical guarantees of governance and of development capacity -- the other two legs of counterinsurgency. And I have serious concerns about the ability to produce effective Afghan forces to partner with, at the rate that we need to, so that we can ensure that when our troops make heroic sacrifices, the benefits to the Afghans are actually clear and sustainable.

With that in mind, decisions about additional troops should be informed by an assessment that takes into account the following three conditions:

First, are there enough reliable Afghan forces to partner with American troops; at what rate; and eventually take over responsibility for security? The quickest way out of Afghanistan for our troops is to speed up the training and mentoring of the Afghan national army and police so they can defend their own country. The current goal is to increase the number of trained Afghan national army troops from 92,000 to 134,000 by December of 2011. And General McChrystal is reportedly trying to complete that within the next year.

Despite the 92,000 number, I will tell you that most of the assessments I got told me that we're really considerably lower -- that today, at 50,000, maybe even less range of those who can actually work in the way that we desire.

And I think key to our ability to develop them in the way that they need to develop for their own confidence and their own sense of possibility is giving them as much on-the-job training as soon as possible.

Partnering with Afghans is also a crucial way to relieve the palpable strain of having foreign troops on foreign soil -- Afghan, in this case, obviously.

The second question to ask is are there local leaders that we can partner with? The importance of that cannot be overstated. We have to be able to identify and cooperate with tribal, district, and provincial leaders who command the authority to help deliver services and restore Afghans' faith in their government.

Third is the civilian side, which must be ready to follow swiftly with the development aid that brings tangible benefits to the local population. When they support our troops and take the risks of, in a sense, coming over to our side, they must see their lives improve.

General McChrystal himself has made clear that there is no purely military solution, and the number of troops, this discussion we've had, misses the point entirely.

His now-famous assessment that we're all referring to also said, and I quote it, "There's an urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way we think and operate.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think General McChrystal's words hit the nail on the head. And the key now, the bottom line, is for us to make sure that the civilian leadership guarantees that.

The bottom line is that deploying additional troops won't result in sustainable gains if the Afghan security, civilian, and governance capacity isn't there. And right now, as our generals will tell you, in many places, too many places, it isn't.

Several generals were very frank that they were confident about the security side, but they also said their work will fail without an effective civilian strategy.

Progress on this front is expected to be coming in the months ahead, with a significant influx of U.S. civilians and efforts to work with the Afghan government in order to implement reforms.

And that's why the right debate isn't simply about how and why and when to deploy troops. It's not how many troops that matters most; it's what they do.

The debate ought to be about how best to create the conditions that foster progress in Afghanistan. And you can't have a serious discussion about the numbers until you have answered the critical questions that I've laid out.

Under the right circumstances, if we can be confident that military efforts can be sustained and built on, then I would support the president, should he decide to send some additional troops to regain the initiative.

Let me be clear: Absent an urgent, strategic imperative, we need a valid assessment by the president and other appropriate civilian authorities, not just the military, that those three conditions I stated will be met before we consider sending more soldiers and Marines to clear new areas.

There's a distinction between that and, obviously, deploying.

It is important to remember that even if President Obama gives the green light for m ore troops, as of now the military can only deploy one brigade, roughly, every three months.

According to our senior military leadership, by the end of 2010 we will have a good idea whether our strategy is working or not. So it is important to remember we will have ample opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of this strategy as we go forward.

Progress on governance will be key, and we will have an opportunity to measure that.

When I arrived in Afghanistan, there was a real worry that the electoral deadlock would drift into an extended period of chaos that benefited the Taliban.

Over several days of talks with President Karzai, I got to know him a lot better. We spoke about our families, about history, about the history of Afghanistan, about his own journey from Pakistan and back into the country, about his tribe and his background and his father's assassination.

We discussed his aspirations for the country and his concerns about the U.S.-Afghan relationship. He voiced his worry that Afghan Pashtuns were being treated unfairly. And yes, we even vented over the frustrations of presidential elections.

(Scattered laughter.)

President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah's decision last week to agree to hold a run-off election shows that both men are willing to put their country ahead of politics.

But that result is not an end in itself. It's an opening to strengthen our partners and fix some of the problems of governance. It will only matter if we use it as an opening to strengthen our partners and to fix that problem of governance.

The truth is that the decisions made and actions taken in the weeks and months ahead will be what really gives meaning to that moment and definition to the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If this is to be a turning point, we must strengthen the capacity of the Afghan government and insist that its leaders embrace lasting reforms.

This must include addressing the problems caused by corrupt officials at every level of government. Obviously, that won't be easy, but I'm telling you it is essential to any chance of success.

To achieve good governance, we also have to redefine the Afghan government beyond Kabul. Just as U.S. city and state governments are expected to deliver education or sanitation, electricity, regardless of who sits in the White House.

The Afghan government, in the same way, has to have a face at the district and provincial levels. A more decentralized approach increases accountability and will provide better services.

We also need to respect Afghan heritage, and work with the tribes more directly and sensitively.

I saw firsthand how powerful tribal elders can be in deciding the future of their communities. We can be strict in using development aid and political support, and even the presence of troops to bolster effective tribal leaders and sideline those who are hostile or ineffective.

We stand to benefit greatly if we can build up a better tribal intelligence and personal network across the country, and particularly in the Pashtun belt. We have to incorporate Afghan cultural norms, such as local and tribal dispute-resolution mechanisms, to help Afghans provide justice and security that they want.

Amazingly, the Taliban actually have ombudsmen to hold their shadow government accountable to the people. The legitimate government of Afghanistan can't be less accountable than the Taliban, or we cannot be successful.

If effective governance is to take hold, and I believe our mission depends on it, then our Afghan partners must tackle corruption at the highest levels. And we deserve an opportunity to measure that progress and to measure that commitment, even as we make a choice about troops.

The fact that the Afghan government has not prosecuted a single high-level drug trafficker damages all of our efforts, because it goes to the fundamental question of credibility. The narcotics trade, which generates 90 percent of the world's heroin and 3 billion (dollars) a year in profits to somebody, and some of it to the insurgency, not only fuels that insurgency but also finances the corruption that corrodes governance.

Effective governance in Afghanistan must also respect women's voices. Afghan women's groups have fought hard to have a seat at the table, and we should support these indigenous efforts, because one of the easiest ways to empower Afghans is to empower Afghan women.

Hand in hand with better governance, we need to promote basic sustainable economic development. I'm talking about the basic kind of development, not the kind of development that's so far beyond reach or that people see as a 50-year, nation-building exercise.

I'm talking about basics, the kind that I came to hear when I held a shura with 275 local tribal elders who said to me, we're happy with the police; we're happy with the governor; we're happy with the army. But we need water. Help us get water.

I believe that the international community must assemble and resource significantly now a real civilian strategy to build the base for a stable Afghanistan. Until now. Until now, donors have lacked coordination, lacked discipline, lacked a national plan.

Provincial reconstruction teams differ in their mandate -- make up their own mission, in some cases, carving out their own chunk of Afghanistan. This approach is simply not sustainable. Not only that, it just doesn't work.

A coordinated strategy of good government and economic development is central to any strategy for success. In a counterinsurgency, the people are the center of gravity, and winning their support is the heart of the battle.

Fortunately, the Taliban are far from an insurmountable force. And this is important for us to think about as we go forward and make judgments.

Their brand of extremism rose out of the ashes of the brutal Soviet occupation and the American abandonment. And there was literally chaos in Afghanistan at the time that they were able to take over.

This is not 1996, and the Afghans themselves, I believe -- particularly in the northern part of the country where they lived with it once before and don't want to live with it again, and have a distinct ethnic difference, where 60 percent of the population is -- I believe that together with our presence, the Taliban cannot return to power. And we have the ability to prevent that.

The Taliban do not represent a unified national movement like the one we faced in Vietnam, nor do they currently represent the kind of ethnic divide that we faced in Iraq.

There are only a few thousand hardcore, ideological, irreconcilable Taliban -- maybe, in the end, 3 (thousand) or 4,000 of those and 30 percent of the hardcore.

But the other 70 percent, many of them are fighters who are motivated by anger at Kabul -- at the government that they see as corrupt or ineffective. Others are essentially common criminals, using the Taliban as a cause to justify drug dealing, kidnapping, and extortion. Still others simply seek a daily wage or the safety of joining a movement that they perceive as on the upswing.

The Taliban is a loose confederation with widely varying goals and motivations. Many, I believe -- and I think this judgment is shared by many on the ground -- can be lured away by the right combination of money, diplomacy, reintegration into society, and smart outreach to Pashtun tribal leaders, including those who currently back the Taliban.

If we could provide this sort of basic sustainable (least ?) economic development, we will go a long way towards winning over the Afghan people. Afghanistan is an agrarian society whose population is among the poorest on Earth. Their needs are simple. They are very different from Iraq -- different in the level of their governance, the capacity that ever was developed, and different even in their expectations. They are not asking for their society to be transformed overnight but they are frustrated by the slow, almost invisible pace of progress.

Clearly, then, development must be improved. But I want to just say to everybody we do have some notable successes to build on. I'm not just throwing this concept of accomplishing this connection out of the blue because today, the fact is 84 percent of Afghans, because of the international efforts, have access to basic health care -- 10 times the number that existed in 2002.

Infant mortality rates are down 22 percent. Under the Taliban, only 900,000 children were in school, and no girls. Today, over 6 million children are enrolled in schools and 2 million are girls. In 2002, Afghanistan had only 50 kilometers of intact paved roads. Today, there are 2,700 kilometers of roads that have been paved and 80 percent of Afghans now live within 50 kilometers of the Ring Road, giving them access to markets, health, and educational facilities.

These actual successes tell us that we need to seek out good Afghan leadership and invest in it, embrace a standardized national approach for international donors to work together, and invest in Afghan-led programs like the National Solidarity Program.

Our international allies also have a more crucial role to play and we need to continue to press them to do that. The decision by NATO defense ministers to affirm an increase in military and civilian contributions is commendable and important and long overdue. NATO ministers must now back up these words with a solid commitment including new troops, trainers, and development support. Better integrating individual NATO countries' efforts into a national and unified command structure would also help enormously. The UN must also do more to better coordinate civilian efforts.

So here's the bottom line. The United States cannot do it alone and there is something wrong with the fact that today we're borrowing money from China to provide security for Afghanistan so that China can go there and mine their copper. We want all nations to trade and invest in Afghanistan but we also want all nations to help with stabilizing the country.

What happens inside Afghanistan is important to our strategic interests, my friends. But our goals and our mission do not end at Afghanistan's borders. No front is more important in our fight against international terrorism than nuclear-armed Pakistan, and the chaos next door in Afghanistan would have enormous repercussions there.

We have a real stake in supporting allies in Pakistan and improving our relationship with the people. That's why we're committed to providing the Pakistani people with $1.5 billion a year for each of the next five years to build schools, hospitals, and roads. We need to make it clear that we respect their sovereignty as we give Pakistan vital breathing space in order to deal with its difficult domestic problems.

These are serious challenges for Pakistan's civilian, military, and intelligence leaders. Historically, Pakistani intelligence services have used the Taliban as a hedge, and there is a real concern that that continues. If we falter in Afghanistan, factions within Pakistan may well determine that it's in their interest to strengthen their dealings with extremists. The good news is that right now many Pakistanis recognize that they face an existential challenge from within their borders.

The Pakistani military has demonstrated firm resolve with its current offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan and they deserve great credit for that. We need to be doing as much as we can do, and that involves Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, in order to assist the Pakistani military as they go after domestic extremists. And nothing will do more to help tighten the vise on the remnants of al Qaeda than to do that in a coordinated way. America and the international community must reassure Pakistanis that tackling this challenge will lead to a lasting relationship with real economic and security benefits.

We should be reaching out regionally and globally to Moscow, Beijing, Delhi, and Central Asia, and also to Tehran. We should explore ways to cooperate with each of them because each of them has direct interests in Afghanistan. None of this will be easy, but there is a path forward if we focus on what is achievable. We can't build a modern nation from scratch but we can create policies that shift responsibility and resources to Afghans to build their own country at their own pace.

Last week, I saw that first hand when I took that helicopter ride from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan to the fiercely-contested Helmand Province. This area was once the breadbasket of Afghanistan -- a place where agriculture thrived on irrigation canals built by American engineers in the 1950s and 60s. Today, drug traffickers and insurgents have transformed it into the world's largest producer of opium for heroin.

In the district of Garmsir, I met, as I mentioned, with those 25 elders who convened that tribal shura in the courtyard, and I was stunned by, first of all, the array of these incredible faces and this stunning setting, all just squatting on the ground, sitting there listening and talking with their own leadership -- with the governor. But they were happy that our troops had brought a measure of peace to such a troubled place where just not a few months ago the Taliban ran rampant.

They were pleased to see better security. They were pleased with the governance (they receiving ?) locally. But they told me in no uncertain terms that what they really wanted, and I'll quote somebody -- one of the leaders got up after a couple of other people talked and he said, "We have no drinking water in my family compound. No wells, no canals, and no infrastructure." In short, even in the midst of conflict what they really wanted was basic services -- some improvement in their lives.

If we can help Afghans dig wells and dredge the canals asked for by that village elder, that alone will take an enormous step forward in providing them a sense that we're actually on their side, and in doing so I believe we can marginalize Taliban, certainly in that area, I believe, across Afghanistan.

So this is a microcosm of what needs to happen wherever our troops are. It underscores how much we need to strengthen our civilian assistance and develop a coordinated approach that targets our resources on the people and places where we can show measurable successes to the Afghan people.

We need to remember, in closing, the words of George Kennan, one of our wisest diplomats and a member of this council for 59 years. His 1966 testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee was about another war but it rings true today. He said, "Our country should not be asked and should not ask of itself to shoulder the main burden of determining the political realities in any other country. This is not only not our business but I don't think we can do it successfully."

We need to stay focused on what we can do successfully. Do what is possible. Deport our troops. Choose the right missions. Train Afghans. Build capacity. Regain the initiative. Reverse the Taliban's momentum.

It is not our mission to determine the political realities of Afghanistan, and it shouldn't be. That job belongs to Afghan (sic) themselves. But with the right strategy, rightly debated, openly arrived at, rightly adopted, and rightly implemented, we can not only empower the Afghan people to choose their own destiny -- we can increase our leverage against extremists, strengthen the democratic government in Pakistan, and ultimately do what we all want to do -- bring our troops home. Thank you. (Applause.)

SANGER: Thank you, Senator. I'll start off with a couple of questions and then go to all of you. You said during your speech we don't have to control every hamlet and every village. You seem to be describing a strategy of counter insurgency in the major population areas but one that could allow the Taliban to remain somewhat strong in the rural territories periodically hit by counter terrorism strikes. The critics of that approach say it doesn't work. It has echoes of what we were left with during the Bush administration when they simply did not have enough troops to go very far beyond Kabul and a few other cities. Tell us why you think this will work differently now.

KERRY: Well, first of all, let me start by saying that the -- you cannot understate the degree to which the Bush administration turned its back on Afghanistan, completely.

I mean, military personnel will tell you of their under resourcing, the lack of attention, whole, you know, companies of troops were diverted from there to Iraq, as well as other resources.

And I think we had we had something like 28,000 troops for most of that period of time. We now have -- people aren't aware of this to some degree -- but President Bush in fact began a stealth surge in Afghanistan in 2008, and we now have almost triple the number of troops that we had there at that point in time right now. We haven't even seen the impact of that, because we haven't had a strategy to go with it, similar to what I was talking about.

So I think we're in a very different place from where we are. We've gotten great experience on the ground. People are beginning to know and understand the differences of Afghanistan. That experience is critical. General Petraeus and General McChrystal both talked to me about the importance of having people who have been there before and have been through this experience and the way in which that changes the dynamic. We didn't have that with George Bush at that period of time.

And significantly, you know, they sort of looked the other way. You know, that comment about the eight years of the same war is the most telling of all, because there was no effort to try to confront in a fundamental way the level of corruption, to even work with the local districts. That's new. To find a governor, like the governor we have down in Helmand, Governor Mangal, a terrific, very capable, highly respect leader, unlike a couple of other places in the country, where we have governors who are problematical.

And so if we can begin to get the reform from President Karzai at the national level that I talked about and the appointment of those governors and then work with them at the local area so that when the troops do go in and clear a particular area, you have the civilian structure to bring in indigenously, to begin to show authority, you have a very different ingredient, I think, David.

And so it's night and day from where we were during the course of those eight years. What's tragic is that the lack of that resourcing during those eight years has permitted the Taliban to grow, mostly not because of our presence but mostly because of their dissatisfaction and inadequacy of governance and delivery of services. That's why I believe there is this chance to sort of progressively turn it around.

But what you can't do -- the reason I say we don't want to bite off more than we can chew -- is you cannot put troops in places or even move at a pace that gets ahead of your ability to guarantee that you don't once again disappoint or not deliver where you've promised it. Because once people make the decision to commit to you, they're taking their lives at risk. And you need to be able to provide them with the full panoply of security, governance and development that helps reinforce the stakes that they have taken.

SANGER: Thank you. You've discussed Pakistan a bit. And I went back to the bill that you coauthored on additional aid to Pakistan. You've put at least three conditions in the bill for what you believe Pakistanis need to do in order to merit continued support.

One of them is, of course, continuing to pursue dismantling supplier networks and give us what you call relevant information or direct access to Pakistani nationals associated with such networks. That means access to A.Q. Khan.

You also said making sure that the ISI is ceasing its support for extremist groups.

These have been two issues that the Obama administration has not wanted to discuss publicly very much. Tell us, based on your trip, your conversations with the Pakistanis, how are they doing right now as a baseline in meeting the standards that your legislation sets?

KERRY: Well, let me emphasize first of all, if you look at the Senate bill, none of that was in it. My friend Jane Harman is here. And this is often the difference between, you know, legislative efforts between the House and the Senate and the effort to conference it and get a bill. But it is in the bill.

SANGER: It's in the final legislation (as signed ?).

KERRY: But -- but -- what we put in the final bill is not a condition. We agreed with Howard Berman and House members to walk back from a series of conditions to a report from our administration to the Congress. So, you know, there is an excess of sensitivity, and I understand the politics.

I was just in Pakistan. I just met with, you know, Nawaz Sharif and President Zardari and others and with General Kayani. And I understand the sensitivity to these things in the country. And we're not trying to be oblivious to that.

But this was a report, appropriately asked for by the United States Congress from the administration, as to what kind of progress is being made by our friends with respect to these issues. Why? Well, because the American people have a right to know that their money is being spent to support values that are important to us as Americans.

So it is not a condition. And when Foreign Minister Qureshi came here and we had a day of sort of working through this with him, we gave him a very clear statement signed by Howard Berman and myself and he, that completely clarifies the protection of Pakistani sovereignty, the unwillingness of the United States to micromanage, that we are not attempting to do so, and a series of qualifications, of explanations that I believe have put this back on the track that it ought to be.

That is not to say that someone still won't argue about it. But the vast majority of politicians in Pakistan have moved on and are prepared now to try to build the relationship.

One of the things that I will say to all of you is we need to do a better job ourselves of explain ourselves. And we need to be much more sensitive to their sensibilities as to how we can proceed forward to empower them to be able to change the view of the United States in Pakistan.

I think there are some immediate opportunities. There is a campaign in Waziristan right now that will be at least 400,000 displaced persons, just as in the Swat Valley we moved in rapidly to provide assistance, but it was under the aegis of one of the world organizations and therefore not affiliated with us. I think if people had a sense that we're there for humanitarian purposes and relationship-building with the people and for health and schools and the other things that we have normally done as a centerpiece of American foreign policy under USAID or other plans, we will stand a better chance of rebuilding America's relationship.

But for the moment, they view it in the context of drones and of war and of the request from us to them, persistently, to heighten their efforts against extremists in (kinetic ?) ways, which results in collateral impact.

And so that's all part of sort of recalibrating which President Obama is appropriately doing. And I think it's a very important recalibration we're trying to seek in Pakistan, in Afghanistan and regionally.

SANGER: Let's go to some of your questions.

Over here first.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Barbara Slavin from The Washington Times. Senator Kerry, you spoke about corruption at the highest levels in Afghanistan. What makes you think that President Karzai, who presumably will be reelected, is able to control this when there are reports that his own brother is involved in the drug trade?

And may I also ask a second, if I can slip it in, and that is the question of morale of American forces. You say that the Obama administration has to take its time deliberating. But what is the impact that this is having on forces who are already there and who are dying as this war goes on?

KERRY: Well, let me -- you know, I hope I'm not violating any confidence in sharing this with you, but I think it's important, so I'll put it out there.

During our walk, we had a very direct conversation about that. In fact, he asked me about it, he raised the subject, quite interesting. And we talked about the perceptions of his brother.

Let me just say this in answer to this. I have requested from our intelligence sources and law enforcement folks the smoking gun, the evidence. Show me, what do we know? (Ben's ?) head is nodding. And I'll tell you right now, folks, nobody has, nobody has. Nobody has given me the sort of hard-and-fast here's what we heard him say, or here's what we caught him doing, or here's what he's involved in, et cetera, so this swirls around.

And you know, there are lots of different stories like that that swirl around. Now, I'm not going to go into all of the conversation I had with the president. I think there are things that Ahmed Wali Karzai has done that haven't been helpful. There are things he does that are very helpful for us. And we need to look hard at the balance of how we can best manage Kandahar and that particular region.

I am confident that that is a conversation that is going to be engaged in very, very soon with the president. And it ought to be done at that level, not here.

But we are all very sensitive to those stories and to the impact on folks out there. For the moment, you know, we're talking by the poppies, we're not destroying them, because we have learned that it is counterproductive to do that unless you have a replacement. And so I think we've gotten smarter.

The immediate demand is security, and then you can, once you've got security, bring the people in who will begin to work on the crop substitution, on the alternative seeds and crops and so forth. And we can begin to change it.

If all you do is destroy their livelihood and there's no substitution for it, you're creating Taliban or whatever, certainly neutrality. So I think we've gotten smarter. And hopefully, we'll work on the different (positions ?).

Final comment. I am convinced President Karzai understands the need to make some changes. There are some terrific ministers incidentally in his government. We've worked with them very closely, and we have significant confidence in a number of those ministers.

There are also some where there are some greater problems in certain ministries in terms of delivery of services, and he is well-aware of that.

As in any election anywhere, no one running for election for president of a country is going to announce who he is moving out till the election is over. I'm confident there are going to be some changes, and we need to work very hard at those, because they are central to this turning around.

Well, I found -- you know, the morale was very strong. I was blessed to be with, you know, the Marines of Camp Leatherneck down in Helmand. And, you know, the Marines have a proud tradition of keeping their morale high. There are other parts of the country where, you know, some individuals have a different attitude.

I suspect, if we put in the right strategy and we begin to show progress, which we can measure -- and I've said very clearly today, you've got to set up this standard of measuring; you can't just kind of say, "Oh, 40,000? Great. Let's go. Let's do it." And there's no benchmark. There's no standard. There's no overall coordinating strategy or anything.

But if we get that in place, I really do believe that we can begin to share with our soldiers on the ground a greater sense of what their accomplishment means and what their sacrifice are getting us, and that is a very important part of sustainability here.

QUESTIONER: Senator, you've given us a very impressive, extensive lists of musts -- what must be done by the government and what must be done by Afghanistan. Could you single out two or three of these must decisions that must be taken by the administration here in Washington so that you won't feel that any future Americans being sent over to Afghanistan won't be possibly dying for a mistake?

Secondly, back in 1963, President Kennedy, in the famous interview with Walter Cronkite, talking about Vietnam, said, "It's their country. And in the final analysis, they must do the job." Do the Afghans feel -- have that sense, that it's their job, it's up to them to do it, and that we haven't created a sense of overdependence on the United States?

KERRY: No, I don't think we have created that sense of overdependence, actually. And I think it's critical that we don't, needless to say. What we have created over the last eight years of vacuum is a sense of desperation. And because of the lack of coordination and pressure and effort with the Karzai government, lack of a coordinated strategy at the local level, district level, the lack of adequate civilian assistance -- I mean, our civilian presence there is disgraceful compared to what it ought to be relative to the challenge. Now, they're going to start plussing it up.

This is not, incidentally -- I know Secretary Clinton and I have talked about this. She's passionate about it. She understands it. The administration understands it. They're plussing it up. They're trying to find people as fast as they can, and the skill sets to go in there and be able to do it. Obviously you can't go in there with the skill sets if you don't, number one, have the security, and then, number two, have counterparts to work with who can make some decisions in order to get some things done.

One of the reasons things happen right now done in Gomshir (sp) is that you've got -- you know, the Marines are essentially filling that hole right now, and there's some civilian underpinning to it. And they're working very closely with the governor, who has the respect of the elders. And so something's beginning to take hold.

As I said, we can't do that countrywide because we just don't have the resources and the capacity, nor do we need to. I want to emphasize that again. We don't need to. Because of the Taliban that I described to you -- I don't want to predict this, and I'm not predicting it today, but I do believe that a certain number of people are going to just start to melt away from them.

Remember, they faded in the span of 300 people coming at them with some, you know, aircraft -- (inaudible). That was a very different situation. We're not coming in in that way now. But we need to -- you said, what decisions do we need to make that would guarantee to me that it's not going to be?

The first is that we have a coordination, as I said, between the allies, between all of the folks who are doing development, that we're pursuing a standard and pursuing a set of objectives that are clear and achievable.

Second is that we get these reforms in place. It is now November. We can have, you know, conceivably, if the president makes a decision to move somebody -- I know there's a waiting battalion that's already been readied under the other count of troops. You can have another one by sometime next year.

Between now and then, before they even get there, we ought to have some of these changes in place with respect to the governance that we expect. And if we can't get a new government -- you know, the newly inaugurated president, whoever it is, to do that, that has to give you serious pause about your willingness to follow through on the deployment or the order to clear and hold any particular other area.

So it's not just clear and hold. It's clear, hold, build and transfer. And the transfer is the third piece. I want to see, with some assurance, what kind of capacity we're building in our Afghan National Army partners so they can be there with us and they can be the face of what is happening. I think that's why I set those conditions.

I think they're critical, those three, to being able to make a judgment that you're actually going to say, "Go clear and hold this area." If we go clear and hold and all we do is use CERP money to buy off some of those kids and the Army or Marines are sitting there the whole time trying to maintain, you know, a sense of there's a future, I think we're in real trouble.

SANGER: Senator, the Council has fairly strict rules about staying on time, and they take it out on the moderator, not on the speaker. So I'm going to do one quick lightning round of three questions to which we'll try to get three quick answers.

We'll start with Congresswoman Harman.

REP. JANE HARMAN (D-CA): Quickly. I want to applaud an excellent overview of the situation and excellent recommendations. But I confess I was one of the ringleaders in the House trying to ask for conditions, or at least language, on nonproliferation by Pakistan in relation to our recent aid package.

I think it was worked out well, but I do confess to being worried about what A.Q. Khan and others are doing in Pakistan now, and I wanted to ask about whether you think, in light of the way we worked out that aid package and in light of Pakistan's new effort, which I would applaud, to go into Waziristan and rout out the Taliban, whether you think we are keeping an adequate eye on the possibility of proliferation from Pakistan to other places, especially to non-state actors like al Qaeda and other terror groups.

And one more related question, David. May I do that or not?

KERRY: Not belated.

SANGER: (Laughs.)

REP. HARMAN: Forget it. I won't do it. Thank you.

SANGER: Thanks. And we're going to just take one quick question over there and then we'll do the answers combined.

QUESTIONER: Senator, that was an excellent, thoughtful, comprehensive discussion of a very important issue.

I go to Pakistan frequently, and I always hear the following. I wonder if you'd address it, because the two countries are obviously related, as you point out, with an almost ethereal border. And that's about the drones. Pakistanis are deeply offended by it. They tell me that it causes far more damage than it does help. And they say it's a classic case of the measurable beating the unmeasurable.

The measurable, of course, is the high-value target we kill. The unmeasurable is how much anger and hatred we generate by killing 14, 15 other people who are not the target. In that culture, the Pashtun culture particularly, they become honor-bound then to try to kill us, because their family has been killed for no good reason. So --

KERRY: I'll come back to that, yeah.

Somebody else had one.

SANGER: One last one right over here.

QUESTIONER: Elise Labott with CNN.

Thank you for your presentation, Senator.

You say it's not the job of the U.S. to determine the political realities on the ground. Yet so much of what you speak about today and what the U.S. is trying to do is dependent on the ability to have a credible Afghan partner. So how do you kind of walk that balance between not interfering too much on the politics?

And you know, in your own trip -- and you were just speaking about the fact that you need to get rid of certain ministers and stuff -- how do you walk that balance? And what kind of -- if you could be a little bit more specific about the benchmarks that you have in mind on the civilian and military side that, if (you ?) are not met, you can't see adding those --

KERRY: Well, let me go to that last question last. Let me do the first two. I'll start with the drones.

On the drones, I've had a number of discussions -- I mean, can't help but not have them, because they bring it up. But in truth, there is a distinction -- I hate to say this, but there really is a distinction between what you sometimes hear publicly and what you also hear privately. And the drone program has -- I asked last year for a briefing on it, because I was hearing enough about it; I really wanted to understand the targeting and the targeting process and so forth.

I am convinced that it is highly circumscribed now, very carefully controlled within a hierarchy of decision-making, significantly limited in its collateral damage, and profoundly successful in the impact it has had in putting al Qaeda on the run. It is why we can now say that perhaps 14 of the top 20 al Qaeda leaders have been eliminated. And it is why al Qaeda is, to some degree, on the run and defensive. And I think it's important for people to know that they are.

That doesn't mean they're not dangerous and that they're not plotting. As I said earlier, we know we interrupted a plot right on the eve of September 11th of this year, and it's why Yemen and Somalia and other parts of the world are still going to require our vigilance and our diligence.

But this, as I said, can become the epicenter: the Hakkani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic Jihad -- the various groups that are there, and the hedges that still take place because of the India and Pakistan relationship that has not yet transformed to modernity. There are realities that we have to continue to deal with.

So I think we just have to be judicious and careful, and we are trying to be.

Here's what would help it the most, is if the -- if we help even more effectively. Look at the resource disparity I talked about: $243 billion have gone to Afghanistan; and many people have talked about the multiples of importance to Pakistan, and we're haggling over $1.5 billion of civilian assistance. It just doesn't make sense, folks.

And if we were to put much more effort into their ability to transition to make Waziristan a success, Swat Valley a success and, ultimately, to actually incorporate the western part of their country more formally into the nation than it has been at any time in the nation's existence, then we have a better chance of limiting al Qaeda and protecting our interests.

So I see a path there, and I think it's a very important path for us to pursue in this strategy.

SANGER: Senator, we have to close in a moment, but let's make sure we get to --

KERRY: Just on proliferation, I'll say very quickly, yes, we are making very, very certain we're all over that. We've had many conversations about safety, about what is happening.

There's increased cooperation, and I think India's recent decision to begin to reinvigorate its own program there -- which is absurd on both sides, to be honest with you -- may spark some further conversation about how we get even further controls.

The last thing, if I can just say in answer to the question about -- (audio break).

The key to that, my friends, is an art that I think we used to be very good at. And I grew up with a generation of people -- I quoted one of them -- who gained great reputations for their skill at it, whether it was George Kennan or Dean Acheson, a whole bunch of other people.

We have to do good diplomacy. That's -- you've got to listen to people. You've got to sort of hear their complaints, to which there is often considerable legitimacy. And we need to respond effectively to those complaints.

I think if they are the ones making the decisions -- it's their country -- our assistance does not have to translate into a full-throated colonialism or imperialism. It simply doesn't have to.

There is a capacity to respect sovereignty, to respect individuality, to respect culture, to respect history, and still cooperate with people. And I've seen us do it in countless countries, and I think we can do it more effectively in Afghanistan.

And I think that's part of what I sensed from President Karzai in those many hours we spent. I think he understands that.

Incidentally, folks, there are issues, obviously, of how they run their government and who he's created his alliances with and so forth. But if we applied the same -- our democracy ain't working so well, frankly. We've got our own set of problems we ought to be thinking about here, before we run around telling everybody how imperfect they are.

And the fact is that this man, I believe, is a patriot. If you look at his history, he didn't come here, as many did in his family or otherwise, to seek fortune. He stayed over there, rode a motorcycle into the country, took great risks with the Taliban on the ground. And his father before him, who was assassinated at the hands of Talibanesque types, et cetera, al Qaeda. He understands the stakes. He has a commitment to this.

And I think if we can work with him more effectively, I am convinced, as I said, they've got about eight or -- I don't want to get into numbers. They've got a number of very, very good ministers. They have the capacity to do better; we have the capacity to do better.

That doesn't have to be tantamount to our deciding their political outcome. It could be empowering them to decide it for themselves, and that's what it has to be.

SANGER: Senator, thank you very much. Thank you all for coming today.

(Applause.)

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