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A Conversation With Senator Carl Levin

Speaker: Carl Levin, Chairman, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate (D-MI)
Presider: Jonathan Karl, Chief White House Correspondent, ABC News
November 1, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations

STAFF: Good morning, everyone. Good morning, everyone. Just a couple of brief introductory announcements before we get started.

If you could just turn off, not just put on vibrate, your cell phones and all electronic devices, it will interfere with the sound system, that would be terrific. If you'd like to use an electronic device today, we have an overflow room outside of the meeting room. There will be a live feed of the session in there. As a reminder, this meeting is on the record and will be webcast live on cfr.org.

And one more announcement. CFR is pleased to announce an upcoming on-the-record meeting next Thursday morning at the same time with Representative Adam Smith. More information can be found in the back of your packet.

So we'll get started in just a minute. Thanks so much.

KARL: All right, welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm Jonathan Karl with ABC News.

It's a high honor to be here with Carl Levin. Absolutely needs no introduction so I will make mine incredibly brief. Carl Levin, of course is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee from the great state of Michigan; and of a special interest to me is he's just back from a trip to Afghanistan, where he met with our commanders over there and also had a one-on-one meeting with President Karzai. So I'm eager to hear about that.

And Senator Levin has some remarks about his trip to Afghanistan, and then we'll have a conversation.

Senator Levin?

LEVIN: Well, thank you, Jon. We appreciate the invitation to join you this morning, and look forward to that conversation as well. I'm not just here to share my ideas, but hopefully to receive some of the ideas that we all need in this kind of a world that we live in.

As Jon mentioned, I recently returned from Afghanistan, where we spent a couple days meeting with our commanders, with our troops, with President Karzai. We also met with the foreign minister there and the defense minister in Brussels before we went to Afghanistan; and basically feel that things have significantly improved and changed for the better during the last 10-year period. I've been there perhaps 12 times or so. My staff, who is with me today, will tell me it was only 11 or it was really 13...

(LAUGHTER)

... but we've -- I've been there a lot. And the -- the changes are pretty striking, particularly in the last few years. That's not the impression which the American people have, and I'll get into that in a moment. But that, to me, is the obvious fact: that things have changed and changed for the better in a number of ways in Afghanistan.

First of all, it's more secure. It's more secure because we came. It's that simple. We and our allies have made a difference. The growth of the Afghan army, the strength of the Afghan army and the police now, which has grown into a much more capable and respected force, including the local police, which has made a major difference, particularly in the villages of Afghanistan because they are directly connected to the elders in those villages.

Perhaps the most feared force are those 25,000 local police, feared by the Taliban, and -- because they are so directly connected to the -- their homes. They are protecting their homes and they become a -- are a major threat to Taliban control and success.

Obviously, the insurgency or the Taliban is a resilient force; it shouldn't be understated. There's a long way to go in Afghanistan in terms of becoming a -- truly a country which is freer of -- of terror. But nonetheless the changes are pretty striking.

There've been changes in the economy in Afghanistan. We drove across Kabul to the American University in Afghanistan. I wish Every American could go to the American University in Afghanistan just to visit there -- if every American could go there or if every American could see what is happening just in that one place or drive across Kabul to it, I believe, would change the view of most Americans about what we've accomplished with our allies and with the Afghan security forces in Afghanistan.

The -- you know, the city now is -- is full of cars. There's traffic jams. There's shops opening all over the place. People are in markets. It -- it's -- we couldn't drive across Kabul. They wouldn't let us drive across Kabul years before. It just simply was too dangerous.

It's still a dangerous place, by the way. I don't wanna sound Pollyannaish here. I don't want to underestimate the difficulty. My main point is that things have changed significantly for the better in Afghanistan, and the American people, sadly, don't know it.

There's a -- relative to the American University itself, by the way, part of the story, of course, is the growth in the number of students. When it opened, I think it started with 53 students. There's now 1,000 students there; 300 of them are women. This was the -- and they have a broad number of courses. I won't go into all those.

But just recently been opened on a new campus. An International Senate for Afghan Women's Economic Development -- that was established with the Department of Defense dollars. I'd love to make that off-the-record, but I can't. Everyone -- I'm sure some of my colleagues would say, "What the hell are we using Department of Defense dollars to open up a women's economic development school? Why isn't that AID? Why is it DOD?"

Well, it adds significantly to the security of the country. But I think, basically, the answer is because the DOD did a number of things, including some of the commanders expenditures, which helped the development of that country, which is so essential to its security. And this is part of it.

And one story we got at the American University at a town meeting that I had there was one student who talked about his life experience. When the Taliban was there he took refuge with his family. He was a young -- younger boy at that time. Went over to Iran for safety, and as soon as the Taliban were driven out he came back. His -- was accepted to American University; he taught himself, as a matter of fact, how to read and to write. He's now interviewing to -- for a job as a sales manager at Siemens (ph) and applying for a Fulbright scholarship.

And by the way, there are four Fulbright scholars at the American University in Kabul.

And he wanted me to say thanks to the American people, so this is as close as (inaudible) be able to come.

(LAUGHTER)

The education system in Afghanistan, not just higher education -- a number of universities (inaudible) many universities, so many of them that the number that was given to me is counterintuitive, so I don't use it.

But in terms of the lower grades, before you get to colleges and universities, before the Taliban was driven out, to the extent they have been; 900,000 boys in Afghan schools 10 years ago or so; now 8 million students in schools. About 3 million of those are girls, none of whom could have been educated before we got there with our allies.

In 2001, under the Taliban, there were 20,000 teachers, all male. There's now 200,000 teachers, 60,000 of whom are women.

Health care, much improved. Child mortality, significantly down. Five million Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan have returned home.

How is it, then, that 67 percent of the American people in the most recent survey think that the Afghan war was not worth fighting? How did (ph) that happen? Because the picture is much, much better than that number. I just don't believe that the American people have had a fair or fuller picture of the events in Afghanistan.

I believe the press has missed a good story. It hasn't missed the problems -- it's missed the progress. The impression that our people get doesn't come from the ether. It -- it comes from what they read or hear or see. And what they've seen is just sort of a steady diet of all the problems, which is fair game. And they should be brought into the light and disclosed and written about and talked about.

But what's been missing, I believe, is the part of the Afghan story which represents real progress so that -- the American people have been deprived, denied the sense of success or at least partial success which I believe they're entitled to because of the loss of blood and treasure by our people. I think it's a sad -- it's sad that our people don't have that sense that, 'Hey, we've made some progress in Afghanistan.' The picture, basically, has just been too one-sided, the focus just too much on failure, on discord.

So we now have to decide what we're going to do, what's the next steps in Afghanistan. We need a security agreement, a so-called bilateral security agreement for our troops to be able to stay. I hope that will be reached and reached soon, because I think we need a continuing relationship with Afghanistan to try to do everything that -- that we can, within reason, to keep the progress moving in the right direction and not to see a fallback to Taliban control or Taliban rule.

In terms of the security on the ground, the Taliban has not accomplished their strategic goals. They've not been able to hold any additional territory. Last year, there were 4,000 sites that had been turned over to the control of the Afghan security forces, and there were attacks against 3,000 of those sites. In 100 cases of the 4,000, there was temporary success by the Taliban attackers -- temporary. And in none of them was it any kind of permanent success. It was very temporary and then turned back.

To the -- the security situation, from a military perspective, has significantly improved, even though -- and this is critical, and I'll stop here -- we've turned over the entire security, basically, to the Afghans. And that's been a huge success story. We -- our commanders have been surprised by how well the Afghan security forces have done.

Now, this is not perfect. There are places where the security is not quite as good with the Afghan forces; they're on their own. They're now basically on their own.

Pretty quick -- doesn't seem quick. You know, a 10-year war seems like forever. But in terms of the transfer of responsibility to the Afghan forces -- this has been the last couple years, essentially.

I remember how much time and energy and effort we spent just a few years ago trying to get the data on how many of the Afghan forces were being partnered with us, how many were being led by us, how many were on their own. Well now, basically, they're on their own.

Now, obviously, we have some supporting troops that are still there. On their way out -- they'll all be out by the end of next year, accept for perhaps a force that will remain. We don't know the number, but perhaps total coalition force of 10,000 who would remain mainly to help on logistics and perhaps on some intelligence and perhaps some additional training, perhaps on some of the air -- the helicopters and Air Force. There's some special activities which would be engaged in by whatever our residual force is, and that hasn't been decided yet.

But nonetheless, they're basically now securing this country on their own, and they've done a better job, I think, than most of our commanders have expected.

So we need to be continually engaged in Afghanistan. We need for that to happen. We need to have a bilateral security agreement. President Karzai is always a challenge -- and I'm very diplomatic when I say that. This is a place of diplomacy. I want to be a diplomat at this location.

(LAUGHTER)

And his rhetoric has been -- has been stunningly bad at times, inaccurate at times; said things which I can't figure out why he's saying them, what the motive is. Like one of the things that he -- he says is that NATO has not achieved any security success in Afghanistan. Or he'll say that we've, at times (ph), been in league with the Taliban.

And I asked him directly, I said, "What possible motive could we have to be in league with the Taliban for one minute when they're killing our men and women and your men and women? What -- what could possibly be our motive?" And he said well, he's been trying to figure that out himself.

(LAUGHTER)

And then he -- he -- I said well, it hurts. This hurts. The American people hear you. By the way, he's almost alone in terms of the leadership of that country that acts as though it doesn't make much difference whether we come or stay. He's almost alone.

You talk to the ministers there, you talk to educators there, they want us to stay. We can't stay. We can have a residual force, but we can't stay.

And so, finally, he says, well -- he said, "There's been a Western history of divide and rule, divide and conquer here in Afghanistan." That's the best he could do, is because what happened 50 or 100 years ago, or when the Brits or the Russians or whoever did...

KARL: Alexander.

LEVIN: Alexander. You go back further than I do.

(LAUGHTER)

Any rate, that's it. And I just told him, I said, "You know, it just is -- you're undermining a goal which you obviously want, which is for there to be a -- some kind of a residual presence and your people clearly want by any -- by any polling or any conversation."

And so we had a good, healthy conversation, not my first with Karzai, but perhaps my last. I don't know.

Anyway, thanks for the invitation. Would be happy to engage in conversation. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

KARL: So, Senator, I -- I want to ask you -- there's a lot I want to ask you about Afghanistan, but I just want to start with the current dust-up over the NSA and over our, you know, alleged espionage of our friends and allies around the world.

LEVIN: Still alleged?

(LAUGHTER)

KARL: I guess it's pretty much acknowledged, isn't it? Although I keep trying to get an explicit acknowledgment out of the White House and they haven't quite gone that far. But let -- let me just ask you point blank...

LEVIN: What was the apology for if they haven't acknowledged it?

KARL: Yeah.

LEVIN: OK, anyway.

KARL: Well, yeah.

If you recall the statement about Angela Merkel was that the United States "is not and will not" be listening in on her -- on her phone conversations. There was never any statement about the past tense. It was always current, future.

LEVIN: Right.

KARL: Did you know this was going on? I mean, you got all the security...

LEVIN: Not specifically. I think the most that I would have known would have been the security. It would have been the intelligence assessments without saying specifically where they come -- where they came from.

In other words, it could be -- say, "Well, the source of some assessment would be high level officials," for instance, in a country, but you don't know whether that was one-on-one, whether it was transferred anonymously in conversation, whether it was overheard. So the source is -- they don't describe in the reports that we get that so-and-so's phone was -- conversation was tapped...

KARL: But...

LEVIN: I mean, that's not the way the report's -- so I would say that people assumed that there were conversations which were overheard. But I don't -- it wasn't as though they come to us with a report saying, "We want you all to know that we are listening in to conversations of the leaders...

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: Right, "You're not going to believe what Angela Merkel just said."

(LAUGHTER)

LEVIN: Yeah.

KARL: You know.

LEVIN: Right.

KARL: But -- but this didn't shock you when you -- you read the report?

LEVIN: No, it didn't shock me. I think it's -- I think it -- it startles us when we look at what -- or when we hear of something that sounds, to me, so wrong.

KARL: Yes.

LEVIN: I don't think we ought to be tapping the phone conversations or listening in on the phone conversations of our allies' leaders. If you ask...

KARL: Period.

LEVIN: Period. Yes.

Now the question is well, who are our allies?

KARL: Well...

(CROSSTALK)

LEVIN: You know, if there's a list and...

KARL: But there is a list, right? You've got NATO, you've got our major non-NATO allies...

LEVIN: ... allegedly is a list, I can't confirm that here. But, allegedly, now there's been nine -- nine additional leaders, according to some of your reports.

KARL: Yes.

LEVIN: I don't believe all the things I hear or read...

KARL: But from me?

LEVIN: Well, even from you. Well, that -- no, I can't...

(LAUGHTER)

... present company exempt. It depends on your source.

KARL: Right.

LEVIN: And sometimes you guys say "anonymous."

KARL: Right.

LEVIN: Just, you know, maybe no more than once a day. But, you know, we hear frequently in the media...

(LAUGHTER)

... you know, "An anonymous White House source." Well, we don't know who the heck that source is.

KARL: Right.

LEVIN: And there's times with some investigative reporters -- obviously not you...

(LAUGHTER)

... who -- who will try to get information from us. It happens all the time on the Hill. A reporter will come up and say, "I heard that you are planning a trip to the moon." Or I'd better make it more logical -- "You're planning a trip to North Korea."

KARL: OK. That's kind of like the moon.

LEVIN: Now, that -- and that reporter never heard that. He's saying, "I heard," hoping because I did go to North Korea 10 years ago that maybe I got plans now.

KARL: Yes.

LEVIN: And, you know, what -- and -- or there's a rumor that he heard or something like. So, you know, some very -- very aggressive investigative reporters are able to get anonymous statements and use them to get confirmations. I mean, it's -- it's a well-known thing. So any rate (ph)...

KARL: Well, but back to -- I mean, the question here, though, is -- I mean, we have -- we have our NATO allies, we have our major non-NATO allies. That list includes -- well, it includes Afghanistan. It includes Pakistan. Would it be smart for the United States to forswear any listening in on the leaders of those two countries?

LEVIN: I think that the test for me is whether or not leaders have a reasonable expectation that we're not gonna try to listen in on their conversations. That, to me, would be a test.

And if there's a reasonable expectation that we would not be trying to listen to their conversations then I think we ought to have some kind of an understanding with other countries about protecting our leaders from listening -- from being listened in to.

But it's kind of a -- using it -- kind of privacy test, what do Americans -- what is their reasonable expectation...

KARL: Yes.

LEVIN: ... as to whether or not their business records are gonna be open to more than the telephone companies.

KARL: Right.

LEVIN: It's kinda that issue. What's the reasonable expectation about privacy?

I think that our friends and allies, leaders, ought to have -- do have or should have, by the way, even if they don't, even if they're so cynical now they've given up believing that they won't be tapped by their best friends...

KARL: Right.

LEVIN: ... I think that we're better off, in terms of trust, because we need the trust of our allies' leaders. We need that trust. And I think that it's better that there be a reasonable expectation, if there already isn't one, that the conversations that are intended to be private, of our friends' leaders are not going to be intervened by us. That's -- that's my test.

KARL: Are you concerned that we could see the pendulum swing back? I mean, you talk to a lot of current and former intelligence officials -- are concerned that we're gonna over-correct this. That -- that, you know, even if it went a little bit too far -- I mean, you know, why are we listening to Chancellor Merkel -- that -- that there will be a move to -- to really constrain what the NSA and what our intelligence agencies do and we could have something like, you know -- I mean, much of the 9/11 report talks about how we went too far, you know, after the Church Commission and all -- and all of that.

LEVIN: I haven't seen evidence of it yet.

KARL: Yeah.

LEVIN: Sure it can go too far. But from what I've seen, we're not in...

KARL: Anywhere near.

LEVIN: Anywhere near going too far, even though we could go too far. The pendulum can go too far. I mean, the whole NSA metadata issue is a very fascinating issue. And you didn't ask the question so I won't take the time to give you my views on it, but, nonetheless, I haven't seen the pendulum swing too far yet.

KARL: OK, let's get back to Afghanistan. You -- I want to start just with that meeting with Karzai. I mean, he's said all the things you said he said. Talked to -- to some U.S. officials -- some on the record will talk about him as if he's a little bit unstable.

What's it like to...

LEVIN: I don't think he's unstable.

KARL: What's it like to be in the room with him? What's...

LEVIN: He's a -- we had a very friendly conversation...

KARL: Yes.

LEVIN: ... first of all, by the way. You know, it was very direct. I talked to him about some of the things that he says and the impact that that has...

KARL: Yes.

LEVIN: ... on us and on our people. And that I don't understand it -- I don't understand his politics, by the way.

KARL: Yes.

LEVIN: If his people want a presence, an ongoing presence, why is he saying things which make it either unlikely, less likely, or that he doesn't care that much. What's the politics? I don't get it. I'm a politician. Once in a great while you'll see people -- politicians say things for public consumption. I know it's rare.

(LAUGHTER)

But once in a great while politicians will say something for their publics that they don't exactly believe themselves or they would say it different.

Why is he saying these things? His -- it's totally inconsistent (inaudible) his public (inaudible). I don't get that.

So the -- but the conversation, I want to emphasize, are very friendly, they're very direct. His first question was about NSA. You know...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

LEVIN: ... trying to put me on -- trying to put me on the defensive.

KARL: Yes.

LEVIN: He says well, why are -- He says, "I presume you're tapping what I -- my phone. Why are you doing that to me -- to us?"

(LAUGHTER)

And I said we -- we are -- "We tap everybody. We don't discriminate against..."

(LAUGHTER)

It's not quite true, but -- it wasn't true, but I decided let's go (inaudible) to Afghanistan rather than...

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: Yes, right, right. Right.

Now, he's -- obviously -- you got a presidential election going on in Afghanistan. Did you see any signs of that when you were there? Did you see any...

LEVIN: A lot of evidence of it...

KARL: Yes.

LEVIN: ... actually. When I say "evidence," a lot of discussion about it...

KARL: Yes.

LEVIN: ... not evidence. So the signs, the answer is we didn't see visible signs...

KARL: Yes.

LEVIN: ... but a lot of discussion about it, and there's a lot of confidence that it's gonna happen...

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: Because it's scheduled for what, April 5th (ph)?

LEVIN: I don't know the exact date, but it's in April. hand the military there are pretty confident that they are going to be able to prevent the Taliban from disrupting it. That's the Taliban goal, will be to make it so that the Afghan people don't have the confidence in the outcome.

But...

KARL: And then what does Karzai do after that? Is he going to establish a presidential library in Jalalabad, or what do you -- what do you...

(CROSSTALK)

LEVIN: Oh, no. No, no. He's got -- he's building a -- a very modest little apartment for himself, 10,000 or 20,000 square feet or whatever (inaudible) on the -- on the grounds. And I think that he will -- he's gonna stick around.

KARL: But you think we'll have a genuine transition to a -- and there are how many candidates?

LEVIN: I think 11 are left, or 10? Ten was it?

I heard there were 10 out there...

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: And -- and -- and did we, I mean...

(CROSSTALK)

LEVIN: I thought my staff would help me...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

LEVIN: Ten, thank you, Bill.

KARL: And -- and do we, I mean, what -- what do we think happens post-Karzai Afghanistan? I mean, it -- we got warlords running. We got -- I mean, what's...

LEVIN: You know, I'm obviously more optimistic than the -- perhaps the average American is, given the information that's been given to them. So I just see evidence of progress. And if we can -- if we can maintain and if we can work out a -- a bilateral agreement for us and our allies that allow us to have a small presence but an effective presence there, I -- I just think -- I don't know if they want to do -- they don't like the Taliban and they like their army.

They've got no confidence in the government in terms of its being corruption-free or anywhere near that. I mean, the corruption problem remains there. The lack of services remains there. So this isn't like the Afghan people have great confidence in their government; they don't.

But they do have confidence in the army, and they have for a long time. And a few years ago, they didn't have a lot of confidence in the national police. They seem now, from everything we can gather, to have more confidence in the national police. And the local police, which I think is now at about 25,000 -- and they're trying to increase to 40,000 -- and (inaudible) have it in more places, that have -- they really have confidence because that's their own elders that basically are pointing and connected to that. They're defending their own villages.

So anyway, that -- the security part, I believe, is gonna continue to give the Taliban problems. The Taliban's gonna continue to be a force, particularly in rural areas -- and I don't want to underestimate that. And by some measures that I've seen, they've actually, in some places, Afghanistan is slightly less secure now than it was two years ago, by the way -- in some places. By the other measures that we've seen that our military keep, it's sort of a difference between the intelligence community...

KARL: Right.

LEVIN: ... and the -- and the military. By the measures that the military use, it's significantly more secure.

KARL: But -- but on this security agreement, I mean, let's be clear. If we don't get this security agreement, all U.S. forces are gonna leave Afghanistan...

(CROSSTALK)

LEVIN: That's true.

KARL: ... at the end -- by the end of next year.

LEVIN: Just like Iraq.

KARL: And -- and do you -- I mean...

(CROSSTALK)

LEVIN: That's -- if -- if there's no security agreement we can't stay. We're not gonna put our troops in a situation where they are at risk because of how they might be tried in a -- in a court where we don't have confidence, for instance, in a trial.

KARL: Well, how -- how a real a possibility is it that that does -- there is deadlock, there is no agreement? And what would the stakes be? What -- what happens if we just pick up and leave, 100 percent?

LEVIN: The -- I think it's likely we will get a -- a bilateral security agreement, but there's a couple of issues which still might remain unresolved. We still call him Senator Kerry -- but Secretary Kerry did a terrific job, by the way, in working out a couple successful solutions.

If...

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: He seems to get along with Karzai, by the way. He seems to have a relationship.

LEVIN: He gets along with everybody. He -- he really, because he's direct, and he's -- he's kind of hands-on. I think people respect that. He doesn't just kind of read from talking points, which I'm sure he makes good use of, but nonetheless, he also has his own knowledge and experience which he brings to bear, and his own background in working out problems with people and being direct with people. People like him. So he's -- he's a big plus there.

But if it doesn't happen and if we pull out, then I think the -- there is a greater chance that they'll fall back into a -- a society which they don't want.

KARL: OK, before we get to other questions, a couple more quick ones on this. Why are we -- I mean, should we be negotiating this agreement with Karzai or with his successor? Is it -- is it essential to get it done before Karzai leaves, or, I mean, just...

(CROSSTALK)

LEVIN: It is. It is.

KARL: Why?

LEVIN: Because a lot -- well, two things. I don't think you want it to be an issue in the campaign, in their campaign. I don't know that it would become, because as far as I know, I think all the candidates basically want...

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: Want us.

LEVIN: ... an ongoing relationship, not just with us but with the coalition.

Whatever that number is, 8,000 to 10,000, or 8,000 to 12,000 range number that you sometimes read about, which has not been decided on by the president, it -- it includes coalition.

KARL: Let me ask -- let me ask you about that, because before General Mattis left, he was talking about the -- the requirement being about 13,000 American troops, which would translate to about 20,000 coalition troops. What -- what do you think is needed?

LEVIN: I don't think it's going to happen, or should it.

I think we've had a better -- a better result...

KARL: What are the commanders saying now? Are they still where -- where Mattis was, or...

LEVIN: No, I think they -- they can accept or recommend a lower number. It's not up to them to accept; they'll accept whatever happens, but it is up to them to recommend.

My mission -- or what I believe our mission is -- is a better way to put it -- has always been to train the Afghan forces, and basically leave.

And one other comment about what happens if there's no agreement and that that would be bad for the future of Afghanistan, I think. But I -- is there's a difference between here and Iraq. In Iraq, we disbanded the Iraqi army, which a foolish thing that was done by the Bush administration, just disbanded it when we moved into Iraq.

KARL: And he'll tell you Bremer did that on his own, but...

LEVIN: No, he didn't do that on his own. I -- I know that. But any rate, the -- the opposite's happening here. You know, we're gonna have, we hope, 350,000 trained security forces in Afghanistan. And when I say "we," let me be clear, they are gonna have.

KARL: Right.

LEVIN: I always remember a conversation with an elder in one of these villages that I had probably eight years ago now -- or six years ago -- in a room not much bigger than this, on a dirt floor. And a hundred elders sitting there and a few senators, a couple of us were sitting up here. And we just by chance called a jura (ph) -- shura. We just happened to come to that village that day. It was not set up for us.

But anyway, we -- so we came there, we introduced ourselves the best that we could as kind of coming from a totally different world into a little village. But -- and then after that, I was -- we were able to ask a few questions. So I asked an old-timer -- they're all old-timers, it seemed -- that, I said, "What do you want us to do?" This is like eight years ago. "Do you want us here?" And he said, "We want you to train our army and leave."

KARL: Wow. Some message.

LEVIN: "And," he said, "we will then someday invite you back as guests."

Now, we haven't done exactly that, but basically that's what I've always felt our mission should be, is to train their security forces so they can secure their own country and leave, basically.

KARL: And the remarkable thing is although we didn't dissolve the army, for the first five years of that war we did almost no training of the Afghan forces. I mean, I was over there...

LEVIN: Really? I -- I thought we...

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: We -- we had General Caldwell here talking about how, you know, his efforts were starting almost from -- from the ground floor.

LEVIN: The training. Well -- I don't think it took five years, but anyway, my memory is that we started training...

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: But -- but let me ask you this, and then we'll turn to questions. The -- the Afghan national budget is about 20 percent financed by Afghanistan, about 80 percent by us and by others in the international community. Is that ever gonna change? I mean, Afghanistan's a country that can't support itself, not even close. When -- when does that start turning around?

LEVIN: When -- first of all, their agriculture is a tremendous potential, including exports. Secondly, their mining has got tremendous potential. It's all potential. Now the agriculture is much better now, it's much improved. But still, you're right: They cannot support themselves and they won't be able to for a long time.

And we're gonna have to, if we can -- particularly if we can work out a -- a bilateral security agreement -- I'm not sure that the funding that we have indicated would be forthcoming, as a realistic matter can be forthcoming. As a practical matter...

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: You mean from this Congress?

LEVIN: From -- from other countries as well as us -- unless there's a bilateral security agreement. I think that's going to be difficult, as a practical matter, to provide funding to them if they don't want to have a security agreement with us. But nonetheless, I think we're gonna have to have ongoing support for that country for many years with our allies.

It is a much smaller amount, much smaller amount than what it costs us now in Afghanistan. I mean, you're gonna see, as our troops come out, the -- the cost to us on the budget is gonna dramatically decline, even though it's an ongoing -- few billions that are gonna be involved.

KARL: All right. Great.

Now we'll turn to questions. We've got a -- obviously, a very well-informed audience. If you can please wait for the microphone when I call on you and stand, state your name and affiliation.

Let's start with you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

KARL: We'll get you next. No, you're -- you're good. Go ahead. You got the mike.

QUESTION: Thank you. I'm David Sedney. I was formerly the deputy secretary of defense for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Currently I'm on the steering committee of the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People, afghanalliance.org which is a source of a lot of that information that you were talking about, Senator. I have two questions -- positive information about Afghanistan.

I have two questions. The first is, many Afghans tell me that one of the problems with the BSA negotiation is they don't know what they're getting in return. They're afraid they're buying a pig in a poke, because there's been no statement from this administration of what kind of commitment there will be, both military and otherwise, after 2014.

Is there any possibility that in the absence of leadership from the administration that the Congress would step forward in the NDAA or elsewhere and make a commitment to Afghanistan post-2014, obviously contingent on a BSA, but to put some meat behind the bones so the Afghans don't feel they're buying a pig in a poke?

My second question is for you, George (sic). The Senator made a very excellent point that the American people are getting a false picture of Afghanistan by the media's focus on problems, not on progress, and I think your questions to the senator are good evidence of that. Why is the media incapable of reporting the story that the secretary -- sorry, maybe you should have been secretary -- that the senator made? Why -- that story about the progress, why the American people have a false impression of Afghanistan today?

KARL: I'll let you go first.

(LAUGHTER)

LEVIN: I would say, if you want to answer both questions, be my guest.

I think, actually, the administration's been fairly forthcoming in terms of commitments to Afghanistan in terms of what they could expect. And I don't see that the Congress, particularly with Karzai's comments, is going to be more precise or forthcoming than the president.

KARL: And -- and to -- I'm not really good at speaking for the entire media, but I will say that I think if there is an issue with coverage of Afghanistan, generally, it's that we don't do enough of it. It's extremely costly, extremely difficult. We -- none -- none of the major news, you know, television networks have bureaus anymore in Afghanistan. And I think, if anything, the problem is just simply not enough coverage.

And in terms of covering progress or covering problems, I think that's probably an issue that goes beyond just Afghanistan. I'm me, we -- we -- we tend to, you know, focus where there are difficulties and -- and ask -- ask those questions, and...

LEVIN: Right, that's why they -- same thing with the Congress. All you read is this negative stories on the Congress...

KARL: Right. I mean, you think, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

LEVIN: Actually, we've been treated very fairly by the media.

(LAUGHTER)

I'm not complaining about that.

KARL: But I think Teddy Roosevelt had the same complaint.

Barbara?

QUESTION: Barbara Slavin from the Atlantic Council and al-monitor.com -- want to change the topic a little bit to Iran.

Will the Congress wait on imposing new sanctions against Iran and give this diplomatic process a little more time? It appears things are going well. I'd like your assessment of how the talks are going.

And also, the last time you were here you talked about Syria and that the U.S. should be promoting the moderate opposition more robustly. That doesn't seem to have happened. What's the reason?

Thank you.

LEVIN: Let me do the second -- take the second question first; otherwise, I may forget it, at my age.

On Syria, I still feel that we're moving too slowly, although there's been some very gradual improvement in terms of training and equipping of the vetted opposition. But I happen to think that we've been much too slow in this.

And I was at the -- I went to Jordan and to Turkey with Senator King about six months ago or so -- four months ago. And I just think that -- that Assad is so unpopular in Syria that if we gave greater support -- military support, more lethal support and training to the vetted opposition -- it's gotta be vetted -- that it would lead to a quicker and a better political settlement, essentially, which would be the goal of it.

In terms of Iran, this is a really important point. Iran's rhetoric is changed. The tone of the meetings have changed. And whether or not it is -- there's a real change beneath the rhetoric, in my view, needs to be probed and tested. It could be -- even at -- whatever the percentage is, some people say the odds are that this is just a -- what do they call it -- a romance, or what's the (inaudible) that they're trying to -- what is it called?

(UNKNOWN): Charm offensive.

LEVIN: Charm offensive. Thank you.

Where's my staff? A guy...

(LAUGHTER)

Looking at the audience for my words.

(LAUGHTER)

You know, that's just a charm offensive with nothing behind it.

The -- it may be. Some people will say, "Surely it's all it is." Some people will say, "Hey, no. There's a real chance here."

Whether or not it's 10 percent chance or a 40 percent chance or a 60 percent, it should be tested, it should be probed, it -- because the potential here, if it's real, could be a major, major change.

KARL: But the question is should Congress go...

(CROSSTALK)

LEVIN: And -- and I didn't mean to in any way avoid that. I believe we should not at this time add additional sanctions. We should enforce the sanctions. We shouldn't (ph) pull back from the sanctions. We should fully keep those sanctions in place. That's, I believe, the main reason why Iran is where they're at, by the way, is because those sanctions have had an impact.

And my committee, the Armed Services Committee's been very much involved in putting those sanctions in place. The last National Defense Authorization Act had the last tranche or last series of sanctions in that bill.

So I'm not one who has -- at -- at any sense at all been opposed to sanctions; quite the opposite. I've been very, very strong for sanctions. But now, if we respond to this possibility in a negative way -- instead of being steady, keeping sanctions in place -- if we tighten the screw now when it looks as though against, apparently, some opposition at home in Iran that the Iranian leadership may be willing to talk about ending or modifying or changing and making less threatening their nuclear program.

If -- if the response is a negative response, we could very well lose the very countries, particularly Russia and China, who have stood with us at the U.N. to put sanctions in place internationally.

So it would weaken our current sanctions possibly -- and I will even say probably, but at least possibly -- for us to respond rhetorically or through additional sanctions in a negative way before we've taken the couple months that are needed to explore the reality of this -- as to whether there's a real change in Iran's attitude.

So I am -- I am willing to -- not only willing, I believe we should not at this time do something on top of what we've done. But we should in a steady, constant way keep the pressure on Iran, because it's -- it had a good result. But not because of the negative effect on our -- the countries that have joined with us on this -- add to that pressure at this time.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

LEVIN: Sorry?

QUESTION: No addition to the NDAA this year?

LEVIN: Some of the -- no. People may try to do it. I'm not saying -- I don't think we should do it. That doesn't mean it won't happen. I mean, there's a lot of things that I don't think should happen that happen, even on my own bill.

KARL: Yes?

QUESTION: Ray Tanter of the University of Michigan. Go blue, Carl.

LEVIN: You gotta big game...

(LAUGHTER)

... big game this weekend.

QUESTION: Michigan State.

LEVIN: But we also got a -- some Spartans in the audience here, too.

QUESTION: Right.

LEVIN: There you go.

QUESTION: I attended the talk by al-Maliki yesterday at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and I was struck by the fact that he granted nothing about the fact that he had mismanaged the political process.

I also was in Brussels and had a chance to interview one of his opponents, Dr. Hashimi, who is now in Qatar. And Dr. Hashimi showed me all kinds of documents to show that he was not guilty of the charges. And Hashimi is very much tied with the Sunni opposition. And it's incredible to me that al-Maliki doesn't bring the Sunnis in. That would undercut the whole Al Qaida operation.

And then I think, lastly, al-Maliki said that the Sons of Iraq in (ph) Anbar Province and places like that are with him. And I don't think they are, Senator.

KARL: Al-Maliki is, of course, meeting with the -- President Obama today.

LEVIN: Yeah. I -- I -- think I agree with just about everything you said. I'm not sure about the Sons of Iraq; I would be surprised if they're with him -- put it that way.

Other than that, I happen to agree with you. I joined a letter with -- a bipartisan letter with the -- Senators Menendez and McCain and a number of others, basically urging the president to make those points, Ray, and I -- I just basically agree with you.

And also in terms of the failure of the Iraqi government to protect the Christian minority, to protect the people at Camp Liberty, for instance -- you know, whether or not they were -- the government of Iraq were actually the perpetrators of that horrific outrage, what was -- used to be Camp Ashraf and now moved to Camp Liberty -- they -- they did not carry out the commitment to protect that camp.

And so -- and -- and the Christian minority in Iraq is -- is very, very fragile and has not been given the protection which they must give. The relationship to the Sunnis is what you say, in terms of Iraq, the relationship to Iran -- the idea that Iraq allows the Iranians to overfly Iraq, to support Assad is, to me, so totally terrible.

And...

QUESTION: And on the ground.

LEVIN: ... and -- probably on the ground in terms of weapons, as well. But nonetheless, the president's got a lot to talk to Maliki about. Maliki wants certain kind of weapons, and there's a lot of skepticism about providing any kind of weapons. But if there any, it ought to be conditioned to Maliki basically doing a number of things differently in his country and making sure that those weapons are not put to the -- the use which we could never support, hopefully.

KARL: Margaret?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Excuse me -- Margaret Warner from the PBS NewsHour. I wanted to follow up, just on Barbara's question.

One of the things being talked about in these negotiations is that if Rouhani were willing, or -- or his representatives to, say, freeze their own enrichment program, then the president has certain executive authority to also freeze some of the sanctions.

Would the Congress -- I mean, in a way he has that authority anyway -- but would you support something like that? In other words, the Iranians are looking for -- for a sign of good faith if -- if they extend a sign of good faith.

LEVIN: Well, I don't -- it's -- I don't think it'd be appropriate for me to tell you what signs of action on their part should result in signs from us. I -- I just think it's much -- I just don't feel comfortable doing that.

KARL: But it's clear the Iranians going to want something...

LEVIN: Sure.

KARL: ... and pretty soon.

LEVIN: Well, they're gonna want something and we're gonna want something. And the question is whether or not what we're willing to give them is producing something which is significant in terms of what they need to do. And I -- I -- I don't think I'm comfortable in kind of laying out the quids and the quos -- no, not the pros, I think it's the quos.

QUESTION: But you do see a -- you do recognize the need for a quid pro quo. With this, it would be a temporary measure while negotiations went on.

LEVIN: Well, my hunch is this is going to be done in phases. And if there's going to be a first phase, at some point, hopefully within a month or so, that is -- shows that they are not just talking differently, but they're behavior's gonna be different.

And -- and the reason I -- I -- I'm reluctant to get into this question of enrichment is because you can reduce your 50 percent enriched uranium down to 20 percent, but if you're still producing, even -- not 20 percent, but 10 percent, I think the right number is -- even if you go down to 10 percent or 20 percent, with the 50 percent -- in other words, you -- you reduce the 50 percent in your stockpile to -- to -- is it 10 percent or 20 percent?

(UNKNOWN): Twenty-five percent.

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: ... is where they want to go, yeah.

LEVIN: Then they -- if they're still producing it, then what? You know, what's the net?

So, I mean, these are very technical kinds of questions. And then how many months or years would it take for them to produce a weapon? Under what circumstances in phase 1? What do we leave them at for -- you know, what's still to be negotiated?

Anyway, I'm very reluctant to get into that other than to say that...

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: And our position had been no enrichment, but clearly we're gonna move from that.

LEVIN: Yeah.

(CROSSTALK)

LEVIN: Not -- not necessarily at the end of the day we're not necessarily gonna move from that. At the end, you know, phase 2 or phase 3, we may be exactly there. You want some kind of nuclear power, you can import it. That may be our ultimate (ph) game (ph).

KARL: You think that's where the White House is gonna be?

LEVIN: I think that's a goal. But that's not gonna obviously happen in -- in phase 1. Phase 1's gonna just be something that will, hopefully, if it comes off, show they are willing to move significantly and that what we're doing in return does not -- does not endanger, does not leave us off significantly in a worse place than we are now in terms of being able to act should they move toward a nuclear weapon.

QUESTION: Hi. John Sullivan with the Center for International Private Enterprise, CIPE for short.

I want to thank you for your positive comments about Afghanistan. You know, we've been there for a long time as well, and I've noticed a lot of positive developments. There are Afghan business associations that didn't exist before. The Afghan chamber has been overhauled; it still has a way to go. But the builders association and others are building the foundations for an economy. I won't say market-oriented -- it's not there yet -- but it's definitely moving in that direction.

But the question I wanted to ask you was, you know (inaudible) talking about the negativity, to me, a -- a good portion of that is coming from the various inspectors general that are reporting on Afghanistan: the aid programs, the defense programs, the projects that are built that are white elephants, the projects that are not built that the money disappears. Do you think the Afghan government is getting to the point where they can handle transfers of funds?

LEVIN: No.

KARL: That's a pretty straight answer.

LEVIN: I don't think they're at that point at all.

By the way, the -- we also had meetings with some businesspeople, who -- who came to that kind of town meeting that I had at American University. And I met the Chevy dealer there, I believe -- or GM representative dealer. So you're right, there's some real glimmers of enterprise.

And the women's enterprise that I mentioned to you, there's a significant deal. These are women who work during the day and who come to this place right at the American University campus to get the skills that they need to go into business. This is -- I know it's not gonna happen overnight, but it's a really significant change in the business community (inaudible).

KARL: Yes?

QUESTION: I'm Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School.

Senator, it's really wonderful to have you here and hear what you're saying.

I want to start with how you opened, which is telling the story so the public gets it. We don't seem to value that. It's not put in our educational system. And I look at this administration, where the president was so good at telling the story when he campaigned, and somehow seemed to lose that skill once he got into the White House. We have plenty of examples of that -- and, indeed, what's going on with the health care system.

LEVIN: Now, don't go there. That's a bad...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: No, I'm not -- I'm just using that as an example.

KARL: You were mentioning the Afghanistan health care progress.

(LAUGHTER)

I was wondering how they're website's doing?

QUESTION: Anyway, I -- what I really want to do is get you to...

(CROSSTALK)

LEVIN: I'm afraid if this is broadcast back home, "Levin, you're talking about Afghan health care? I mean, come on."

QUESTION: No, I'm just talking -- I'm talking about storytelling, and the importance of getting that into our educational system. And it would be wonderful if you might talk about that along with the press, that we need to get people who can sell stories. Because it's all about selling new ideas.

The other thing I want to tell you is we don't talk about complexity, so you don't write about complexity. And my God, we live in a complex (ph) system.

And finally, last night I saw a play at Arena Stage called "Love in Afghanistan," which I will tell you, is the most powerful play I think I've ever seen. And I am a performing arts junkie. And I recommend you and you and everybody else, go see it.

(CROSSTALK)

KARL: That's a good play.

QUESTION: It was fabulous. And it addresses the things you're talking about.

LEVIN: You know, it's a really important point. We brought over -- I didn't' bring over -- somebody brought over some young Afghan music students about six months ago. It was terrific. I mean, we brought them to the Capitol just so I could -- some of my colleagues could see. I think there were like eight students on Afghan instruments at a music school, which could never have existed under Taliban.

KARL: Banned it, yeah.

LEVIN: And they were there preserving a heritage. You know, that has an impact when people can see the play, or whatever. Of course, it does. And telling stories are important.

The problem, on the other side, and I -- I'm not a good storyteller, by the way. A lot of my colleagues are, and I admire those that are. By the way, I think it's -- it's the most powerful way to get a message across.

My wife reminds me of this all the time, you know, instead of giving statistics -- you just said, you know, how many teachers. You're not gonna remember how many teachers. Now there are 10 times as many teachers now, 40 percent are women -- or 30 percent are women. You're not gonna remember that statistic. So my wife will tell me, if she were here, "Why don't you just tell one story of one teacher because that -- they'll remember that?"

And the answer to that, I'm afraid, and I'm -- I'm a victim of being excessive on statistics -- the -- the answer is, you can tell an anecdote about almost anything. The question is, how broadly based is an anecdote?

Under the Taliban, I could tell a story probably of a woman who did something terrific and heroic in her village. Probably -- you could probably find a story under the Taliban which would give you the total wrong impression of the Taliban. It's the tail of the elephant problem. Is an anecdote the tail of the elephone, or does it -- elephone? Is it the -- is it the tail of the elephant or is it the elephant? So the statistics are the elephant; the anecdote's the tail, but it's far more powerful. I couldn't agree with you more.

KARL: So we are just about out of time. We've got time for one more very quick question. And as a reminder, this has all been on the record, as you well know.

LEVIN: Now you tell me.

(LAUGHTER)

Well, whoa, whoa, whoa.

KARL: Right behind you?

QUESTION: Rebecca Chamberlin, the World Bank, and a former intern of yours from the great state of Michigan.

The question is China. Can you comment on...

(CROSSTALK)

LEVIN: I'm sorry, what?

QUESTION: Is China. Can you comment on China's role in Afghanistan and our relationship with it? And I'm thinking of all of it's investment in the extractive (ph) industry and can they be, sort of, a development partner to cooperate with.

KARL: Great question. And you have 90 seconds.

(LAUGHTER)

LEVIN: Yeah. I've heard varying assessments of the Chinese role, one positive, one not so positive. That they're much more aggressive and unwilling to be partners. And -- and I think the security situation is not one that they're particularly satisfied with, nor is a lot of businesses yet in terms of moving in.

But I've heard mixed stories about the Chinese in Afghanistan. And they reflect their general view about business. They're very aggressive businesspeople, far more aggressive than any capitalist that I've ever seen.

Can I tell a story? Can I end with an anecdote?

KARL: Yes, there you go.

LEVIN: This is in your honor, by the way. I'm telling an anecdote here.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Thank you.

LEVIN: I was meeting -- a number of us were meeting with Jiang Xi Minh (ph) who, when we met with him 25 years ago, whenever, was the head of the Communist Party in China. He was the number two or number three guy in China, OK. So he was the only Chinese -- it was the only Communist party left in the world, but -- and he's head of it.

So we're arguing with Jiang Xi Minh (ph) in China about human rights. And we're giving him a lecture, in essence -- I'm sure he viewed it as being a lecture -- of why it's important that human rights be part of an equation that -- that a country -- that -- that businesses -- excuse me -- have to respect the -- the rights of their people. You guys are going -- a lot of businesses growing up here. You've got to respect the rights of workers. You've got to respect the environment. We're giving him lectures about how businesses have responsibilities, in essence.

So he says, "We have an old saying in China." Now they got an old saying about everything, so this is not unique. "We have an old saying in China." He's saying, before he gives us the saying, "Don't mix business with these other things." That's -- that's the point of his old saying. "We have an old saying in China. Business is business."

(LAUGHTER)

I'm the capitalist...

(LAUGHTER)

... and I'm (inaudible) workers have got rights, the environment's got to be protected...

(LAUGHTER)

... and he's telling me, "We have an old saying, 'Business is business.'"

KARL: Business is business.

LEVIN: So I try to figure out how to respond to that. So...

KARL: Karl Marx...

(CROSSTALK)

LEVIN: ... I said -- "We have an old saying in America, too: 'Business is business, except when it isn't.'"

(LAUGHTER)

It was the best I could do.

(LAUGHTER)

KARL: Very good.

All right, thank you very much, Senator Levin. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

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