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Sen. Carl Levin: The Way Forward in Afghanistan

Speaker: Carl M. Levin, Chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee (D-Mich)
Presider: Thom Shanker, Pentagon Correspondent, The New York Times
October 1, 2010
Council on Foreign Relations

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THOM SHANKER: Good morning, and welcome to all of you to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting. A couple of housekeeping reminders before I start. Please turn off, not just to vibrate, all cell phones, pagers, beepers, et cetera -- not just because they interrupt the audience, but the wireless communications system in the room will pick up a lot of your communications.

Another is a reminder not just to all of us here but to the press in back, today's meeting is on the record; full attribution to the chairman.

SENATOR CARL LEVIN (D-MI): Now you tell me. (Laughter.)

SHANKER: Bait and switch.

Our speaker today is Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan. That's six words that strike fear into even the most battle-hardened commanders and all -- and to high-level political appointees called to testify before him.

In a Congress that all too often, I'm afraid, veers toward partisanship and away from values that many of us who pay the bill would like for them to adhere to, the senator remains intensely partisan to a set of very high values important to national security. They are commitment, they are expertise, they are sacrifice.

As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he's among the most respected voices on military affairs -- not just in the Congress or his party, but in the nation and around the world. And it's a great honor for me and the council today to turn the floor over to Senator Carl Levin. (Applause.)

LEVIN: Well, thank you, Thom, for a really nice introduction. Some of the introductions that I get are very long and not nearly as meaningful to me as that one was.

Thanks to the council for inviting me to speak to you all today. And again, thanks to Thom for moderating here.

The council plays an invaluable role in providing a forum for discussing some of the most difficult and important issues that our nation faces. And I hope I can contribute to that mission in some small way today.

I'd like to talk this morning about the United States' strategy in Afghanistan, how it's working and what I believe is a key to its success.

There were two main elements to the strategy that the president announced at West Point in December.

First, he called for a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops -- the last of which are just now arriving in Afghanistan -- to seize the initiative and to build the capacity of the Afghan security forces. The strategy is to "clear, hold, build and transfer" -- with transfer to strengthened Afghan security forces being the essential addition to the familiar "clear, hold and build."

Second, the president announced that after 18 months, beginning in July of 2011, we will begin to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan and accelerate a transfer of responsibilities to the Afghan government.

So how's it going? The picture is very mixed. There's been a -- there's been significant progress in securing previously Taliban-held areas and in killing or capturing insurgent leaders. But the overall security situation is still troubling, and efforts to clear some areas have met greater resistance than expected.

Growth and training of Afghan security forces is ahead of schedule numerically. Afghan troops are more often planning and leading operations, especially in the south, where the fighting is most intense. But there is mixed evidence about those troops' effectiveness.

While private contractors are a necessary part of operations in Afghanistan, our contracting practices have often detracted from our mission by empowering warlords and power brokers. The Armed Services Committee will soon release a report addressing just that issue.

Despite sporadic attempts to root out corruption, it remains deeply embedded in the Afghan government and police. In Pakistan, which is inextricably linked to Afghanistan, officials have taken some steps to rein in extremist groups and -- that threaten stability in Pakistan, but they have so far failed to take the steps needed to address major threats to Afghanistan from within Pakistan.

Small groups of low-level Taliban fighters are laying down their weapons, and commanders say prospects for their reintegration into civil society are real. But The New York Times reports that the reintegration program overall has stalled.

Now, I could spend all my time with you on any one of those topics. But I want to focus on the second fundamental element of President Obama's Afghan strategy, the July 2011 date for the beginning of U.S. troop reductions.

The publication this week of Bob Woodward's latest book has brought attention to the pressure President Obama faced in establishing that strategy. And the President continues, under pressure from inside and outside the military, to build flexibility into that July 2011 date. I want to tell you why I believe that sticking to that date is the key to success, and why President Obama should not and I believe will not modify the July 2011 date.

At the time the administration was conducting its Afghanistan strategy review last fall, I did not support a surge of U.S. combat troops into Afghanistan. My concern was -- and remains today -- that a large foreign combat troop presence could play into the hands of the Taliban, whose propaganda proclaims that the United States and its allies are seeking to dominate Afghanistan.

I also believed large additional deployments would make it less likely that the Afghan people, government and security forces would urgently prepare to secure their nation's future. (Coughs.) Excuse me. So I called for additional trainers and other enablers to build the capacity of Afghan security forces so they could become the principal source of security in Afghanistan.

Once the president announced his decision, I focused my efforts on what I believe is essential to success in Afghanistan: building the Afghan army's capability and getting Afghan troops to take the lead in operations. That belief is based on my conviction that it will be up to the Afghan forces and people to succeed in this conflict if they want a better future than the grim prospect the Taliban offer.

That is why I have pushed hard for training and equipping Afghan security forces, and why I have personally pressed President Karzai and Defense Minister Wardak on numerous occasions to put more Afghan troops into the areas where the fighting is the heaviest. When Marines launched operations in Helmand province last spring, there were five Marines on the ground for every one Afghan soldier. That ratio is now one-to-one. And we finally are seeing Afghan forces leading some operations in Arghandab and other districts around and near Kandahar.

Having Afghans lead these operations is the Taliban's worst nightmare, because it gives the lie to the Taliban propaganda that portrays Western troops as hostile occupiers. Afghans themselves will be more effective than our troops in winning the trust of the Afghan people.

It's been said by some who oppose the July 2011 date that the Taliban have an expression that, "The West has the watches, but we have the time" -- that is, that the Taliban are more patient, and will simply wait us out until after July 2011. Well, I hope they do hide and wait, because at the end of their wait, they will face a much larger, much stronger Afghan force. Time is not on the side of the Taliban, unless the Afghan leadership squanders the time between now and July 2011.

Critics of U.S. strategy also argue that setting a date to begin to reduce our troops reflects a lack of resolve on our part. On the contrary, the purpose of having that date is to strengthen Afghan resolve to take the steps necessary for success. And our commitment endures.

The president has adopted a realistic long-term strategy of presence in Afghanistan and in other parts of the region, but that doesn't require an unsustainable, open-ended commitment to an arbitrary number of U.S. troops. The yardstick against which progress should be measured in the months ahead -- whether relating to security, governance, or economic development -- is the extent to which Afghans take the lead and accept responsibility for their security and their country's future.

Standing by that July 2011 date is the key to that progress: the crucial incentive for the Afghans to approach their task with urgency. If the date wobbles, so does the -- so does the sense of urgency. And as Secretary Gates said just this week, quote, "All of our efforts must build the trust and self-reliance the Afghans will need to govern and protect themselves over the long term." And then, he notably added -- and this he said very clearly for the first time in my memory -- quote, "Encouraging that self-reliance is why beginning a responsible drawdown next summer is so important."

I'm convinced, after talking to President Obama and to high administration officials, that the president will not waffle in his decision to begin reducing our force levels by July 2011. I know there's going to be lots of pressure to do so. The publication of Bob Woodward's book made clear that the decision to establish that date was subject to great debate within the administration. The book has fueled what already was a contest in the media -- a search for daylight between the president and the Pentagon; setting up and, does one dare to think, even rooting for, a conflict between the two. Let's face it: Such a conflict would make for great copy.

When top Pentagon officials have appeared before the Armed Services Committee, I have ask them directly whether they support and agree with the president's policy, including the July 2011 date. Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, General McChrystal, General Petraeus and General Mattis - all said that they do.

Now despite these clear statements, there's been some fraying at the edges, some efforts to reduce the certainty of the president's order. General Petraeus has referred to July 2011 as the date when reductions are "scheduled" to begin -- a word that lacks certainty. He has said his agreement with the date, quote, "was based on projections of conditions in July 2011," suggested that those projections might be faulty. General Petraeus's comments last month raising the possibility that he may recommend against any reductions next July got front-page, lead-story coverage in The New York Times.

General Conway, the outgoing Marine commandant, has said that, quote, "it will be a few years" before the Marines can hand over any territory to the Afghans.

And Woodward quotes General Petraeus as telling Lieutenant General Doug Lute at the White House, quote, "All we have to do is begin to show progress, and that will be sufficient to add time to the clock, and we will get what we need."

Now it's true that some of these statements are, in part, attempts to reassure leaders in the region that the United States will not abandon Afghanistan starting next July. And it's perfectly natural and understandable for military commanders to seek maximum flexibility in carrying out orders and to voice their well-known reluctance to have firm deadlines.

But these comments also insert ambiguity into what was designed by the president as an unambiguous signal to the Afghans that they must move urgently.

And I have tried, everywhere I could, to build resistance to the pressure to turn a date certain into a goal or something based on conditions rather than what it is: the commander in chief's decision and order.

I've done so because open-ended commitments encourage drift and permit inaction; firm timelines demand attention and force action. We can look back several decades, to the war in Vietnam, for an example of how open-ended military commitments reduce incentives to host governments to take necessary and often difficult steps for their nations' future.

Thankfully, we avoided that trap in Iraq. While some in Washington argued that we should maintain an open-ended commitment to high troop levels, the Bush administration established a wiser course. Fixed deadlines, first for the withdrawal of international forces from Iraq's cities and later for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, established a timeline that has guided Iraq's government and our own, forcing the Iraqis and us to build Iraq's own security forces and government to the point where they can secure their own nation.

Some events in Afghanistan itself already illustrate the value of firm timelines. Lieutenant General Bill Caldwell, who heads our efforts to train Afghan security forces, has told me more than once that the president's announcement of the July 2011 date was a major factor in improved Afghan recruiting success. The date, he has said, focused Afghan leaders on the need to speed the growth of the Afghan army.

President Karzai needs prodding, believe me. He prefers to see himself as the head of a united people and not as the commander in chief of a military that must at times use force against some of those same people. General McChrystal had to press President Karzai to take ownership of the campaign in Helmand, seeking unsuccessfully for far too long his approval of the start of those operations -- President Karzai's approval. It also took too long for President Karzai to meet with elders in preparation for the campaign in and around Kandahar City. And when President Karzai speaks out publicly about coalition military operations, it is more often to criticize civilian casualties than in support of our operations and his own army's operations.

Now, there's another powerful reason for sticking to the July 2011 date for accelerating the transition to Afghan security responsibility: namely, that transition is what the Afghan people want. As President Obama has said, "Make no mistake, this transition will begin because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's."

The Afghan people want their own security forces, and not international troops, to protect them. I saw this more than a year ago -- (coughs) -- excuse me -- I saw this more than a year ago, when I visited a gathering of Pashtun elders in a provincial town in -- (coughs) -- sorry -- in a provincial town in Helmand province. When I asked how long they wanted international troops to stay in Afghanistan, they said we should remain as long as it took to help them train their own army and then leave. Plans adopted at the National Consultative Peace Jirga in June and at the Kabul Conference in July give formal voice to that desire for Afghans to control their own destiny.

Beyond the wishes of the Afghan people, we should stick to the July 2011 date because of the political message that it sends to the Karzai government. The Afghan people are growing increasingly disillusioned with a central government that they perceive as controlled by corrupt and predatory powerbrokers and warlords. This disillusionment threatens to damage the image of Afghanistan's most respected national institution, the Afghan army, because if the Afghan people begin to perceive the army as protecting a corrupt and ineffective national government, that respect that the Afghan people have for their army will wane. Sticking to the July 2011 date keeps the pressure on the Karzai government to earn support for a national consensus against the return of Taliban domination by curbing corruption and demonstrating the legitimacy and the effectiveness of the Afghan government.

I also do not think we can ignore public sentiment here at home. Increasingly, the American people, across party lines, question the cost, in precious lives and in dollars, of maintaining a large presence in Afghanistan. A Gallup poll in August showed that a large majority favored setting a timeline for reductions in U.S. troop levels. Failure to adhere to the timeline that we have set can only undermine public support for the Afghan mission. While this factor helps build the case for firmness on the deadline, I do not believe that President Obama's firmness is motivated by politics. He believes, as I believe, that setting the July 2011 date and sticking to it is our best chance of success in Afghanistan, rather than signaling to President Karzai that he can postpone to some uncertain time the difficult steps that he must take to secure his nation's future.

Perhaps the Afghans will not succeed, despite some promising recent signs, to build security forces large and effective enough to secure their own country. Perhaps Afghanistan will not resolve the ethnic and geographic divisions and grievances that threaten to fracture a much-battered nation. Perhaps President Karzai and his government, despite all of our prodding, will not build the kind of government that can gain the confidence of the Afghan people. None of those are easy tasks. But it would be far riskier to signal to President Karzai that he has an unlimited amount of time.

Let me close with a reminder: This discussion is not an academic exercise. I received a letter not long ago from a Michigan Marine who now leads a platoon in one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan. He wrote me of his platoon's struggles, of the bravery and sacrifice of the men that he leads. His letter was a powerful reminder of how much we owe him and the other brave men and women serving in Afghanistan. And one of the things that we owe them is the best decisions that we can humanly make.

Here in Washington we too often measure our decisions by poll ratings or by positive or negative media coverage. On the battlefield, decisions are measured by whether missions are accomplished and whether lives are saved or lost. The stakes are too high for us to give anything less than our most thoughtful deliberation in crafting the policies that we ask those who serve to carry out.

You are part of that process, that deliberative process, and I'm grateful for your invitation to join you in it.

Thanks so much, and I'd be happy to try to answer some of your questions. (Applause.)

SHANKER: Thank you. Thank you very much for some very thought-provoking comments. Before I open the floor to questions, I'd like to invoke the authoritarian power of the chair to ask a couple of things that have been on my mind and those of colleagues.

Senator, you warned about the danger of ambiguity surrounding the July 2011 withdrawal date set by the president. But isn't some of that ambiguity, well, conscious or planned by the administration to speak to different audiences? The day after the West Point speech in which the president laid that out, there were senior officials at the White House, at State, at DOD, saying, "We're not going to rush for the exits. It's going to be conditions-based." These are officially sanctioned comments.

So what's going on?

LEVIN: I think there is ambiguity, and it -- one of its conscious or subconscious purposes is to transmit the message of commitment to Afghanistan and to the region. At the same time, there's a message of determination to transfer responsibility for security and governance to the Afghan government.

That is an inherent ambiguity. That's a mixed message almost built in. And so the answer is yes. And as a matter of fact, you mentioned the day after the speech at West Point there was already a statement about not rushing for the exits. And a number of people, including General Petraeus, including the president himself, has said that the pace of the reductions is going to be conditions-based. The fact that it's going to begin is not conditions-based. That's -- (inaudible) -- the reasons that I gave. But the pace of reductions is said to be conditions-based.

At the same time, those leaders have said it's going to be gradual. Well, if it's conditions-based, then you don't decide how -- whether it's gradual or rapid in advance. There's ambiguity right in that very statement. And everybody's contributed, I think, to that ambiguity. The leaders have contributed, including the president, who has both said the pace is conditions-based; at the same time he said it's not going to be rapid, it's not going to be quick.

So the answer to your question is yes. And it -- there are different audiences that leaders need to speak to and do speak to, hopefully trying to make both points simultaneously. And I think they're both legitimate points, by the way, but there is some inconsistency and ambiguity.

SHANKER: Well, as you're watching the potential redeployments next July, is there a number or a size that will satisfy you as sufficient? What is the metric that Senator Levin will use to say, yes, the president has made good on his promise to begin withdrawing the number of troops?

LEVIN: What the -- or what the mantra is is something that I happen to think is the right one, which is, keep that date. Don't create ambiguity or uncertainty about that, for all the reasons I gave. But stick to the point that the speed of reductions and the location of reductions, by the way, is going to be based on conditions at that time. Those are totally consistent positions, and that is the position that I take.

In other words, when someone the other day said that the Taliban is going to be -- if they want to hide and wait, that's fine with whoever the speaker was -- I think it was the Marine commandant, but whoever said it -- because they're going to really be disheartened, the Taliban, when they wake up in August of 2011 and see, hey, we're still here in large numbers. That will really dishearten the Taliban.

So I made a slightly different point here, which is that I hope they hide and wait, because they're going to wake up on August of 2011 and, hopefully, see a strong Afghan army, trained and equipped, that is now taking them on, which will have a much more positive effect on the Afghan people.

But both those points I think are real. And we cannot determine now either the pace of those reductions, in my judgment, or the locations, so I do not have a metric.

SHANKER: Okay, fair enough. You mentioned in your talk, Senator, the recent disclosures that only reaffirm what we reported a year ago during the Af-Pak review, that there were deep divisions -- not surprising. Perhaps what is surprising is the level of viciousness of some of the dialogue. When you look at what counterinsurgency requires -- a lot of troops, a lot of money, a lot of patience -- do you think that the strategy that emerged after this rather vicious internal fight is going to be successful, or has it been so hobbled by compromise and internal dissent that it can't work?

LEVIN: No, I think that the strategy resulted from a lively, obviously -- even if you don't accept every conversation exactly -- I mean, there was a lively, private -- and also public -- debate. And there should be. The reason I gave at the end: that the troops deserve our best -- our best equipment, our best training, our total support. And they're getting that, by the way. They are getting that. At least, the intent is to give them that. There's no division among the American people. Regardless of the division on the policy, there is no division about giving our troops total support -- and our veterans, by the way, as we saw with the Walter Reed event, the public reaction to how those veterans were being treated.

But the troops also deserve a lively debate and discussion as to what the right policy is. And when they see Congress debate, or when they read a book showing a lively debate, I hope their reaction is that these are people that want to succeed. Regardless of what the outcome of the policy debate is, whether success lies in this direction or in the direction that I outlined, people want us to succeed. Policymakers want us to succeed. I think the American people want us to succeed. And the fact that there are differences as to how is healthy, and I believe it is something which is part of our obligation to give our troops the best that we've got -- not just equipment, training, so forth, but also in terms of deliberate thinking.

SHANKER: But between now and the July date for the redeployment, the administration has promised a review of the strategy in December. As we talk to senior officials involved, they have taken to saying they expect maybe to jiggle the antenna, but not to change the channel on the strategy; so that they are accepting and moving forward. I guess, just to ask again, is the strategy sound in its fundamentals? Given the rather compromised and somewhat hobbled debate that formed it, are you satisfied that we don't need to reconsider the COIN strategy?

LEVIN: I think the strategy is sound, but I also think it is useful to challenge that strategy. And those that believe it's either not working, or those who believe it wasn't sound to begin with, should have that opportunity to make a very strong challenge. I believe that's healthy. And I don't think people in policy positions take it personally -- they shouldn't. These are critically important policy decisions. I hope that those who feel the policy either isn't working or wasn't sound to begin with will have that opportunity.

We shouldn't prejudge what the outcome of December is. And even though I happen to believe that it is the right strategy and there's some evidence of progress, and believe it's essential that it work and of allowing the importance of keeping that date to help it work, I would think we ought to welcome people who want to challenge that conclusion.

SHANKER: I have one question before I open to the floor. You mentioned in your comments that the lesson from Iraq of applying a deadline was very helpful, and I don't want Iraq to be the forgotten war; even today there are 50,000 American troops there, a lot of civilians. Secretary Gates of late has taken to recalling the final scene of the movie "Charlie Wilson's War" about Afghanistan, where, after spending billions of dollars to support anti-Soviet forces, we had victory -- the Soviets left. So did America: no more money, no more attention. The result was 9/11.

Do you see the same risk in Iraq in future years? The Congress is already cutting a billion and a half dollars from the State Department's request to operate in Iraq at exactly the time the mission's going from a military to a civilian lead. What are the risks and dangers there today?

LEVIN: I think it's a mistake to reduce the support for the diplomatic, economic, the soft power -- sometimes called. I think that's a mistake in Iraq.

I happen to support reducing the amount of money going to the Iraq army, by the way. I think they can afford it, and we should not be putting the requested $2 billion this year, which is actually more than last year, into the Iraq army.

But I do believe that we should not reduce the amount of support on the other areas, the non-military areas, that are so important long term to our success and I think to Iraq's success.

SHANKER: Mm-hmm. Thank you very much.

I invite members of the audience. Please wait for the microphone, identify yourself and your organization. And please keep the questions short so we can get to as many as possible.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTIONER: Thank you so much for your lucid remarks. My name is Christine Fair. I'm with Georgetown University.

I have a question really looking beyond the date, how it's ever described, for pulling out. And that is, as you know, the Afghan national security forces are not sustainable. Certainly there is -- the long-term horizon for Afghanistan ever being able to pay for those forces, really a long ways away. So, given our budgeting process, what guarantee do we have that, we've built this large ANSF, that we're going to be around to pick up those bills that Afghanistan can't have?

And then, related to that, it seems like we do need some sort of strategic vehicle with Afghanistan because our interest vis-a-vis al Qaeda are not going to diminish, even as we retrench from this COIN mission and our interest in Afghanistan. So how do we sort of, thinking about our relationship with Afghanistan moving forward after the July 2011 date?

LEVIN: The second half of your question is that we should be negotiating over this period of time a long-term strategic relationship with Afghanistan. We're going to be there and should be there for a long time, with some military capability by the way, focusing on special forces and a few other parts of it. But this is not a rush to the exits. It's got to be a clear statement to Afghanistan about their responsibility. But the alternative to that isn't a rush to the exits; it's a continuing of a strategic relationship with all of its components.

In terms of the cost of maintaining the Afghan army, the cost of maintaining that army is such a tiny part of the cost of maintaining a hundred thousand troops in Afghanistan that I think the relative -- I won't call it a bargain; it's the wrong word -- the relative value of supporting the Afghan army, whose troops are paid two or three thousand dollars a year, maybe one, whatever fraction of what it costs us to maintain our own troops, is a -- is a very -- is very good value, and I think will be seen by Congress as good value over a long period of time.

I'm not too concerned, actually, about that. When we look at how long we've stayed in various parts of the world, including Korea, at much greater cost with our own troops, I think that the value of the support for the Afghan security forces will be seen as something which is clearly worth the support.

SHANKER: Thank you.

One more here in front, then we'll go to the back.

QUESTIONER: Good morning, Mr. Chairman. Mike Baron, U.S. Army retired. I want to thank you for your long tradition of support for our men and women in uniform --

LEVIN: Thank you.

QUESTIONER: -- of troops overseas deployed, and also for your leadership on the -- on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

My question this morning, a little bit different vein -- again, thank you for your remarks this morning on Afghanistan -- relate to, given the long history of partisan -- bipartisanship on the Senate Armed Services Committee and in the environment -- and the importance of the authorization bill that's been still languishing in the Senate right now, as you well know, what do you -- what are your thoughts, and what do you see as the prospects for being able to get a bill that's obviously very important to support for our troops this year through the -- through the Congress?

Thank you.

LEVIN: I was disappointed that there was a unwillingness on the part of the Republicans to proceed to the bill. And I don't want to say anything which will make it more difficult for us to return to it in our lame-duck session, other than to say I was obviously disappointed by it. So I don't want to engage in any rhetoric which will make that cause more difficult.

But I think the prospects are good. It's going to take, obviously, bipartisan cooperation, which is a tradition on our committee. And I think every chairman has worked hard to maintain that tradition, and I surely am.

The -- so in answer -- direct answer to your question, I think we have a reasonable chance -- and I've talked to Senator Reid -- that we can come back to the bill.

And as you know, because of your background, one of the challenges is not just working out differences in the Senate on the floor, but then working out differences with the House. And simply the challenge of physically putting together what the House did and what the Senate hopefully will do in a lame duck takes a lot of work and time. These are -- I don't know how many thousand pages, but you've got to go over them, paragraph by paragraph, and I'd like to find some way that we could get that process going in advance. It's not easy to do, obviously; we haven't acted on the bill. But even if we succeed in the Senate, which I hope we will, in passing a bill in November, you still have that process of conference, which is not just a bunch of people getting together, working out differences. It's a huge staff project physically in getting thousands of paragraphs that aren't in contest worked out. That's as much of a challenge, frankly, that pure time problem, as is getting the bill done on the floor.

So I -- and I want to just say there are some -- I made a reference to a report that is going to be coming out on the contracting issue, and that is a bipartisan report. And it's important that it be, and it is.

SHANKER: So a deadline for troop withdrawals can focus the mind of the Iraqi government and the Afghan government --

LEVIN: I know what's coming. (Laughs.) I know what's coming. (Laughs.)

SHANKER: -- but a deadline on the budget can't focus the mind of Congress.

LEVIN: I knew it was coming.

SHANKER: Yes. All the way in --

LEVIN: (As you saw ?), it's perfectly fair, but --

SHANKER: (Inaudible) -- yeah, on the aisle in back. Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: (Off mike) --

SHANKER: Wait for the microphone, please. Thank you.

QUESTIONER: Frank Oliveri from CQ. How are you doing, Chairman?

You have been a strong proponent of this timeline. There have been some difficulties for USAID to keep with the pace of the COIN operation. We saw that in Kandahar with the electrification plan. The military decided to go ahead with a CERP proposal.

Is the timeline -- and by the way, security has been a real problem. Contractor casualties are very high right now. So the question is, is this timeline having a very negative impact on USAID's ability to do what they need to do in the short time frame, given the security circumstances?

LEVIN: The problem is security. That's the fundamental issue. And the question is, how do you achieve security? So it's going to come right back to the question: How do you best achieve security?

Obviously our troops have a role, but they're also a target. They also give the Taliban their propaganda fodder. So if getting the Afghan forces, particularly the army, increased in size and capability is the best way to achieve security, then that kind of answers your question. There is an immediate need for security while this process is happening.

And by the way, the Afghan army is going to begin to -- is going to begin to secure our convoys just the way they're securing Afghan convoys, particularly our fuel trucks.

So we -- if we build up the Afghan army and help that process move more quickly -- and it's moving at great speed but there's a kind of a delay on the officer side of the army, but nonetheless, the more we can speed that process up, the way I analyze it, the faster we're going to get to security. And the faster we get to security, the faster we're going to be able to get to the soft power, the AID and the other kind of economic development missions which are so important.

SHANKER: Yes, ma'am.

QUESTIONER: Tesi Schaffer from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Senator, my experience of deadlines in South Asia after 30 years in the Foreign Service, mostly in that area, is quite different. I don't think that either the Pakistanis or the Afghans react well to deadlines. But we're stuck with that one, because they have well and truly interpreted it the way you said.

But my question arises from that, and it's about Pakistan. Do you believe that Pakistan's expectation that we are on the way out, and going to be more decidedly on the way out come next July, effectively constrains us to accept Pakistan's concept of what Afghanistan ought to look like after we're gone? We've worked for half a century with close relationships with Pakistan that are based in part on diverging objectives. And their priority clearly is to minimize or eliminate Indian influence in Afghanistan. And our concern about al Qaeda's presence is, at best, a secondary issue, I believe, for Pakistan.

LEVIN: I think there -- there is reaction in Pakistan to that date, which is inaccurate, because I think there was some feeling that that reflects a decision to head for the exits. It doesn't. I think there's been a big effort since that speech in Pakistan to show the Afghan -- the -- excuse me, the Pakistan leaders that it does not reflect abandonment of the region or a rush to the exits in the region, since it doesn't. And -- but that reaction is something which needed to be dealt with. It has been to only -- with only some success, obviously.

Just recently I met with the Afghan -- with the Pakistan foreign minister, and it -- I think there's a recognition in Pakistan, at least among the leadership, that in fact there's a strategic relationship which we are trying to build up in the region. There's a staying power in the region. We're not heading for the exits. That's a gradual awareness. And the sooner they accept it, the better off we'll all be.

The bigger problem, I think, in Pakistan is the public reaction to the drone attacks, whether they're accurate or inaccurate. And that is creating, I think, a much greater problem for us than overcoming the false reaction to the setting of a date to begin reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

But the answer to your question is, yeah, it is a challenge to overcome that inaccurate reaction to the setting of that date.

SHANKER: Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: Jim Moody.

LEVIN: How you been, Jim?

QUESTIONER: Good to see you again, Senator. I -- building on that comment about Pakistan, I'd first like to -- I've spent a lot of time in Pakistan. I was there for the Peace Corps and go back frequently.

I couldn't agree more than you've -- what you've just said. The drone policies are causing a huge blowback against us. Just where did we authorize this, these extrajudicial killings of individuals in somebody else's country, which is not part of our regular military mission? I think the CIA has got to be brought into the policy debate here about this sort of thing.

It's causing a huge reaction against us. And if we believe, as I'm sure you do, the hearts and minds of that region are the most important thing, you can't solve things militarily in the long run, we're -- it's a case of the measurable -- "we killed Mr. X" -- trumping the unmeasurable -- "we wounded 14 of the people we weren't even trying to hit and killed several of them." And in that culture, you kill my uncle, I have to try to kill you.

So it's a huge cost. I'm not sure we're measuring that. We can't measure the unmeasurable. We know it's very real. We're looking at the measurable: We got Mr. X.

Thank you.

LEVIN: The drone attacks, when they're aimed at -- and they are and -- aimed, obviously, at military targets, targets of people who are out to kill us next door, I believe are legitimate. You can attack your enemy, and if they're out -- wherever they're hiding, if they're out to kill you, you can go after them unless there is a very, very strong opposition to it on the part of a country where those targets are present. Like we went to Afghanistan; we didn't ask permission of Afghanistan to go after al Qaeda. They were there.

Now we're in Afghanistan. We're fighting. Whether you agree with what we're doing or not, we are there. People who are attacking us are coming across the border, many instances, not exclusively, from Pakistan. It is legitimate to target the people who are targeting you.

Now, the reaction inside of Pakistan is due -- first of all, the -- there's a significant improvement in the accuracy. And I -- the minister -- the foreign minister of Pakistan acknowledged this yesterday to me. There are mistakes made, but there is a huge improvement in the accuracy and the reduction of mistakes.

Finally, we pay a price. I have to agree with you. There's a price, and so you've got to weigh your price.

But I've got to tell you, I've been critical of the Pakistan government for publicly going after us when we are accurately hitting somebody, whether it's the Haqqanis or whether it's the -- whoever it is. When they're -- when we are accurate, there is still public criticism -- or was until a few months ago. And I have real problems with the Pakistan government publicly attacking us when we accurately hit a target, when it is clear that they don't object. Privately they don't object.

They object when we make mistakes. Then they do. I mean, we hit some Pakistani troops by mistake, apparently, the other day, and there's a strong blow-back on that, which is understandable. But it's when a mistake is not made, when a target is hit accurately that I've got problems with the public attack which then creates that huge animosity against us when it is, number one, done with at least the acquiescence of the Pakistan government; and number two, when they are failing to go after those targets.

Now, they've gone after some terrorist targets inside Pakistan, but the ones they've gone after are the ones that threaten the Pakistan government. They haven't gone after the Haqqanis, they haven't gone after the Quetta shura. Those folks are attacking across the border. They've got some responsibility to go after them, and they haven't carried out that responsibility.

SHANKER: Yes, on the aisle here. Yes, the gentleman here.

QUESTIONER: Good morning, Senator. My name's Rick Wrona. I'm one of the council's international affairs fellows.

You've said that you find the strategy basically sound. My question is, is it only appropriate for Afghanistan? When you look at the expansion of the troops and the deadline and to "clear, hold, build," it's not an end in itself, "clear, hold and build" -- it's to prevent either governed or ungoverned space for al Qaeda to operate from. If you look at places like Yemen and Somali, would that strategy also hold in those locations? And if not, why not?

LEVIN: I doubt that the same strategy is going to be applicable in any other location. I would not try to automatically say "yeah." And I -- it would take an awful lot of thinking before I could tell you what the right strategy is. But it's not, at least necessarily, the same strategy, and I don't think any strategy as complicated as this is, that's designed for one particular situation, is kind of on a cookie-cutter basis just applicable here.

There are lessons to be learned, by the way, including the lessons of the importance of the accuracy of your targeting, but -- when you're using drones. But I don't think in terms of sending in large numbers of troops that I would say, "Yeah, that's the right way to do it." So I'd be very cautious before applying the same strategy. But I would surely want to look at the lessons that could be learned in terms of pieces of that strategy or pieces not to use in other places, including Yemen and Somalia, which are very different from Afghanistan and very different from each other.

SHANKER: There's been a hand all the way in the back, in the corner there.

QUESTIONER: Senator, you alluded to it again today -- I'm Aziz Haniffa --

SHANKER: Could you -- sir -- sir, please identify yourself.

QUESTIONER: Yes. I'm Aziz Haniffa, with India Abroad.

You have always -- after all your trips to the region, you've sort of criticized the Pakistanis for not going after the Afghan Taliban. And of course, this is something that the Indians argue is also sort of a backup plan. In case the U.S. leaves, there is that strategy in depth. Could you also speak to the fact that people like Senator Menendez and others, going after GAO reports, have said that a lot of the massive military aid that goes to Pakistan is being diverted, in terms of a further potential conflict with India? How are you balancing these two, in terms of the fact that -- despite the fact that you all have been very concerned that the Pakistanis haven't gone after the Afghan Taliban, and also the diversion of this massive military aid where there is credible evidence has been diverted for potential conflict with India?

LEVIN: That we take those reports and that we raise them with the Pakistanis, and that we try to prevent any diversion of that support. And that's what we do.

SHANKER: We have time for one last question. And I want to remind everyone, this session has been on the record.

Yes, ma'am, in the center here.

QUESTIONER: Good morning, Mr. Chairman. I'm Kay King, with the Council on Foreign Relations, and thank you for being here this morning.

As a follow-on to Thom Shanker's final question about the inadequacy of soft power, one of the suggestions that's floating about is that the administration, in order to bridge soft and hard power and to take a -- and connect the dots between the two, one of the proposals out is that the administration submit a unified national security budget, one that combines the 050 and 150 accounts. And I was just wondering if you could comment on the pros and cons of such a budget. And also, how -- if such a budget were to be put forward, how would Congress, in its current structure, deal with it? (Laughter.)

SHANKER: (Laughs.) That's a doozy.

LEVIN: (Laughs.) It's a short answer: The pros vastly outweigh the cons -- and it won't happen. (Laughter.)

SHANKER: And with that, I thank all of you for your attention today. I thank the council for hosting, and Senator Levin for sparing the time. (Applause.)

LEVIN: Might as well end with a short answer. (Laughs.) Thanks again.

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