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A Conversation with Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speaker: Joseph R. Biden Jr., Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Presider: Katie Couric, Managing Editor, CBS Evening News
February 25, 2008
Council on Foreign Relations

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KATIE COURIC:  Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please?  I'm Katie Couric.  I'm here to help moderate a conversation with Senator Joe Biden following his remarks and then open -- I'll be opening up the floor to questions from all of you.

Now, Senator Joe Biden, of course, needs no real introduction to the Council on Foreign Relations.  As many of you know, he was elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 29.  Wow -- I read that and I was so impressed again.  He's known in Washington as Mr. Foreign Policy, and perhaps one of the most respected voices on foreign policy in Washington, as well as the country.

Senator Biden, along with Senators Kerry and Hagel, just completed a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as India, which, except for an emergency landing of their helicopter in the mountains of Afghanistan -- he brought pictures, if anyone's interested -- was a success.  And the last time he and I got a chance to spend some time together, he was running for president -- and clearly, the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a good consolation prize, although he may have other things in mind, which we can talk about later.

So please remember to turn off your cell phones.  Also, this meeting, by the way, if anyone's interested, is on the record.  Now join me in welcoming Senator Joe Biden.

(Applause.)

SENATOR JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE):  Thank you, Katie.  It's an honor to be with all of you.  If I started recognizing the distinguished figures in this room, we would take up the whole afternoon.  It really is an honor to be back.  So thank you.

And Richard Haass was kind enough to indicate that -- to set this up as rapidly as he did, and I do appreciate that. 

I -- there are a number of people, though, that are here.  I want you to know that one of the reasons why, to the extent that any of us are moderately successful in my business is because of the competence of the people that surround me and surround us.  And I'd like to acknowledge Tony Blinken and his family that's here today, part of his family. 

And also, I would also like to acknowledge Jonah Blank, who was a young anthropologist at Harvard when I realized about seven years ago that -- I thought I knew something about international affairs, Madam Ambassador -- and I realized there's 1.4 billion Muslims in the world that I didn't have a handle on.  And Jonah's background is Islam and -- from the standpoint of anthropology, and so Jonah has been our guy dealing with these issues that I'm about to speak to.

And let me also say that I'd like to thank my son, Beau Biden, who's here today.  He's up in New York on business.  I'm very, very respectful of him these days.  He's the attorney general of Delaware and can indict me if I do not get things right.  (Laughter.)  So I want to make sure I acknowledge him.

Folks, on the way up I was saying to Tony on the train that, you know, this speech is about a 28-minute speech, which is a long time.  And I said should I warn people of that ahead of time?  He said just tell them you're going to make a Castro-like speech -- Raul, under 30. 

But there's a great deal to cover, and as Ambassador Holbrooke is -- and thank you for coming to testify, Dick, before our committee -- has been pointing out, Afghanistan is the forgotten war, and the consequences of failure in Afghanistan, I think, are significant.  And so I'd like to speak a little bit about not just the trip, but why I think getting it right in Afghanistan is so important.

The next president of the United States will have to rally the American people and the world to fight them over there, unless we want to fight them over here.  But the over there is not, as President Bush has falsely and repeatedly claimed, in Iraq, but it's rather in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  And the outcome of that battle is going to be determined less by bullets than by dollars and determination. 

The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is where the 9/11 attacks were plotted, as you all know.  It's where most attacks on Europe since 9/11 have originated.  It's where Osama bin Laden lives and his top confederates still enjoy safe haven, planning new attacks.  And it's where we must, in my view, urgently shift our focus to the real central front on the so-called war on terrorism, using the totality of America's strength.

I just returned from both countries, as has been mentioned by Katie, with my colleagues, Senator John Kerry and Senator Chuck Hagel.  And the trip reconfirmed my conviction that Afghanistan's fate and Pakistan's future are joined, and America's security is joined to both.  And that's what I'd like to talk with you about today.

We don't have to imagine what a failed state in Afghanistan could mean for America's security; we already know.  Afghanistan must never again become a safe haven for al Qaeda.  But just as important, if Afghanistan fails, Pakistan could follow, because extremists will set their sights on a bigger prize to the east, not the west.

Yet six years after we've ousted the Taliban, Afghanistan is a forgotten war, and that country, in my view, is slipping into failure -- or toward failure.  The Taliban is back.  Al Qaeda is regenerated along the border.  Violence is up and drug production is booming, and the Afghan people have very little faith in the ability of their government to deliver a better future.

We came to this point despite the heroic efforts of our soldiers and our diplomats, who are often, I might add, one and the same.  Last week we flew low over the border area of the mountains, as forbidding as they are spectacular.  We visited provincial reconstruction teams, the so-called PRTs, in two areas, and two forward operating bases nestled in the snow-filled valleys of the Khonar province.

We met with a regional governor and his team.  We saw American men and women trying to fix Afghanistan one battle, one stretch of road, one clinic, one town council meeting at a time. 

In all my trips in Iraq -- and there have been many -- and all my even more frequent trips to the Balkans during the war, I've never been prouder or more awed by what I've seen in these young, 25-, 26-, and 27-year-old young men and women.  And the incredible sophistication and responsibility and the responsible way in which they exercise their power.

One captain from Nebraska briefed us with extraordinary sensitivity about the clans, the tribes, the alliances, the rivalries, and how he's dealing with them, and how he went about winning the trust of the people in his area.  Soldiers spoke with as much conviction about the mission thrust upon them -- rebuilding the country -- as they did about their real job, fighting the enemy. 

At the PRT, in a makeshift meeting room surrounded by rocks, mud, and sandbags but filled with flat-screens and computers, a two-star general traveling with us performed an impromptu awards ceremony.  He gave a bronze star to a corporal who looked to me to be about 25 years old who had pulled a badly wounded gunner to safety, returning fire to repel the enemy, and then -- and then -- keeping his buddy alive until Medevac arrived.  I know it sounds a little corny, but I don't think there was a dry eye in the house.

But while we win every single battle, we're not winning that war, and the question is why.  I believe we're not winning the war because we have not made Afghanistan the priority it should have been and must become.

The original sin was starting a war of choice before we finished a war of necessity.  And we're paying a terrible price for diverting our forces and resources to Iraq from Afghanistan.  Obviously, we can't undo that mistake, but we can remind ourselves how central the political -- a political solution in Iraq is to our prospects of success in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.  And we must urgently revisit all three of the legs of our effort in Afghanistan -- security, reconstruction and counternarcotics, and governance may be the most difficult piece to build a new strategy for success in Iraq because the one we have now is not tending towards success.

So let me start with security.  Defense Secretary Gates recently made a decision to add 3,200 Marines, and that's welcome, but it's not enough.  The American general commanding the coalition forces in Afghanistan told us he could establish security in Helmand province in the south, where you see the maps covered in red and the increased occupation and the increased control of the southwestern and southeastern part of the country by the Taliban.  He said he can reestablish effective control and -- if, in fact, he had two combat brigades.  That's 10,000 military personnel.

But he also was quick to acknowledge, in his former incarnation at the Pentagon, that he knew that he could not find 10,000 troops anywhere to deploy.  We can't generate them because, to state the obvious, we are tied down.  And as one of the candidates running for president says, for 100 years we're tied down in Iraq.

When General Petraeus testifies in April on what he needs in Iraq, I'm going to insist that the commanding general in Afghanistan testify at the same time to make clear what he needs, as well.  Because up to now, ladies and gentlemen, there's not been any focus on it at all. 

It's not just a matter of more boots on the ground, but the right kind, including Special Forces, intelligence assets, and trainers.  This should not be an American fight alone.  Our allies have as much at stake in the outcome as we do.

Since 9/11, Europe has been repeatedly targeted for terror, and virtually every attack, every attack in Europe can be traced to this region.  The heroin in Afghanistan has killed more people on the streets of London than the Brits have lost in this war.  And the heroin produced does not come to New York City, it goes to the capitals of Madrid and Berlin and throughout Europe.  The fact is, as I've said, since 2001, more Brits have lost their lives to Afghanistan drugs than to Taliban arms.

Many of our NATO allies thought they were signing up for a peacekeeping mission, not a counterinsurgency operation.  Many are fighting with incredible bravery in the south, but the so-called national caveats are making a mockery of NATO and the notion of a unified mission.  One ally can fight here, but not there.  Another can do this, but cannot do that. 

You're either in the fight, ladies and gentlemen, or you're not.  And to me it seems time for NATO to realize that they must get fully in the fight because, quite frankly, if they do not, I fear for the unity of NATO.  If Afghanistan falls, I'm not sure how far behind NATO will be.

If America does more -- and this has been my premise since 2001 when I came back --- 2002, when I came back from my first trip after the Taliban had just been defeated and sent in a report indicating that we had to provide more force in Afghanistan.  My view is if, in fact, America does more, so will our allies.  When I first went there right after the Taliban fell in January of 2002, I asked the commander of British forces how long his people would allow him to stay in Afghanistan.  And he said, Senator, we Brits have an expression.  As long as the big dog is in the pen, the small dogs will stay.  When the big dog leaves, the small dogs leave as well. 

Well, guess what?  The big dog left in 2002.  The big dog left, and it had some serious repercussions, in my view, including -- including -- backing off Musharraf on his commitment to actually do something about the federally administered territories on his western border.

Now, if we start to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible conclusion, I think we can overcome what Secretary Gates rightly acknowledged was the lingering anger in Europe over Iraq.  And he argues that that lingering anger in Europe over the war in Iraq has sapped -- has sapped support in Afghanistan.

I might note, parenthetically, I think it sapped support in the United States as well.  People make very little distinction.  The mountains of eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan are dangerous, but they're not nearly as dangerous politically as the plains of Iowa.  In Iowa and other places where I spend a lot of time I find it frightening that there's very little distinction made -- very little distinction made between the justification for and what's at stake in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Finally, this is going to, in my view, in Afghanistan, come down to training.  The Afghan army is making some progress, but the police, as is the case in Iraq, the police lag disastrously far behind.  At least -- at best, just 25 percent of the 75,000-member force is rated as competent.  And I would add, parenthetically, most are corrupt.  Ultimately, the goal's going to have to be to hand off policing and defense to an effective Afghan force.

In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, there is no purely military solution, to state the obvious.  The guts of our policy, in my view, must be to win the allegiance of the Afghan people to a better future and to help their government connect with the people and deliver on that future. 

I was saying to Katie before we came in -- we got a chance to say hello in another room -- and I said the irony is I find that in Iraq there is -- very little Iraqi identity, but with an understanding of what a central government means and a fear of it.  And conversely, in Afghanistan, I find there is an Afghani identity, but very little knowledge about or functioning notion of how a central government could work.

Helping Afghanistan become self-sustaining is going to be a monumental task.  It's going to take up to a decade, and more blood will be spilled and more treasure will be spent.  But I think it's important to put this in perspective.  It's nothing, nothing, nothing compared to the blood and treasure we've already devoted to Iraq.  And, notwithstanding that, it is much more doable than, I think, what we have done thus far in Iraq.

But there's no guarantee of success.  Seventy percent of the Afghan population lives in -- isolated from Kabul, isolated from one another, in valleys and mountains and deserts.  And we've got to have an opportunity to go out there.  That's why, when we went, we got real pushback, because we insisted that we go out to visit these PRTs, we go into the mountains, we go into the valleys to actually see what was happening on the ground.

Most are subsistence farmers.  Corruption, warlordism, illiteracy, endemic poverty, the drug trade -- they're huge barriers to progress.  When the Taliban or a local warlord offers a young Afghan money, food, and guns to fight the foreigners or another clan and there is no alternative on the table, the choice is clear.  And they've been making that choice, clearly.

Ladies and gentlemen, this raises what I believe to be -- and you would, I assume, acknowledge -- a legitimate question.  Why do I -- why am I even implying it's possible for America to succeed in Afghanistan where so many others before us have failed?  No one has succeeded.  Why is it possible for us to succeed?

I think the answer is because, unlike previous occupiers, we can help offer the Afghanis a better choice, and we have no desire to stay, which I think is becoming clear to them.

First, we should make good on President Bush's unfulfilled pledge for a Marshall Plan in Afghanistan.  Again, let's put that in perspective.  We have spent on Afghanistan's reconstruction in six years what we spend every three weeks -- every three weeks -- on our military operations in Iraq.  That cannot stand, if we're serious about Afghanistan.

Secondly, we have to focus on the basics -- roads and electricity.  As General Karl Eikenberry said, or used to say when he led our forces in Afghanistan, he said the Taliban begins where the road ends.  We observed that on our trip.  That's literally true.  Fortunately, we found a road -- (laughter) -- in the middle of the mountains, our young pilot, and thank God it didn't end at 8,000 feet.  It wasn't there at 9 (thousand feet), but it was there at 8 (thousand feet).

Roads bind people together.  They allow farmers to get production to the market.  They bring prices down and access to goods and service is up, and they connect people to their government, which is something we heard everywhere we went in rural Afghanistan -- the need to give some reason as to why it would be beneficial to "connect," quote, to their government.

How do you spell "hope" in Dhari or in Pashtu?  A-s-p-h-a-l-t.  Asphalt.  That's how you spell hope, in my humble opinion.

Thirdly, we have to expand the provincial reconstruction effort that gives those leading it the tools they need to succeed.  One of the most effective weapons are what are called CERP funds.  These are the Commanders Emergency Response Program.  And it puts cash in the hands of our military to start quick-impact projects like digging wells, building schools, and opening a clinic, among other things. 

The problem is we do not give them these funds -- because we do it through a supplemental rather than honest budgeting -- until after the planting season, until after it is, in many cases, too late in terms of the agenda on the ground in-country. 

   That's why Dick Lugar and I have been leading an effort in Congress to establish a civilian response corps -- a standing army of police trainers, judicial experts, engineers and administrators who can help build the capacity of countries emerging from conflict.  But until that job is done, our military is the only one doing the job.  That's why these CERP funds should be in increased, in my view.  And by the way -- I might add -- they're very good at it.  They're very good at it.

Next, we should put one person in charge of reconstruction who can set a clear, strategic direction coordinating the many nations and NGOs involved and break logjams.  It's one of the dysfunctional aspects of what's going on right now in Afghanistan.  We had the right man to do that in a fellow named Paddy Ashdown, who many of you know, but the Afghan government vetoed that selection.  Next time I would make it clear that if they want our money, they're going to have to take our man.

Afghanistan produces 93 percent of the world's poppy.  There's no quick fix for this drug problem, but right now we don't even have an agreed strategy among even the Americans -- let alone the Americans and our NATO allies.  Some in the administration continue to insist on forced eradication as the only answer.  Whether they're right or wrong, no one else agrees, including our allies and the Karzai government, for they fear that forcibly eradicating poppy without providing farmers with an alternative will turn them to the

Taliban.

I believe we should focus on arresting drug kingpins, disrupting supply routes and destroying the labs that convert poppy into heroin.  As Ambassador Holbrook will tell you, when the administration testified before our committee, I asked:  Has one drug kingpin arrested?  And the answer was, no.  I have a great deal of experience in this, unfortunately, over the last 30 years and it is absolutely outrageous that not even one single one has been arrested.

So ladies and gentlemen, finally, it gets down to governance.  This is the most important and too often missing ingredient.  Let me give you an example:  We spent a day in Kunar province.  Just a year ago, that province was viewed as totally mismanaged, an incompetent governor and failing.  We insisted that he be replaced and a more competent man put in place, which happened.  His successor -- an educated, experienced, honest leader -- has literally turned that province around in less than a year.  As good as he is, though, he told us his toughest challenge is connecting the government to the people with honest, effective managers and bureaucrats who can deliver real progress. 

   We have -- and the international community has -- an opportunity and an obligation to bring about a bureaucracy in that country.  Absent that, I'm not sure how any of the rest of this ultimately will take hold.  It's not glamorous, but it is vitally necessary.

In Pakistan, as you all know, there's really no border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The Duran Line is just that -- it's a line on a map that artificially divides tribes, but cannot split mountains or the people who inhabit those mountains.  The border area between the countries remains a freeway for fundamentalism, with the Taliban and al Qaeda now finding sanctuary on the Pakistani side and where suicide bombers they recruit and train wreak havoc on Afghanistan, as well as increasingly in Pakistan.

Pakistani cooperation in the fight against extremism is critical to our success in Afghanistan.  But that cooperation has been sporadic at best.  The reason is that, until recently, the terrorists we're fighting and the extremists the Pakistani fear are not one and the same.  Islamabad's main concern is indigenous militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  Successive Pakistani governments have taken turns fighting them, appeasing them, pitting one militant group against the other, or using them to make trouble in Kashmir and Afghanistan. 

   This different focus is why President Musharraf could divert Pakistani resources from fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban to keeping his political opponents at bay.  It's why when Musharraf concluded that we were not serious about finishing the job in Afghanistan, he began to cut his own deals with the extremists in Pakistan.  It's why Pakistan could concentrate most of its military on the Indian border and not on the Afghan border.  It's why the Pakistani people have not supported what we call -- what we call the fight on terrorism.  But now monsters Pakistan's intelligence service helped create is turning on its master.  Today's enemy number one is a fellow named Masoud -- an indigenous militant who is taking the fight beyond the FATA and is literally behind -- and is likely behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Masoud, an independent of the Afghan tribal -- is independent of the Afghan Taliban and the al Qaeda in Pakistan, but he's giving them sanctuary and they are training his forces.  As Islamabad awakens to this new reality, there seems an opportunity to put Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States on the same strategic page, but it will require different thinking and a different policy.

Some argue that as imperfect as Musharraf has been, the civilian leaders at last week's election return to power will be even worse partners in fighting terrorism and fostering real progress in Pakistan.  I disagree.  John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and I were in Lahore on Election Day.  We visited polling places.  We met with the leaders of all the major political parties.  The election passed the most important test:  The Pakistani people saw the results as basically fair and the reflection of a national will. 

   For Pakistan, nothing, in my view, could have been more important than giving the moderate majority in that country a clear voice and a stake in the system.  Without that, dissent gets channeled underground and over time, moderates may find common cause with extremists.  We've been down that road before in Iran and it leads to nowhere good.

In the case of Pakistan, it could lead to disaster:  the world's second largest Muslim nation becoming a failed state in fundamentalist hands with an arsenal of nuclear weapons and a population of 165 million -- larger than Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea combined.  With this election, the moderate majority has regained its voice and the United States should seize the moment and move from a policy focused on the personality of Musharraf to one based on an entire country:  Pakistan.

I believe we should now triple nonmilitary assistance, make clear we're going to sustain it for a decade, focus it on schools, roads and clinics.  Give the new government a democracy dividend above this annual assistance to jumpstart its progress.  Expand the program to help Islamabad develop the northwest provinces.  Demand transparency and accountability in the military aid we continue to provide.  We've been, quote, "reimbursing Pakistan" to the tune of $1 billion a year for a war on terrorism that has actually not been waged.  That has to stop.

We should pay the cost genuinely incurred in fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda and their affiliates, but we shouldn't let our reimbursement continue to be an unaccountable slush fund.  At the same time, we have to recognize that even as Pakistan develops the will, it still lacks the capacity.  It lacks the way.  One of the most overrated things that I believe that I've been dissuaded of over the last three years is about the capacity -- the capacity of the Pakistani military.

It's a military designed to fight a conventional war with India, not conduct counterinsurgency operations in the tribal areas.  So we should make it a priority to help Pakistan train and reorganize its military.  With a little luck, if we do all of these things, we can demonstrate to the people of Pakistan that ours is a partnership of mutual conviction, not American convenience; that we care about their needs and progress, not just our own interest narrowly defined. 

   That happens to be, in my view, the best way to secure the support of the Pakistani people and their democratically elected leaders for all priorities starting with the fight against al Qaeda and the fight for Afghanistan.

If Afghanistan fails and Pakistan falls prey to fundamentalism, both countries will pay a heavy price and America -- America will suffer a terrible, terrible strategic setback.  I believe it's still within our power to shape a different, better future.  I also believe we have no more urgent priority in our foreign policy. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for taking so long, but I think there's so much at stake that without this significant change in our policy, we're going to find ourselves in a position where we will reap the whirlwind.  We still have time, but not much.

I thank you very much.  (Applause.)

COURIC:  So I'll be talking to Senator Biden for about 10 minutes.  And then when I open up the floor to questions, if you all could identify yourselves, your affiliation, et cetera, that would be helpful.

I guess we should start with Pakistan, since you ended with Pakistan, Senator Biden.  I know that you've said that Musharraf should be allowed to make a graceful exit.  But what if he doesn't go gently into this good night, what do you do about him?  How do you placate or solve that problem?

BIDEN:  Well, first of all, let me say I think he will go gently into the night.  We had -- we were the first group to meet with him the morning after the election -- the first individuals to meet with him.  And I've known him for about 12 years.  He walked in and it sort of took us all back a little bit.  He said, well, the election -- we lost.  It's clear that there's a different path they're choosing.  It's clear that the decisions related everything from the court -- and he went through the whole list of things -- are up to the next parliament.  And he made it very straightforwardly clear that he's prepared to retire to the responsibilities of the president, which you know are significantly less inclusive than the prime minister, under the constitution. 

It looks as though a government is about to be formed.  It looks as though it may very well be the PPP is prepared to not insist on a -- I don't think they'll have the votes -- on an impeachment vote.  And my view is, if they treat him with a little bit of dignity, I think he is prepared to, in the near term, significantly withdraw from the exercise of power.  And I would bet, just as a plain old politician talking to other politicians and seeing their body language, that two years from now or less he will not be there. 

Conversely, if they focus on old grudges -- and there are plenty of them in Pakistan, as former ambassadors in this room know -- then I think it's going to be a very rocky road and I'm not sure what the military does and how they respond.

COURIC:  How big a mistake was it for the U.S. to align itself so closely to him?

BIDEN:  I've been arguing for about six years or more that it was mistake.  But rather than focus on the degree to which it is a mistake, I think this is a significant prospect or a moment of transition here. 

I don't know -- and maybe some of you do, because it's a very learned audience -- of many states that have gone from a de facto dictatorship to a real full-blown democracy in one fell swoop.  I think this is a process.  And I think the process -- I think the outcome of the election, Katie, was as good as we could have hoped for.  Is it likely -- is it likely to succeed?  I think it's likely.  But is it possible it could implode?  Yes.

COURIC:  You know, you talk about Afghanistan being the forgotten war.  How do you galvanize the American people or a more -- establish a fresh American national will to care about this conflict? 

And you talk about a little, Senator Biden, about what a failed Pakistan would look like and its ramifications, but what about a failed Afghanistan?  In your mind's eye, what does that look like and what are the threats to national security as a result?

BIDEN:  The most frightening thing about a failed Afghanistan is Pakistan.  That's the most frightening thing about a failed Afghanistan.  In and of itself, if it were just, quote, "it had no impact on its neighbors Iran or Pakistan" or, you know, there's a number of powers that have keen interests there including China and Russia -- I don't know any place in the world where as many major powers have as much -- believe that their interests are as clearly, clearly focused.

But even if, Katie, there was no potential ramification beyond their border, it would still provide another haven of consequence for extremist groups.  And they're getting much more complicated now.  Al Qaeda is just not this discrete organization that has no impact on other organizations.  I would note parenthetically -- and I will not in the interest of time go into it -- I think we need a whole new attitude about, quote, "the war on terror" and a redefinition of it and a redefinition as to how we should be fighting that war on terror.  But Pakistan is -- excuse me -- Afghanistan is an important piece of it.

Here's what I think happens, and I'll conclude:  if in fact there is a failure -- meaning that American and international forces leave -- there's a dysfunctional government allowing the Taliban back in, effective de facto control of the country, then I think what you do is you'll embolden -- embolden al Qaeda and you will embolden the spinoff groups to look not West, but East -- the biggest prize.  The biggest prize is Pakistan. 

Imagine if over the next five to seven years they lose hold, lose grip, you have a country that is a large, Muslim country with a serious moderate, middleclass now who I believe, in a chaotic situation you don't know where that's going to go.  And if Pakistan fails, we're talking about a nation where bin Laden lives, where there's a lot of nuclear weapons, where there's the capacity to move them.

We went to India and we spent time with the prime minister.  Every one in the area is vitally concerned about what happens there.  It's the most volatile spot in the world with nuclear weapons -- all the parties that we worry about.  All meaning Pakistan and India -- although some would argue that the Middle East is more volatile.  They're both vying for volatility and the consequences of one is more immediate, I think, than others.

COURIC:  Did you see clear evidence of the Taliban and al Qaeda reconstituting itself in Afghanistan?  And what did you witness or what did you hear about?

BIDEN:  In a nutshell, it's where we couldn't go.  And in a nutshell, it's where when we sat down with these young -- and by the way, I know it sounds like a typical politician talking about these incredible young men and women we have -- but my God!  There's no other military in the world where you turn over a 25-year-old kid these incredibly difficult decisions of choosing among tribal chiefs and these incredibly difficult decisions of deciding who to trust, who not to trust. 

But basically, Katie, it comes down to each of the places we went they'd flip up a map.  And those red areas where we cannot wander, where the Taliban is in de facto control is expanding -- is expanding, not diminishing.  And the free flow across that border, as I said, it's a freeway of terror that goes back and forth through these mountains.  And with virtually no one prepared to -- or able to interrupt that. 

And so when you see it, as you see it in the isolation of the government and the isolation of the government and the isolation of the PRTs and our ability to extend -- you know, again, as Eikenberry said, extend the road.  You know, the Taliban does begin where the road ends, but guess what?  The roads ending a lot of places.  The Taliban is in de facto control of a much larger portion of country than they were four years ago.

One example:  When I was there in 2002, I could walk around Kabul without a vest.  I could literally get out of a car and walk around Kabul.  You can't do that today.  You can't do that today, even though Kabul for all intents and purposes looks much better than it did when I was there in 2002.

COURIC:  I'm going to have to ask the audience -- the audience for questions in a minute, but before I do, I have to ask you about the election briefly.  If I might --

BIDEN:  I am very sorry I'm not the nominee.  (Laughter.)  What can I say?

COURIC:  I think there are other people who feel that way as well, Senator.

BIDEN:  Not many.  (Laughter.)

COURIC:  But I'm curious if you could just spend a couple of minutes -- and I don't want to take time from the audience -- but evaluating sort of the foreign policy prowess of the remaining candidates.  What -- and if there's anything in their foreign policy vision that gives you any pause at all --

starting with John McCain.

BIDEN:  You know, I know it sounds obligatory.  John is a close friend -- for real.  John used to work for me, technically, when he was a Navy liaison.  Every place I traveled -- you remember when we'd travel places -- John -- he says he carried my bags.  He never did, never did.  And I'm a personal friend of John's.

But I think John's vision of American foreign policy is essentially a continuation of this present policy, which I think is -- we're going to pay for for a generation.  I was asked the other day on a show where he was criticizing Barack Obama for his statements on Pakistan.  And I reminded the questioner that it's been -- what Barack enunciated has been U.S. policy for two presidents.  And John's worried about going and striking an ally. 

And my response was if you had actual intelligence, and Pakistan would not act, and bin Laden was in your sights, would John not act?  And so the problem is that I think that John is just a continuation of a failed policy, and he seems to be moving further to the right -- right's not the right word, but further to lock himself in to that policy in terms of -- in being able to get the nomination. 

I think Hillary Clinton is solid and stable.  I think she understands it.  I think she \would move in a significant way beyond the policy that we have now.  And I think Barack will as well.  He is not, at this point, as sure-footed about that, but he's a very, very smart guy and I think his instincts are all good.  I think -- the instinct's to reach out.  I don't think he's naive.  I think to paint him as naive is significantly underestimating him.  There's more to say, but I've probably already said too much.  (Laughter.) 

Whoever has Holbrooke as secretary of State will be fine.  (Laughter.) 

QUESTIONER:  By the way, are you interested in becoming secretary of State? 

BIDEN:  I'm interested in working for Holbrooke.  (Laughter.) 

No, I'm not.  I'm interested in being -- quite frankly -- look, one of the places you want to be, if you're going to -- if you think what you do in the Senate makes sense, is I think I could be a very good partner as chairman of the Foreign Relations committee for a Democratic president.  And I think I could be a very -- I won't say "very" -- I think I could be a significant hedge against the mistakes of a Republican administration in a Democratically-controlled Congress. 

QUESTIONER:  So, you're not interested if a Democrat's elected, to become secretary of State. 

BIDEN:  No.  No, I'm not.  But, look, I mean, let's get straight here.  One of the things -- I've been around a long time, one of the things you know is when people ask you, in the context of an election, to do something, or afterwards, it's very easy to say you don't want to do it.  I don't want to do it.  But would I say no if I was asked to do it?  I think it would be pretty hard to say no if a Democratic president thought that they needed me.  I don't think we have to worry about that. 

QUESTIONER:  What about as a vice presidential candidate? 

BIDEN:  (Laughs.)  Oh, bless me father, for I have sinned.  (Laughter.)

I really would not like to be vice president.  Again, though, I don't want to -- I had this bad habit of being, if not straightforward, at least blunt.  Were I asked to do that, how could you turn -- if the nominee gave you indication, and showed you numbers that you on the ticket would help. 

But I promise you, I do not want to be vice president.  And I made it clear, as I did with John Kerry, I don't want to be on anybody's list.  The last thing I want to be is to be, quote, "considered."  (Laughter.)  You know, if they're going to do it, just ask me, don't consider me.  (Laughter.)  (Applause.) 

BIDEN:  Yes, sir? 

QUESTIONER:  Senator, my name is Masoud Hader (sp).  I represent Daily Dawn of Pakistan.  I've been following your visit to Pakistan, and so forth.  The United States, at this point in time, is sending very conflicting signals to the Pakistani government and to the electorate.  On one hand, it continues to say that we support Musharraf.  And that -- what happens as a consequence, the democratic forces are being undermined.  They believe that they are being undermined and, consequently, the religious parties are telling them not to listen to the United States. 

Whereas these parties, which have succeeded, are ready to fight the -- U.S. war on terror.  And what is happening, Musharraf is undermining these parties.  While he tells you that he is -- he has lost the election, he is giving these parties a hard time by -- I mean, by manipulating, and going to other parties and telling them we can institute cases against the sectari, we can do this against Nawaz Sharif. 

So what is important is the United States should send a clear signal to Musharraf.  It's time for you to step aside and let the moderate forces, which has won in Pakistan, to do their job.  But then you --

COURIC:  So, Senator Biden, has --

BIDEN:  To answer it --

COURIC:  -- is the U.S. sending mixed signals? 

BIDEN:  Well, I -- I can't speak for the administration.  And I'm not being facetious.

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike.)

BIDEN:  Well, I understand.  I understand.  Look, the good new is we're going to know this in a month.  The good news is we don't have to wait around.  The good news is we're going to find out.  The good news we're going to find out whether the PPP and Sharif's party actually form a coalition, and what their position's going to be.  And we'll see whether or not the response from Musharraf is as I hope, or it's as recalcitrant as you suggest.  That's going to come clear very quickly. 

In the meantime, we should be saying we support the democratic forces that have been elected; we look forward to them forming a coalition government; and we look forward to them having governing under their constitution, which gives significant power to -- the vast majority of the power to the parliament, and the president is essentially -- it's not quite just ceremonial -- it's not been used that way -- but to see whether or not it will move back to its ceremonial status. 

We're going to know that very, very quickly.  We're going to know that very quickly.  I believe the most important message to send to the Pakistani people is that this is not a marriage of convenience, that this is not a transactional relationship.  That's why I proposed a commitment for 10 years of economic assistance, tripling that assistance, focusing on the things we know that all of them need, and we know that will help democratic parties succeed if they had that kind of assistance. 

So -- and the interesting thing was there was -- a representative of the Pakistani Press.  We had a press conference where there were hundreds and hundreds of Pakistani Press, after the election, to interview myself and my two colleagues.  And Katie, it'll make you feel good, we could hardly wait for the American press after that.  (Laughter.)

COURIC:  Well, you know, you say you can't speak for the -- for the administration, but will you be speaking to President Bush about your trip, and --

BIDEN:  Yes.  No, no, no, I can't speak "for."  I will not hesitate to continue to speak "to," and to speak "with."  And I have been very public --

(Cross talk.)

BIDEN:  Yes.  Yes, we are.  And that's one of the reasons why I asked for an opportunity to speak -- and I'm not being solicitous to such a prestigious group, as the first thing that I'd have to say when I got back, to try to send a message to the administration.  We'll do it directly, but also through the media and through -- there's many, very many influential people in this room.  And so, hopefully, the message will be heard. 

QUESTIONER:  Senator Biden, good to see you again at the Council.  Welcome back. 

BIDEN:  Good to see you. 

QUESTIONER:  If there were another event on American soil like 9/11, what would you recommend as the American response with respect to the Federally Administered Territories in Pakistan? 

BIDEN:  Well, first of all, if there's another event, it depends on from whence the event emanates.  It is likely, if there is another event that -- where al Qaeda takes credit, it will have -- at least in its inception, occurred in those mountains that we just left.  And that's why I think that it's very important -- look, I have been very critical of Musharraf over the last seven or eight years.  But I've been very critical of the Pakistani military over the last 18 months.  But one of the things I've come away concluding, that it is a military without the capacity to do what we need it to do. 

So I think we should be significantly increasing our involvement with helping them transform their military into a 21st Century counterinsurgency capacity, as well as their conventional requirements relative to India and the balancing of power there.  And that requires some real investment. 

It requires some real investment that a significant portion of the military seems ready to embrace.  Pakistani military, by a significant portion, is reluctant to embrace.  They're not very good at having an American corporal -- or, excuse me, sergeant, speak to a Pakistani colonel.  So there are some institutional problems that are very difficult to overcome. 

Kiyani, the new chief of staff of the military, I think, is prepared to incrementally make some real changes.  I think therein lies our answer to dealing with those areas -- the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and it requires also more boots on the ground, of the United States, on the Afghani side. 

I said facetiously, if I had a choice -- I don't -- if I had a choice of continuing to invest $1 million in recompense -- $1 billion a year in recompense to the Pakistani military to deal with the Western provinces; or, I could, in fact, spend $1 billion on the Afghan side, I'd spend the $1 billion on the Afghan side -- to make a point.  To make the point. 

So it requires both sides of this coin to be, in fact, engaged.  But part of it is, not just the will, it is the capacity, the capacity of the -- our military, as well as theirs. 

QUESTIONER:  I'm Allen Hymen, Columbia Presbyterian.  Nice to see you again. 

BIDEN:  How are you? 

QUESTIONER:  You didn't speak very much about President Karzai.  And I wonder what grade you might give him for his five years in tenure.  And what authority does he really have?  And what should be his role in American policy for Afghanistan? 

BIDEN:  Let me do it in reverse because I'm not good at giving grades.  I hate people giving me grades, so I try not to -- I try not to grade others. 

His role is to increase the competence of the governance of the -- in Kabul, as well as being willing to make more difficult choices about the people he appoints as governors of the various provinces.  But that requires, in fairness, a clear strategy on the part of the United States of America, to give him the tools if he were, in fact, willing to make these difficult decisions. 

He is really in a very tough spot.  I find him to be -- and I've known him since prior to 2001, I find him to be a bit of a promoter these days, rather than an operator.  But part of that relates to the fact that we kind of left him high and dry.  We essentially made him, in my view, the mayor of Kabul based on our policies that we implemented in 2002. 

Here's what you hear -- and I guess this is the way I should conclude it.  You hear from our folks on the ground, both diplomatic and military, something that is refreshing and you don't hear at all in my nine or so trips to Iraq.  You hear the following:  Senator, it's true we have made a botch of it from 2001 to 2006, but since 2006 we began to implement a workable plan.

The critical part of that is, to hear officials on the ground, in and out of uniform -- in and out of uniform, acknowledging that we had no coherent policy.  I still question whether the policy is coherent from 2006.  But think about it.  Here you have everyone from our ambassador to our four-stars and two-stars on the ground saying, we acknowledge we got it wrong for four years. 

If that's true -- and I firmly believe that it's true, we impacted upon, significantly, Karzai's options and Karzai's ability to maneuver and work, is he the best that we have?  Yes.  Is he up to the task?  No.  And so it puts us in a real dilemma.  And it's going to take -- I keep going back to the dull, dull, dull stuff of governance, the ability actually to find people of competence, as Madison spoke about in the Federalist Papers. 

It's ultimately -- it gets down to individuals and the capacity to govern -- the honesty of the governance process.  And that is lacking in the extreme.  We should be much more hands on behind the scenes promoting, identifying and pushing, in my view, people who we think are competent like the governor of Kunar Province, where there is actually some real success. 

COURIC:  Richard?

BIDEN:  I will not be assistant secretary of State.  No.  (Laughter.) 

MR. HOLBROOKE:  Thank you, Joe -- I guess.  (Laughter.)

MR. HOLBROOKE:  Thanks for a great presentation, and for trying to keep the national focus on this issue.  I think Afghanistan, Pakistan -- call it Af-Pak, is going to be -- historians will regard it as a more important theater in the long-term than Iraq.  And it's vitally important what you're doing. 

Following up on the last question on Karzai, and going back to your earlier statements about retraining the Pakistani army to fight in the tribal areas, how much -- just speculate as a person, where policy and politics meet -- how many years do you think the U.S. public will support a sustained engagement in this region, which involves casualties, unlike the Balkans or Korea, because it's so vital to the national interest, or are we going to find a deterioration? 

And secondly, on the border areas, retraining the Pakistan army sounds good but I've got a question as to whether you actually could turn that army, with its long British-oriented traditions, into a counterinsurgency force, whether a counterinsurgency would work in that area, because it isn't Vietnam or even Afghanistan.  It's a different kind of thing.  They're right in the political structure. 

So what would you recommend, proactively, for the FATA areas? 

BIDEN:  What I recommend, proactively, for the FATA areas -- and when I say retrain the army, I don't mean retrain the whole army.  All we have to do -- not all, we could retrain a brigade -- and that's what we're talking about, retrain a brigade in counterinsurgency activities.  There is no such element of the Pakistani army now.  It does not exist.  It does not exist.  So I'm not talking about retraining the entirety of the army. 

How would that occur?  It occurs because we are their only and sole benefactor, and we have a great deal of leverage in dealing with the modernization of that army, at least in part. 

Thirdly, I think it is extremely difficult in those areas -- that's why the bulk of the additional aid I'm talking about is to actually get in there; you know what's happening in the areas just short of, what they call the FATA, in the region that is between there and Islamabad, it is an area where there's been some real progress made in terms of when you build a road, when you provide access, when you provide water, it requires essentially more focus on, literally, the reconstruction of that area, or the construction of that area, to bring them into the notion that they're part of a governance process that makes sense for them. 

You saw that happening in the area that was occupied when they stepped out of region.  You had no problem in the -- you had no problem, you had some problem, but the Pakistanis stepped up to the ball and moved those forces back into the FATA. 

With regard to the willingness of the American public to sustain an effort there, I have -- and obviously, maybe it's not true because of the outcome of the primary process, but I truly believe the American people are tougher, smarter, more resilient than any of you in this room, and we in this room, give them credit for. 

I think you've got to start by telling them the truth.  You tell them the truth and you lay out a plan that is understandable to them, and why you're doing it, then they will judge it.  They will judge it based on month to month, year to year.  If a year from now there is actually less killing; if a year from now there is more progress but not sufficient progress, they'll stay on.  They'll kick in.  They'll continue to support the process if they think it has any rational basis to it. 

If they see -- they don't have to see success, meaning that somehow something's going to change in the next two years.  It won't.  But they have to see a trend line.  A trend line and a president honestly speaking to them, saying what we're doing, why we're doing it, and why it's working or not working, and, the price of failure -- the price of failure -- both.  But you have to level with them. 

My colleagues kid me.  From the beginning of the effort on Iraq I would say -- and there's not a single one of my colleagues that don't occasionally remind me of this, I would say that one of the things I think our generation learned is no matter how well informed, or brilliant a foreign policy is, it cannot be sustained without the informed -- say it again, "informed," informed consent of the American people.  The informed consent. 

And so I think you just lay out for them.  And you know, this is a democracy; if they conclude it's not worth the candle, then you have a real problem.  The single greatest damage this president did to the United States of America -- the single greatest damage -- is that he has undermined -- undermined -- the faith of the American people in their government to be able to deliver, their military to be able to engage, and their diplomats in able to succeed.  It is a tragedy. 

The next president -- and we went through that, Dick, in the Balkans.  When I came back from meeting with Milosevic, Christopher gave me the lecture:  the American people will not do this.  We went through two years -- two years -- of inaction because there was a fear on the part of the political establishment of the Vietnam syndrome.  We could not act.  We could not act.  We were paralyzed. 

Well, this president just put us back in that straight-jacket, increasing the degree of difficulty in sustaining an enlightened policy, no matter how much you inform the American people.  So, it's jump ball 

COURIC:  Whoa.  (Laughter.) 

BIDEN:  The ambassador. 

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike.)  Which one?  (Laughter.)

COURIC:  (Laughs.)  "Which one?" 

BIDEN:  My ambassador -- (laughter).  The best ambassador in the room.  (Laughter.)

COURIC:  There you go.  There's the microphone. 

QUESTIONER:  Robin Duke's my name.  U.N.-U.S.A. 

Tell me, Senator, why are we not using our leverage in all the neighboring states?  What are we doing with the rest of those guys out there who owe us some action? 

BIDEN:  Well, there's several reasons.  One, we don't talk to the Iranians and they're a minor player in the region; two, we have sold the farm to Putin and the Russians, so we have virtually no influence right now; three, the Chinese don't take us very seriously based on our policy and our inability to demonstrate we have a notion about what to do; and four, the Indians are sitting there going, holy god, what are these guys about to do? 

I'm being a little facetious, Madame Ambassador.  But the truth of the matter is, we have had a policy thus far that has, as the kid used to say in the neighborhood, "dissed the rest of the world."  I'm serious.  You know, there's an old bad joke about George the centerfielder.  He makes five errors -- and he's a star centerfielder, makes five errors in the first three innings.  And the coach says, George, you're out, Holbrook, you're in.  Holbrook goes into center field. 

First pitch, routine fly ball to Holbrook.  Hits his glove, he drops it.  Coach goes nuts, calls time out.  And as Holbrook crosses the third base line he grabs him by the numbers and said, Holbrook, what's the matter with you?  And Holbrook looks at the coach and says, coach, George screwed up center field so badly no one can play it.

(Laughter.)

Now, folks, I know that's not very sophisticated, New York Council on Foreign Relations talk.  But it is the reality.  It is the reality.  No one wants to play with us.  No one wants to play with us.  And we have not demonstrated, through this administration, any sense that we realize how out of whack our policy is, not just in the -- and I keep going back to Iraq, folks.  Until we get it right in Iraq, we are straight-jacketed.  It's the big boulder sitting in the middle of the (load ?). 

And we have an incredible opportunity at this moment, which is being squandered in my view, but that's another story.  So I really think it's because we don't talk.  We don't have -- they don't look to us, and we don't look to them, quite frankly.  And we (have ?) a lot of leverage, but we have squandered it.  We have squandered it in so many ways.  That's as quickly as I can answer it, Katie.

COURIC:  Well, on that slightly depressing note, I'm afraid we're out of time.  Senator Biden, thank you -- (applause.)

BIDEN:  Could I say one thing possible.  Look, folks, you all are -- you are, again, probably one of the most sophisticated audience I'll speak to.  You ought to know the rest of the world is desperately looking for our leadership.  This is going to be like pushing on an open door with the right policy.  There's no reason to be depressed. 

It's to be depressed only if the policy does not change, or with a president who doesn't understand what his or her phenomenal opportunities are with a well-articulated and clearly-honed policy.  The rest of the world knows our failure is their problem, so there's a great opportunity in my view. 

Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

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