NBC "Meet The Press" - Transcript

Interview

By:  Lindsey Graham Carl Levin
Date: Oct. 11, 2009
Location: Unknown

But first, the debate about the way forward in Afghanistan. Joining me now: the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin; and the Republican from South Carolina, Senator Lindsey Graham; as well as retired Generals Richard Myers and Barry McCaffrey.

Great to have all of you here for such an important discussion. So here's where we are. On the president's desk, a request for more troops, up to 40,000 troops, from his general on the ground, General McChrystal. The president has said in Afghanistan it is a war of necessity. In March he said there was a massive counterinsurgency strategy, that was the strategy. So, Senator Levin, if his commander comes to him and says, "I need more forces," why isn't the answer yes?

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-MI): The answer is that the president of the United States has got to look at all aspects of this. Obviously a commander's recommendation is important, it'll be given great weight, I have no doubt about that, and it should be given great weight. But so also should the recommendation of a secretary of Defense who is the choice of the president to be in that position. And the president has to look at a much broader perspective than the commander's request, as important as that is.

GREGORY: But doesn't it flow--war of necessity, massive counterinsurgency strategy announced in March, handpicked guy goes in there, an expert on counterinsurgency, says, "I need at least 40,000 more troops," doesn't it flow that the answer would be yes?

SEN. LEVIN: The flow is that you want to succeed, and what--how do you maximize the chances of success? That is the question, and that's what the president is struggling with. We don't know what all those recommendations are, by the way, of General McChrystal. But General McChrystal said a number of things, not that he just needs more resources, whatever that number is. He also says we need a new strategy and that that is even more important than the resources. Those are McChrystal's own words. He also says deliberate, take the right amount of time to think this thing through. And he also says that what is even more important than numbers is the resolve. And I had a personal conversation with McChrystal, and what he says is that you want to find ways of showing resolve to the people of Afghanistan. There are many ways to show resolve in addition to more and more combat forces, including many more trainers to get the Afghan forces to be a lot larger and a lot stronger.

GREGORY: Right. You say no, don't send more troops?

SEN. LEVIN: I'm saying at this time don't send more combat troops, but I say focus on the Afghan forces, the army; faster, larger, better equipped. Why are we shipping--why don't we have a great plan to ship equipment from Iraq to Afghanistan? We ought to do that to strengthen the Afghan army. So there's a lot of ways to show resolve other than more and more combat forces.

GREGORY: Senator Graham, where are you?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): I think I'm with General McChrystal. He says that the force structure we have today--68,000 American troops plus our NATO partners plus the Afghan army--are not sufficient to turn around the momentum that the Taliban have gained. I am all for more trainers. The president says we're not going to withdraw. He's rejected the counterterrorism strategy. The only difference this morning is whether or not you put combat troops in to enable the trainers. The Afghan national police are getting slaughtered. It's hard to train people, send them off to fight when they get killed at their first duty station. So without better security, the training element will fail. That's exactly what happened in Afghanistan. So we need more combat power. General McChrystal says 40,000, in that neighborhood; I would go with the general.

GREGORY: There, there's a larger question of what the nature of the fight is right now, and I'll turn to the two generals here. This is how The New York Times reported it on Thursday in terms of the debate that's taking shape within the White House: "President Obama's national security team is moving to reframe its war strategy by emphasizing the campaign against al-Qaeda in Pakistan while arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States." In fact, General Myers, the current national security adviser, General Jones, says there's fewer than 100 al-Qaeda fighters actually currently operating in Afghanistan. What is the central front here in this war?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS (Ret.): I think the central front is against violent extremism, which plays out in both Afghanistan and, as we saw just recently in the last several months, in Pakistan as well. So I don't know how you differentiate between violent extremists that have an extreme view of their religion and are willing to take--go to any means to achieve their political goals. And, and we--we're seeing it play out in Afghanistan, we're seeing the Taliban in Pakistan. So it's, it's more than Afghanistan, it's Pakistan as well, it's the region. Uzbekistan has terrorists that have found safe haven in Afghanistan before. And then it's--I think that, that's spills over into the, the rest of the world, matter of fact.

GREGORY: But where should the fight be, General McCaffrey? I mean, in--within the White House there seems to be a very strong view that the focus on Afghanistan and counterinsurgency against the Taliban might be misguided. We went to war after 9/11 to take out al-Qaeda, and they don't appear to be there in big numbers in Afghanistan.

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY (Ret.): Well, you know, I actually think Senator Levin sent the--set the argument up correctly. The last thing we ought to debate is whether the answer is 40,000 or 10,000 troops. The real question is you've got this giant nation, 32 million people, it's 500 miles from the sea, which complicates matters. Our logistics lines go through Pakistan. The question is do we have resolve to build a viable state in Afghanistan? And that's a function not just of troop strength. Now, having said all that, there's 25,000 Taliban on the ground now is the unclassified number we're talking about. The country's then quadrupled in terms of direct enemy threat, we're about on the verge of losing small U.S. combat forces. I don't see how the president can't back up his ground commander in the short run.

GREGORY: So you got to escalate?

GEN. McCAFFREY: I think in the short run you got no option.

GREGORY: General, do you have to escalate?

GEN. MYERS: I think you probably do, but I would, I would caution--I don't--it's not about 40,000 or whatever the number is--and by the way, that doesn't all have to be U.S., in my view. I think one of the things the president and his team has to do is convince our friends and allies who committed at the Bonn conference back in 2001 to help support development of Afghanistan, that they have to pony up as well. And they have to do so--when they do so, they have to do it with the right rules of engagement.

GREGORY: Senator Levin, some of your colleagues, Senator Graham included, Senator McCain, say, "Hey, remember the surge in Iraq? That was--that's a model here. And that--things got better in Iraq." We don't know the outcome in Iraq yet. But you traveled to Iraq in 2007 and you said there were tangible, positive results from surging U.S. forces. Why not apply those lessons to Afghanistan and send more combat troops if your general says we need them?

SEN. LEVIN: The surge that really worked--that will work in Afghanistan will be a surge of Afghan troops. And that's not me speaking, that's a captain, Marine captain down in Helmand province who says the Achilles' heel in Afghanistan is the shortage of Afghan troops. Our own commandant of the Marines, General Conway, says if he could change one thing in southern Afghanistan it would be to have more Afghan troops. As far as the Iraqi surge is concerned, it took place after the strategy was changed to try and, successfully, to get to get 100,000 Iraqis who were attacking us to switch sides. That was called the--an Iraqi surge, Sons of Iraq. And we need to do the same thing in Afghanistan. It takes a plan. We don't have a plan yet to get those, those lower level, those local Taliban fighters who are on a payroll not because they're, they're wildly fanatic religious people but because they're being paid.

GREGORY: But, Senator Graham, doesn't it also take a government in Afghanistan that's a legitimate ally, that isn't corrupt, that isn't failing in the fundamental job of governance?

SEN. GRAHAM: Absolutely. You could send a million troops into Afghanistan and it would not legitimize their government. So I...

GREGORY: But then why are you pushing for more troops when we don't have an ally there?

SEN. GRAHAM: Well, because I do believe, like Iraq, where you had a dysfunctional government, the security environment was impossible for Iraq to move forward. And once the security got better due to the surge, the Iraqis stepped up. So what I am suggesting is that training the Afghan army and police only is a failed strategy. We had 200,000 people trained in Iraq; they folded like a cheap suit when they went in combat. Only when we embedded with the Iraqi army and police and provided better security did the training get better and governance get better.

You have to do two things here. You have to bring about security, because if the Taliban keep re-emerging it's a mortal threat to Pakistan, according to the foreign minister of Pakistan. Any area lost to the Taliban means soccer stadiums are reopened. It would be the defeat of NATO. So you've got to secure the country against a re-emergent Taliban and have benchmarks and measurements on the Afghan government to get them to perform better for their people. You have to do two things at once. It's exactly what we did in Iraq. But without better security, more combat power, we're going to lose in Afghanistan.

GREGORY: Senator, you and your colleagues, like Senator McCain and others, have been suggesting that the president is taking too long in making this decision. Do you think he's showing weakness in this very important national security problem?

SEN. GRAHAM: Not at this point. At the end of the day, he'll be judged by the decision he makes. If he does a half measure, putting just a few troops in that won't turn around the momentum of the battle, that will be weakness. If he used the counterterrorism strategy, that will lead to failure. If he will plus up American combat power and get more NATO troops involved and go at the Taliban and push the Karzai government, that will be strength. And the Iranians will notice what we do in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government feels threatened by a re-emerged Taliban.

GREGORY: All right....
SEN. GRAHAM: They say, "Why are we sticking our necks out?" So I think what he does will determine if he's weak or strong.

GREGORY: But right now you think he's being appropriately deliberative?

SEN. GRAHAM: I cannot--yes. I think if he'll continue to talk with his foreign policy team and the generals and come out with a military/civilian strategy that is robust and gets to the heart of the problem, he will be just fine.

GREGORY: All right.

SEN. GRAHAM: And earn the award he was given.

GREGORY: Let, let me take a step back here. We'll get to the Nobel Peace Prize in a, in a few minutes. I want to talk about the current situation in Afghanistan by going back to the beginning. This was President Bush in October of 2001 announcing the invasion of Afghanistan.

(Videotape, October 7, 2001)

FMR. PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Given the nature and reach of our enemies, we will win this conflict by the patient accumulation of successes.

(End videotape)

GREGORY: Well, you'd have to be very patient if you'd look at the timeline of this war compared to other wars. The United States was in Vietnam for 102 months, the American Revolution 100 months, the Afghanistan war 96 months and counting. And where we are we currently? General McChrystal, the, the commander on the ground said this in his assessment this summer: "The situation in Afghanistan is serious. ... Many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating." General Myers, you were chairman of the Joint Chiefs starting in October of 2001. What assumption about Afghanistan was fundamentally wrong?

GEN. MYERS: I think that the--I think it played out in execution. My view, and it's been talked around the four of us here, if you're going to be successful in, in these endeavors, Iraq or Afghanistan, it takes all instruments from national power. We've been focusing on troop strength. That's an important part of the equation. The other parts, though--economic development, political, diplomatic development--have been lagging. They lagged in Iraq and now they're lagging in Afghanistan. We have a central government...

GREGORY: But, but the question I'm asking you is you were the military leader....

GEN. MYERS: Right.

GREGORY: ...at the time, with Senator Rumsfeld, and you were advising the president. Did the Bush administration fail because it didn't commit enough resources to this war?

GEN. MYERS: Well, the--you know, by the time I left office Afghanistan had a constitution, they had a central government and they were, they were progressing fairly well. The Taliban had retreated. The Taliban has come back. And you can argue that we should've had more forces in there, I suppose, at the time. But...

GREGORY: What do you think?

GEN. MYERS: No.

GREGORY: That is the argument.

GEN. MYERS: Well, I think--my view is that we had it about right. We were--the central government was relatively cohesive, relatively strong.

GREGORY: Then why aren't things going better eight years later?

GEN. MYERS: The Taliban re-emerged and the central government has gotten weaker. We've taken our eye off, I think, off the other elements of power that it needs to--not just the military part--but it needs to be successful.

GREGORY: All right. But wasn't the issue you took your eye off of Afghanistan because you wanted to put forces into Iraq?

GEN. MYERS: Well, that--no, that was never, that was never explicit in anything that we ever did. No, no commander--all the commanders that we had, General Abizaid and so forth, our Central Command commander, the fellow that General Petraeus replaced, never thought that was the case. We thought, we thought we were making progress.

GEN. McCAFFREY: I must admit, I have a different view. From the start I thought that war was underresourced. And to get back to the notion of should the President Obama rush his decision, one of the things we saw when we went into Iraq was that, you know, we had the unbelievable statement from the Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld that he was not asked his viewpoint on the war, nor had he offered it. So I think bringing along Secretary Clinton and, and Gates and the CIA and others, they're going to own this war when they're done with the, the debate. At the end of the day, what they're--what they shouldn't do is overintellectualize this thing, talking about the sweet point on the spot, on the curve on troop deployments. They've got to decide are we in, are we going to stay for 10 years and build a viable state? Or do we try and downsize, watch our allies disappear, watch the Pakistanis go unstable? My guess is they've got a political decision that's unbelievably difficult. The country isn't with him, his party isn't with him. How's he going to reach a conclusion to support Petraeus and McChrystal in the short run?

GREGORY: Senator Levin, I want to ask this same question to you because I think it's important, which is what assumption about the war in Afghanistan has proven to be wrong?

SEN. LEVIN: I think that perhaps the key assumption so far is that there was a government which would be viable and it is not. The key assumption is that this is a matter for American combat forces rather than to be focusing on the Afghan army, which is a highly respected institution inside of Afghanistan. Clearly we should keep the number of forces that we have. No one's talking about removing forces. The question is whether we focus on more and more American forces or do what we should've done here all along, build up that Afghan army and the--build up the police much more quickly and do what we can to, to put in place, to the extent we can, a government which has the confidence of the Afghan people and also focus, as Barry McCaffrey said, on the economy as well. You've got to have commitment of the Afghan people to a government.

GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. LEVIN: And that means they've got to see some things positive that are happening in their towns and villages.

GREGORY: What about the question of when this war ends? British forces are committed in Afghanistan, but back in August the head of the British army was asked about timeline, he said this: British mission--"Britain's mission in Afghanistan could last for up to 40 years, the now current head of the Army warns in an interview with The Times. General Sir David Richards ... said: `I believe that the UK will be committed to Afghanistan in some manner--development, governance, security sector reform--for the next 30 to 40 years.'" Senator Graham, what kind of timeline should Americans expect about U.S. forces in Afghanistan? Will it be that long? Are we there forever?

SEN. GRAHAM: Well, I think the issue is how long will we be there sustaining casualties like we are today? We've been in Germany and Japan since World War II and most Americans don't care because it's made the world a more stable pace--place and we're not suffering casualties. The question is a good one. What happened in Afghanistan? I think Iraq did affect Afghanistan. Iraq, whether it should've happened or not, became the central battle. We needed to surge there to prevent a loss. And as the Karzai government failed, President Bush, in my view, did not push him enough. You had ambassadors on the ground and military commanders going to Karzai, pushing him very hard on governance, and President Bush would talk to Karzai and, quite frankly, undercut the effort. President Obama is smart to push Karzai. But I think it's going to be required of him in this nation to understand this is a generational struggle. You're never going to make progress until you provide better security. You can have 10,000 American civilians over there helping the Afghans. They can't get off the base because they'll get killed.

GREGORY: But, Senator, you're still talking...

SEN. GRAHAM: The Afghan army and police...

GREGORY: You're still talking about goals, and my question is about timeline. We have been there for more than eight years, and the situation is deteriorating.

SEN. GRAHAM: Yes.

GREGORY: Senator Levin, why isn't it appropriate, as Democrats did with Iraq, to say here and now that there should be a timeline for how long we're there?

SEN. LEVIN: There should be milestone for success, obviously.

GREGORY: A deadline?

SEN. LEVIN: No.

GREGORY: For withdrawal?

SEN. LEVIN: No. I don't think we can put a deadline. I don't think we know enough about how these events are going to unfold for there to be a deadline. But the mistake, going back to that last question, I believe that was made in Afghanistan was taking our eye off that ball, not going after bin Laden when we had him where we wanted him and instead putting--shifting our major focus to Iraq. I think that was the major mistake that was made. But now I think it would be a mistake for us to do anything other than to look for ways to succeed in Afghanistan. And there's a legitimate debate going on as to how do we succeed in Afghanistan, and that's what we ought to focus on. Setting a timeline I don't think would be the right thing.

SEN. GRAHAM: David...

GREGORY: Senator?

SEN. GRAHAM: David, could I add something? I don't mean to interrupt.

GREGORY: Yeah, go ahead.

SEN. GRAHAM: Can I add something?

GREGORY: Yes, sir.

SEN. GRAHAM: I think in the next 24 months, if we'll follow McChrystal plan to reinforce the 68,000, bring about better security, come up with a game pan of--plan of better governance, in 24 months from now we'll change the security environment, we'll build up the Afghan army and police and we can been--begin to do in Afghanistan what we're doing in Iraq in 24 months. That's what I think.

GREGORY: Realistically, from both of you generals, what is victory in Afghanistan?

GEN. MYERS: Some sort--in my view, it's some sort of stable government. And back to Senator Levin's point...

GREGORY: So we can't leave. We can't pull troops out of Afghanistan until there's a stable government?

GEN. MYERS: I think it has to be a viable, stable government that the people believe in. And if you're going to have Afghan security forces that are effective, they have to be connected to the central government and feel that there's some connection and some direction coming from their central government. Otherwise it doesn't work; they're just in the field doing what they do but there's no connection to the overall mission of that country. So I think clearly that's, that's part of it. And I think there has to be some economic development to give people there hope that there's something beyond...

GREGORY: Yeah.

GEN. MYERS: ...what they're doing today.

GREGORY: Can we beat the Taliban?

GEN. McCAFFREY: Well, I, I think in 10 years of $5 billion a month and with a significant front-end security component, we can leave a Afghan national army and police force and a viable government and roads and universities. But it's a time constraint that we can't change things in 18 to 24 months. So I think we got to lower expectations. Senator Levin talked about our political resolve; is it there or not? You know, sort of a simplistic lesson I learned as an infantry company commander in combat, you only got three choices. When you're under fire you can hunker down and take casualties--it's bad--you can break contact and withdraw or you can reinforce and attack. That's really the, the challenge facing the Obama administration right now. And the, the politics of it are really tough. The American people do not appear to support large-scale continued intervention in this conflict.

GREGORY: Just with, with very little time left, I want to get to two other issues. The president spoke last night at the Human Rights Campaign dinner and spoke about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

(Videotape)

PRES. OBAMA: I'm working with the Pentagon, its leadership and the members of the House and Senate on ending this policy. Legislation has been introduced in the House to make this happen. I will end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." That's my commitment to you.

(End videotape)

GREGORY: That, of course, the position of the military to expel gays and lesbians from service.

Senator Levin, will the president live up to this pledge? Can he?

SEN. LEVIN: I think he, he will and he can. I think it has to be done in the, in the right way, which is to get a buy-in from the military, which I think is now possible. Other militaries in the West, the British and other Western armies, have ended this discriminatory policy. We can do it successfully. But it ought to be done with thoughtfulness and with care, and with a buy-in from the military.

GREGORY: General Myers, is it time?

GEN. MYERS: I can't talk about whether it's time or not. I think the process that Senator Levin outlined is exactly right, that the senior military leadership needs to be part of this.

GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

GEN. MYERS: The Pentagon needs to be part of it.

GREGORY: Do you have an opinion about whether it's time?

GEN. MYERS: Well, I, I take some exception to what Senator Levin said, because gays can serve in the military, just can't serve openly. And they, they do and there's lot of them. And we are, and we are, and we're the beneficiary of all that.

GREGORY: OK.

GEN. MYERS: So I'll leave it to the current folks to, to decide whether it's time or not.

GEN. McCAFFREY: Well, there's no question it's time to change the policy. The key to it isn't buy-in from the military, it's for Congress to change the law. They ought to do so. And we would--I'm confident the military will move ahead on it.

SEN. LEVIN: And we, I think, will do that, but we'll need the support at least of some of the military to do it.

GEN. MYERS: I think that's right. You can't...

GREGORY: Does the, does the president have the political resolve to make good on his promise?

SEN. LEVIN: Oh, he does, and I think many of us do.

GREGORY: Yeah.

SEN. LEVIN: I thought it was a mistake to begin with.

GREGORY: Right. Congress has the resolve as well to change it?

SEN. LEVIN: I think we will gain that resolve. The way we've made other changes in this country, the military are the ones that ended a discriminatory policy against African-Americans. They can end it here and it will be great progress.

GREGORY: And finally, Senator Graham, on that question, do you think the military should end the policy?

SEN. GRAHAM: Well, it's my belief that if the policy--you don't have buy-in by the military, that's a disservice to the people in the military. They should be included in this. I'm open-minded to what the military may suggest. But I can tell you, I'm not going to make policy based on a campaign rally.

And when it comes to time, the one thing I would say again about Afghanistan, history will judge not when we left but by what we left behind. And our national security interests will be determined by what we left behind and not when we left. And if this policy about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" changes, it should be done based not on politics, but on reason.

GREGORY: And, and, finally, Senator Graham, do you think the president deserved the Nobel Peace Prize?

SEN. GRAHAM: If he can successfully turn around Afghanistan, deter Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, I will build a bookcase for him to put it in. It depends on what he does.

GREGORY: Senator Levin?

SEN. LEVIN: I think it was a, a positive statement about hope for America, as well as a recognition of the new direction that he's setting for us.

GREGORY: All right, we are going to leave it there. This debate will continue. Thanks to all of you.

And coming next, Afghanistan, health care and jobs; the politics behind it all. Insights and analysis from our roundtable. Plus, our MEET THE PRESS Minute highlighting some eerie similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam, only on MEET THE PRESS.

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