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KING: You just heard the White House perspective on the question of what's next in Afghanistan. Should there be more troops? What happens with the dispute over the contested election? We also have the views this morning for you of a very powerful voice in Congress, who is in the ground -- on the ground in Afghanistan, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, John Kerry.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KING: Senator Kerry, thank you for joining us from the ground there. First, I want your assessment of the political situation. How soon do you think they could administer a runoff election in Afghanistan?
KERRY: I'm told by the authorities here that they could do it in two weeks. And I accept that. I think it could be done in two weeks.
KING: What do you think the United States, the United Nations, and the international community need to do to make sure that what happened last time doesn't happen again? How do we strengthen the administration and the integrity of that election process? KERRY: Well, I think it's critical -- obviously, in any emerging democracy, there are going to be a certain number of difficulties. I think they've done a good job, frankly, over the last months and weeks of isolating what those difficulties were. and of throwing out the votes that needed to be thrown out. But if there is indeed going to be a run-off, then we want to try to do it as effectively as humanly possible. One of the things that was lacking last time, particularly in the south, was adequate security.
KING: Do you believe we should just step back from this, or is the best thing now going forward to try to encourage negotiations? There has been some talk of maybe a power-sharing arrangement. President Karzai would then bring Dr. Abdullah into the government somehow. Is that a good approach?
KERRY: I think it's entirely up to President Karzai to make -- assuming he gets reelected, if he is, then he has got to make decisions about what the make-up of his government is going to be. That doesn't mean we just stand by, no. I don't accept that. We have too much at stake here, our troops are on the line. We have people in harm's way in this country. And they're making great sacrifices.
And we have a responsibility to make certain that the government here is a full partner in our efforts to be able to be as effective as we can be. So before the president makes a decision about the numbers of troops that ought to come here, I believe it is critical for us to be satisfied that the reform efforts that are absolutely mandatory within the government here are in fact going to take place and be fully implemented.
This struggle here in Afghanistan, and the goals of the president that he has defined with respect to al Qaeda and the stability of the region, those goals will not be achieved by just the United States military or the numbers of troops here.
The essential ingredients, frankly, as important as anything, is the ability of the government of Afghanistan to deliver at the top, all the way down to the local level; and secondly, the ability of the international community to bring the civilian sector in underneath the military effort in order to provide an improvement in the quality of life and opportunities for the people of this country.
Those are critical components of counterinsurgency strategy. It would be very hard, I think, for the president to make a commitment to X number of troops, whatever it might be, or to the new strategy, without knowing that all of the components of the strategy are indeed capable of being achieved.
KING: Well, let me ask you a little -- more questions about that then. You've had meetings with General McChrystal and his deputies there on the ground.
KING: Before you left Washington, you said you were very wary of the prospect of sending maybe 40,000 more troops into the situation in Afghanistan.
After the face-to-face contact with the generals, are you more comfortable with their plan?
KERRY: They answered a lot of questions. And obviously, General McChrystal is a very impressive leader. Not all of the questions have been answered. And some of the assumptions that General McChrystal is making, and he acknowledges this himself, are based on the other two things I talked about.
And so this mission is not defined exclusively by its military component. And we've got to make certain that the other pieces, again, I say, are achievable. And I'm not yet convinced that we're there.
KING: Not yet convinced. You have, in the past, many times raised the Vietnam analogy, saying your worry was that then-Defense Secretary McNamara and General Westmoreland, would keep asking for more troops without examining all of the big underlying questions.
Are you convinced that General McChrystal is not General Westmoreland?
KERRY: Absolutely. I think General McChrystal is asking the questions about the underlying assumptions. This is not Vietnam in that - many respects.
We are here in Afghanistan because people attacked us here, in the most significant attack against the United States since Pearl Harbor. We are here because there are still people at large who are plotting against the United States of America. And we are here because the stability of this region is of critical strategic interest to the United States.
I think most people agree on that. So the -- the basic assumptions here are very, very different from what we experienced years ago in Vietnam.
In addition to that, I think the general is very, very carefully looking at the other components of the mission that he has set, i.e., what will the government of Afghanistan be able to deliver? And how does he work around it if they don't? And secondly, how much and how fast can we get a civilian component in here to do the build part, after we clear and hold, and then ultimately transfer to the Afghans? And that's another assumption that people are looking at very carefully. What are the Afghans themselves capable of doing with respect to their army? How fast can they be trained? How capable will they be? What kind of transition can take place?
These are all the kinds of questions that are appropriately being asked now.
KING: We had Senator McCain in here last week. And you know his opinion, but I want to share it with our viewers and get your reaction to it. I asked him the question, what will it take in Afghanistan to succeed? Listen to Senator McCain.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Do you think the United States can win in Afghanistan with fewer than 40,000 more troops?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: I do not. And I think the great danger now is not an American pullout; I think the great danger now is a half-measure, sort of a -- you know, try to please all ends of the political spectrum.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KERRY: I don't think the president has any intention of doing that. I think he is going to make his judgment about what kind of mission he's going to set. And then he is going to make, I think, a solid judgment about what it's going to take to accomplish that mission.
You know, I have great respect for John McCain. He and I served in the same war. We both have searing memories about what happened when politics took over the decisions of that. So I respect his caution about it.
But I'm convinced that the review the president is going through is exhaustive; it's thorough; and I'm absolutely confident the president is not going to make a decision remotely connected to politics. He is going to make a decision based on the national security interests of our country and of what he thinks it takes to achieve the mission that he defines to meet those interests.
KING: A quick break, but when we come back, more with John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations, who is on the ground in Afghanistan. Stay with us.
KING: Let's continue our conversation, now, with Senate John Kerry of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Let's get your assessment of the threat. What is the threat now, in Afghanistan, of Al Qaida and the Taliban to the United States?
General Jones was here a few weeks ago, and he said probably fewer than 100 Al Qaida operatives currently in Afghanistan. What is the threat?
KERRY: It's a several-fold threat. It's the threat of the failure of governance, which is empowering Taliban to be able to recruit people because of their dissatisfaction and distrust, not essentially because they agree with the Taliban.
But if the Taliban gain sufficient footholds in parts of the country, most people, I think, make a judgment that that is an opportunity for Al Qaida to take advantage of their alliance and therefore create, conceivably, a sanctuary or training ground for terrorist activities in other parts of the world.
We have seen that. That is their modus operandi. And that's what we have to worry about. That's the threat, insofar as the Taliban might or might not present a challenge to us. I don't think they're about to take over the country. Al Qaida is not essentially here today. It is in northwest Pakistan and in some 58 or 59 other countries in the world.
But we need to also guarantee that the Taliban and our own presence don't become a destabilizing factor with respect to Pakistan and their efforts to fight against their own Taliban as well as other extremist groups that threaten their government.
And they are, as we recall, a government with nuclear weapons, a government with a major number of troops lined up on the border with India, and a government that, for a number of other reasons, I think has national security interests for the United States.
KING: Help us, Mr. Chairman, understand that delicate and difficult balance. Do you worry, for example, that, if the United States were to add 30,000, 40,000 more troops into Afghanistan, you would be roughly, then, with U.S. and NATO troops, where the Soviets were back in the old days of their incursion into Afghanistan?
And some say that that would cause so much instability in Pakistan, the giant U.S. presence, that you would be doing more harm than good.
KING: Do you share that assessment?
KERRY: Well, I don't share the beginning -- the beginning basis of the premise in which you asked the question.
I don't think people here in Afghanistan are viewing the United States now in the same way that they viewed the Soviet Union, not at all.
Yes, there is, however, a legitimate question about whether or not a certain number of troops, depending on their mission, might drive people into Pakistan, and thereby present further difficulties in the western part of that country or even fuel the extremism there.
That is a legitimate question. And it is raised by a number of Pakistanis, and it's one of the reasons why I wanted to come over here to talk to people on both sides of the border about that perception. KING: Help the American people understand -- best-case scenario, how long will U.S. troops be in Afghanistan, 10 years, 20 years, more?
KERRY: Well, I hope it won't be that long, obviously. And I have -- you know, I'm trying to think about a mission that doesn't touch those kinds of time frames. My hope is that we can define a mission, here, that will achieve what we need to do to meet our national security interests. That's what this is about.
And we have to define them very, very carefully. I think the president was correct in focusing on Al Qaida and on focusing the stability of the region and of Pakistan itself. And our mission, in so much as it takes into account the Taliban, is really focused on that.
What we need to figure out is how rapidly and how effectively can we create a transfer to the Afghans themselves. And, you know, I don't have an answer to that, sitting here with you today.
KING: I want to share with you an assessment by the commander of the VFW back here in the United States and get your comments on it. Tom Tradewell, the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars said this.
"In battle, weaknesses are exploited and attacked, which proved to be the case during the Vietnam War. North Vietnam correctly perceived that the United States government did not possess the political will to complete the mission. And that perception became reality.
"In Afghanistan, the extremists are sensing weakness and indecision within the United States government, which plays into their hands, as evidenced by the increased attacks in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. I fear that an emboldened enemy will not intensify their efforts to kill more U.S. soldiers."
Is there weakness and indecision in the United States government? Is the commander of the VFW right?
KERRY: I -- I respectfully disagree with the judgment that he makes about -- at this point in time. Look, obviously, if you exhibit weakness or indecision, or if the United States were to suddenly pull out of here, it would disastrous, in terms of the message that it sends. Nobody is talking about that. That's not what's on the table here.
What we're trying to figure out, so that we don't repeat mistakes of the past, is not just committing people in -- putting them in harm's way and endlessly asking our military to deploy and go out and fight if we aren't certain that we're giving them the mission that, in fact, is achievable and that the American people will in fact stay committed to it.
That's part of what has to be tested here. A lot of us have tough memories of what happens when the country loses that will.
So, you know, I want to understand this as well as I can. I don't think -- I think the president -- and look, it would be entirely irresponsible for the president of the United States to commit more troops to this country, when we don't even have an election finished and know who the president is and what kind of government we're working with.
And when our own, you know, commanding general tells us that a critical component of achieving our -- our mission here is, in fact, good governance, and we're living with a government that we know has to change and provide it, how could the president responsibly say, oh, they asked for it; sure, here they are -- and we know that the two critical schools of counterinsurgency aren't going to stand. That would be irresponsible for a president of the United States.
And no commander-in-chief should be, you know, cornered into making a decision that isn't based on a responsible assessment about what is possible and what the American people are prepared to commit to.
I think this is being approached in an entirely responsible way. General McChrystal told me that, even if the commander in chief made the decision tomorrow to put those troops in here, many of them wouldn't even begin to start the flow here until next year, because that's the way it works.
So this is not a situation where someone here is being deprived today or tomorrow or the next day. This is a situation where I think people here are being protected by a smart way of making policy.
KING: Let me try to bring you home, Senator, before we let you go, for a couple of questions about domestic policy here in the United States. The Senate Finance Committee bill to pay for its health care reforms adopts a proposal similar to one you advocated. It's not exactly the Kerry proposal, but it would put a fee on those "Cadillac" insurance plans.
And many of your friends in the labor movement have said, you know what, you're going to put a fee on the insurance companies and they're going to pass that on to the consumer. Gerry McEntee, a labor leader, who helped you when you were running for president, says it's a slap in the face of the American worker. And they view it as a violation of the president's promise not to raise taxes on middle- class Americans.
Is Gerry McEntee right? Is that a slap in the face of American workers?
KERRY: Well, I have great, great respect for Gerry McEntee. He's a good pal of mine, and I appreciate enormously his concern, and I share his concern for workers who might be affected if the threshold were to stay too low. I don't believe the threshold will stay too low.
And we're -- we've already raised it, actually, partly. We have adjusted to some of his concerns and other people's concerns. And I hope we can still raise it a little further to a different level.
But here's what I'm convinced of: If you get it at the right level, I believe what happens is, it doesn't get passed on because those insurance companies actually have a strong incentive to be competitive with the other companies that are going to be in this new exchange that is created.
KING: Senator John Kerry, there, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Up next, we head to Alaska. It's a breathtakingly beautiful state, and its isolation often protects it when the national economy takes a turn for the worst. But just as winter arrives, so does recession. Stay with us.
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