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CNN "CNN Newsroom" - Transcript

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KING: We're tracking two big hearings on Capitol Hill today: the Elena Kagan confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court; but right now, let's get straight back to the hearing on the left of your screen.

General David Petraeus, nominated to be the new commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Senator John McCain the ranking Republican on the committee giving his opening statement.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I believe you're one of our finest ever military leaders. I hope that does not provoke the same reaction as it did then. But seriously we're all grateful for your willingness to answer the call of service again in yet another critical mission. You're an American hero and I am confident that you will be quickly and overwhelmingly confirmed.

Before I go further, let me say a word of praise for another American hero, General Stanley McChrystal. He's a man of unrivalled integrity and what is most impressive about his long record of military excellence is how much of it remains cloaked in silence.

You understand fully how General McChrystal systematically dismantled al Qaeda in Iraq and how he began to turn around our failing war in Afghanistan. These achievements and others like them are the true measure of Stanley McChrystal and they will earn him an honored place in our history.

The events that led to this hearing are unexpected and unfortunate but they don't mean we are failing in Afghanistan. I agree with the President that success in Afghanistan is a quote "a vital national interest". And I support his decision to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy backed by more troops and civilian resources. This is the only viable path to true success, which I would define as an Afghanistan that is increasingly capable of governing itself, securing its people, sustaining its own development and never again serving as a base for attacks against America and our allies. In short, the same results we are slowly seeing emerge today in Iraq.

Before heading out to Iraq three years ago, General Petraeus, you told this committee, that the mission was quote, "hard but not hopeless". I would characterize our mission in Afghanistan the same way. Nevertheless, many of the same people who were defeatist about Iraq are now saying similar things about Afghanistan.

But Afghanistan is not a lost cause. Afghans do not want the Taliban back. They are good fighters, and they want a government that works for them and works well. And for those who think the Karzai government is not an adequate partner, I would remind them that in 2007 the Maliki government in Iraq was not only corrupt, it was collapsed and complicit in sectarian violence.

A weak and compromised local partner is to be expected in counterinsurgency. That's why there's an insurgency. The challenge is to support and push our partners to perform better. That's what we're doing in Iraq and that's what we can do in Afghanistan if -- if we make it clear that as long as success is possible, we will stay in Afghanistan to achieve it as we did with Iraq. Not that we will start to withdraw no matter what in July of 2011.

I appreciate the President's statement last week that July 2011 is simply a date to quote "begin a transition phase to greater Afghan responsibility", and for those who doubt the President's desire and commitment to succeed in Afghanistan, his nomination of General Petraeus to run this war should cause them to think twice.

Still, what we need to hear from the President, what our friends and enemies in Afghanistan and the region need to hear is that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will be determined solely by conditions on the ground.

Let me explain why I believe the July 2011 date is so harmful. What we're trying to do in Afghanistan as in any counterinsurgency is to win the loyalty of the population. To convince people who may dislike the insurgency but who may also distrust their government that they should line up with us against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

We're asking them to take a huge risk and they will be far less willing to run it if they think we will begin leaving in a year. One U.S. Marine put it this way about the Afghans she encounters. Quote, "That's why they won't work with us", she said, quote, "They say you'll leave in 2011 and the Taliban will chop their heads off."

The same goes for the Afghan government. We're told that setting a date to begin withdrawing would be an incentive for the Karzai administration to make better decisions and to make them more quickly. I would argue it's having the opposite effect. It's causing Afghan leaders to hedge their bets on us. This is not only making the war harder it's making the war longer. If the President would say that success in Afghanistan is our only withdrawal plan, whether we reach it before July 2011 or afterwards, he would make the war more winnable and hasten the day when our troops can come home with honor which is what we all want.

In addition to being harmful, the July 2011 withdrawal date increasingly looks unrealistic. That date was based on assumptions made back in December about how much progress we could achieve in Afghanistan and how quickly we could achieve it, but war never works out the way we assume as today's hearing reminds us all too well.

Secretary Gates said last week, quote "I believe we are making some progress but it is slower and harder than we anticipated." I agree. Marjah is largely cleared of the Taliban but the holding and building is not going as well as planned.

Our operation in Kandahar is getting off to a slower and more difficult start than expected. The Dutch and Canadian governments plan to withdraw soon, and it looks increasingly unlikely that NATO will make its pledge of 10,000 troops.

CROWLEY: This is Republican Senator John McCain making the point that Republicans have made for some time now, and that is, when the President set a deadline for the beginning of withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, that deadline being July of next year, he immediately encouraged those who just want to wait out the U.S.

They certainly want to talk to General Petraeus about that.

But right now, we want to take you back to the Supreme Court hearings because Republican Jeff Sessions, on the Judicial Committee is talking to Elena Kagan about military recruitment on the Harvard campus.

The context of this is that Kagan was once the Dean of the Harvard Law School and at that time there was back and forth about whether military recruiters would be allowed on campus. That's what this is about.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE, RANKING MEMBER: They say that President Summers agreed to reverse the policy. The dean remains opposed.

ELENA KAGAN, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: Senator Sessions, Larry Summers and I always worked cooperatively on this policy. I didn't ever do anything that he didn't know about and he never did anything that I didn't approve of.

With respect to the decision that -- that you're talking about, this was a joint decision that Larry and I made that because DOD thought that what we were doing was inappropriate, we should, in fact, reverse what we had done.

That period lasted for a period of a few months in my six-year deanship and -- and long before the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the Fair versus Rumsfeld case, we were doing exactly what DOD asked us to do.

SESSIONS: So it's your testimony that the decision you made immediately after the third circuit opinion, you concluded was inappropriate, you and President Summers and you reversed that policy later?

KAGAN: Senator Sessions, what I did after the third circuit decision was to say, look, the only appellate court to have considered this question has struck down the statute. We always thought that our policy was in compliance with the statute.

The appropriate thing for me to do, really, the obligation I owed to my school and its longstanding policy was to go back to our old accommodation policy which allowed the military full access but through the veterans' organization. When DOD came to us and said that it thought that that was insufficient, that it wanted to essentially ignore the third circuit decision because it was taking it up to the Supreme Court. When they came back to us, we went through a discussion of a couple of months and made a decision to do exactly what DOD wanted.

SESSIONS: Well, you did what DOD wanted when they told the president and the council for the university they were going to lose some $300 million if Dean Kagan's policy was not reversed. Isn't that a fact?

KAGAN: Senator Sessions, we did what DOD asked for because we have always tried to be in compliance with the Solomon amendment, thought that we were. When DOD -- DOD had long held that we were. When DOD came back to us and said, no, notwithstanding the third circuit decision, we maintain our insistence that you are out of compliance with the Solomon amendment, we said, ok.

SESSIONS: In fact, you were punishing the military. The protest that you had, that you spoke to on campus was at the very time in the next building or one or two buildings nearby. The military were meeting there. Some of the military veterans when they met with you the first time expressed concern about an increasingly hostile atmosphere on the campus against the military. Didn't they express that to you?

KAGAN: Senator Sessions, I think as I said to Senator Leahy that I tried in every way I could throughout this process to make clear to all our students, not just to the veterans, but to all of our students, how much I valued their service and what an incredible contribution I thought they made to the school.

SESSIONS: I don't deny that you value the military, I really don't, but I do believe that the actions you took helped create a climate that was not healthy toward the military on campus.

But let me ask you this. You keep referring in your e-mails and all to the military policy. Isn't it a fact that the policy was not the military policy but a law passed by the Congress of the United States? Those soldiers may have come back from Iraq or Afghanistan. They were appearing to recruit on your campus were simply following the policy of the United States Congress effectuated by law, not their idea, and that you were taking steps to treat them in a second class way, not give them the same equal access because you deeply opposed that policy? Why wouldn't you complain to Congress and not to the dutiful men and women who put their lives on the line for America every day?


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