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Remarks by Senator John McCain to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Location: Unknown

"Thank you, Jessica [Matthews], for that generous introduction, and for your leadership of this fine institution. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace remains a first-rate source of policy analysis and practical guidance on all of the major international issues of the day. And I continue to rely on the advice and council of many Carnegie scholars. Thank you for inviting me here today to speak about Afghanistan in the run up to the NATO Summit in Chicago next month.

"A friend commented to me yesterday that the international community has so many summits nowadays it is beginning to resemble a mountain range. That may be true, but this is nonetheless a vital moment to focus on NATO's mission in Afghanistan. We are approaching the endgame of what has already been a long war. And not surprisingly, the American people are growing tired of the burden.

"This war-weariness has only been exacerbated by a recent series of headline-grabbing setbacks in Afghanistan -- the latest being the coordinated terrorist attacks in Kabul and other Afghan cities earlier this week. But while events like these are unfortunate, none of them change the vital U.S. national security interests at stake in Afghanistan. Nor do they mean that the war is lost. It is not. There is still a realistic path to success if the right decisions are made in the months ahead.

"This gives added importance to the upcoming NATO Summit. We must view this meeting as a strategic opportunity to recast our entire involvement in Afghanistan -- to recommit ourselves and the alliance not merely to leaving Afghanistan, but to succeeding there. This requires a clear understanding of what is at stake and what the costs will be to us all if we fail.

"More than a decade after the attacks of September 11, 2001, we fight in Afghanistan today for the very same reason that first led us there: What happens in Afghanistan directly impacts our security at home. We abandoned Afghanistan in the 1990s, and the result was a fanatical regime that tyrannized the Afghan people, especially women, and used its territory as a base for global terrorist attacks. If we quit Afghanistan again, and abandon the millions of Afghans who have risked everything to be our allies in the hopes of succeeding together, Afghanistan will again become a safe haven for terrorists and a nightmare for the Afghan people.

"It does not have to be this way. Significant military progress has been made in Afghanistan -- progress that I have witnessed over repeated visits. Four years ago, the Taliban dominated southern Afghanistan, and our coalition lacked both the resources and the strategy necessary to break their momentum. Today that situation has reversed. I have walked through busy villages and bustling marketplaces in parts of Kandahar and Helmand that were entirely off limits just a few years ago.

"Similarly, the training of the Afghan National Security Forces, which was under-resourced and disorganized four years ago, has been completely overhauled. Growing numbers of Afghan units are increasingly capable of leading the fight. Indeed, it was Afghan forces that beat back the attackers and restored security in Kabul and other cities this week, with minimal international assistance.

"Yes, the despicable actions of a few Afghan soldiers who turned their weapons on our forces recently captured our attention. But that must not cause us to overlook the fact that there are literally hundreds of thousands of patriotic Afghans who are faithfully in this fight with our troops and increasingly taking the lead for it. They are wounded and killed in greater numbers than our forces. And they should give us hope that our common goal -- an Afghanistan that can secure itself, govern itself, and sustain its own progress -- remains achievable over time.

"While these tactical gains are undeniable, unfortunately, our efforts continue to be undermined at the strategic level by the perception that America is planning to abandon Afghanistan once again -- a perception that the Administration has exacerbated through its fixation on leaving Afghanistan, and by a series of counterproductive decisions they have taken to accelerate that withdrawal.

"First, in December 2010, the President provided his military commanders with a smaller surge of forces than they recommended and announced a date certain to begin withdrawing our troops the following year. Our commanders had planned to confront the insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan simultaneously. However, the smaller surge forced them to tackle the insurgency sequentially -- first in the south and then in the east. This made the war longer.

"The President then overruled his commanders again in July of last year, choosing to withdraw the full surge earlier than the military recommended. After the initial decision on troop levels lengthened the campaign, this decision denied our commanders the full combat power they had wanted to employ against the Haqqani Network in eastern Afghanistan during the coming fighting season. Our military leaders have testified to Congress that none of them recommended this course of action, and that it has only increased the risks to our mission.

"In addition, the Administration is now planning to cut the end-strength of the Afghan National Security Forces from 352,000 to 230,000. The rationale offered is that the larger number is a surge force, and it can be drawn down to the lower number in a matter of years after 2014. That is a hard argument to swallow from a military standpoint, and the Afghan Defense Minister has been critical of it in those terms. Furthermore, how can it make sense to begin laying off 120,000 well-trained Afghan combat veterans in 2014 and sending them into what will surely be a dim job market? We saw a similar movie before in Iraq, and it did not end well.

"Finally, the Administration continues to pursue a reconciliation plan with the Taliban that rests on the flawed assumption that real reconciliation -- reconciliation on terms that would be favorable to our Afghan and NATO allies, and to us -- is possible right now. But as long as the Taliban think we are leaving, and that they can ultimately win on the battlefield, what incentive do they have to make peace?

"We need to be realistic: Reconciliation with the Taliban will not happen because we want to stop fighting. It will happen when we have broken their will to keep fighting. This is a stubborn fact, and to the extent that the Administration tries to substitute carrots for sticks in the negotiations -- offering to transfer five high-level Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar as a confidence-building measure, as media reports suggest -- it only signals desperation to give up the fight.

"The effect of these and other decisions has been strategically debilitating. It sends the signal to everyone in Afghanistan and the region, both friend and enemy alike, that the United States has lost the will for this fight… that we are hell-bent on leaving Afghanistan regardless of conditions on the ground… that the Taliban is literally coming back, starting with the five detainees possibly headed to Doha… and that the international community will not even help our willing Afghan partners to sustain a sufficient number of forces to lead this fight on their own.

"None of this may be true, but I can assure you that it is the perception in Afghanistan and the region. And perception is reality. This set of incentives only emboldens our enemies to keep fighting. It encourages the Pakistani army and ISI to continue hedging their bets by supporting terrorist proxies as a source of strategic depth in Afghanistan. And it leads our Afghan allies to hedge their bets as well by making counterproductive choices about governance and corruption due to their fears of what a post-American future will bring in Afghanistan.

"This perception that America will abandon Afghanistan makes everything our troops are trying to achieve harder. And the upcoming NATO Summit is an opportunity to fundamentally change this perception. It is an opportunity to create a new set of incentives in this conflict that can strengthen our friends, weaken our enemies, and establish the conditions for enduring strategic success. I want to conclude today by suggesting how we can seize this important opportunity.

"First, to sustain our fragile progress in Afghanistan, it is critical that the President resist the short-sighted calls for additional troop reductions, which would guarantee failure. Our forces are slated to draw down to 68,000 by September -- a faster pace than our military commanders recommended, which has significantly increased the risks for our mission. At a minimum, there should be a pause after September to assess the impact of the drawdown. It would be much better to maintain the 68,000 forces through next year's fighting season, possibly longer.

"Similarly, the Administration should clarify that, while the end-strength of the Afghan security forces may eventually be reduced, that decision will be based on conditions on the ground. And if those conditions are not present by 2014, the community of nations -- not just the United States and NATO -- must help the Afghans to sustain the 352,000-man force as planned. After all, a capable Afghan security force is our exit strategy. It is our guarantee that the gains our troops have made at enormous cost will be sustained after we draw down. We should not do anything to put this core part of our mission at unnecessary risk of failure. And we certainly should not allow budgets to determine strategy in this regard. The previous administration made that mistake for years, and it almost lost us the war.

"A related point pertains to the U.S. and NATO effort to advise Afghan forces in combat, which will become an increasing focus of our war effort beyond the NATO Summit. Until now, the U.S. advisory mission has been hit or miss. The key to success is ensuring that U.S. commanders are assigning their best troops to train and advise Afghan forces. For this to happen, the military must prioritize this objective in the criteria they use to evaluate American units in Afghanistan.

"Beyond these more operational considerations, the upcoming summit is an opportunity to make a strategic breakthrough by finalizing a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan. This agreement would serve as the foundation for our long-term political, economic, and military relationship beyond 2014, and it could encourage our allies to make similar commitments. With the recent agreements to transfer detention operations and night raids from U.S. to Afghan authorities over time, the path is now clear to conclude a strategic partnership.

"A core element of this agreement should be an enduring U.S. military presence in Afghanistan -- including airpower, intelligence support, joint operating facilities, and Special Operations Forces and trainers to continue our assistance to the Afghan security forces. This reduced force could ensure that al-Qaeda and the Taliban no longer pose a military threat to Afghanistan, our allies, and us.

"Making these commitments could change the entire incentive structure in this conflict. The strategic partnership would make clear to the Taliban that it cannot wait us out and win on the battlefield. It would demonstrate to Pakistan that continued support for the Taliban will only leave them more isolated and less secure. It would give Afghan leaders the reassurance to fight corruption and govern better. And it could set the conditions for our forces to responsibly draw down and hand the lead to the Afghans. In short, the Strategic Partnership Agreement could change the entire narrative in Afghanistan and the region from one of looming international abandonment to enduring international commitment.

"Recasting our efforts in this way would also create the conditions for a real process of reconciliation with the Taliban. The critical question here is not whether we are reconciling ourselves to the Taliban, but whether the Taliban is reconciling themselves to the Afghan state and constitution on favorable terms to our Afghan allies and to us. This will only happen when the Taliban no longer thinks they can win on the battlefield. That is not the case now. But it would be the case if we demonstrate to the Taliban that 2014 is not the finish line -- that a residual U.S. and NATO force will remain in this fight with our Afghan partners long into the future.

"All of these decisions could create the conditions for a more broad-based political strategy in Afghanistan. President Karzai recently suggested that he is considering moving up the presidential election from 2014 to 2013. This is an interesting idea that we should explore with him and other Afghan political and civil society leaders. This would ensure a greater number of international forces to secure an early election. Furthermore, by decoupling the election from the final year of the security transition, it could increase the odds of both being successful.

"Ultimately, this decision is for the Afghan government and people to make. What is in our common interest is ensuring that the upcoming election, whenever it happens, is a decisive and inclusive demonstration of democracy in Afghanistan. There are many Afghan citizens who continue to feel unrepresented in the current political system. The upcoming election needs to provide a clear expression of the will of the Afghan people -- and with it, a strong new mandate for the next Afghan government to tackle the country's major challenges. This does not mean that the problems of governance and corruption will be resolved immediately, but it could create renewed will and public demand to address these challenges more urgently.

"Somewhere over the past few years, the idea that democracy in Afghanistan is an explicit goal of U.S. policy has been lost. It is not talked about as much. This is unfortunate -- and misguided. The Afghan people remain our natural allies. Like us, they want their government to fight corruption, to be bound by the rule of law, to be responsive to their interests, and to be accountable to their demands. They want to safeguard Afghanistan's sovereignty and independence from meddlesome neighbors. And they want to enter into a long-term strategic partnership with the United States. The Afghan people do not want the Taliban back. In fact, they are fighting and sacrificing by the hundreds of thousands to defeat the Taliban.

"Democracy in Afghanistan is not a goal that we should be backing away from now. To the contrary, helping Afghans to strengthen their democratic system, and participate more fully in it, can be an essential part of our political strategy to advance our own national security interests with willing and able Afghan partners.

"Ultimately, all of these decisions return to one fundamental question: Does the United States still have the will to lead, and to lead wisely, in Afghanistan? For all of our mistakes, for all of our recent setbacks, for all of the committed enemies we face, and for all of our neglect of Afghanistan over so many years, nonetheless, we are still in control our own destiny in this war. This fight is ours to win or lose.

"After all we have committed to this conflict -- the years we have devoted, the resources we have sacrificed, the precious lives we have lost, the national security interests and national honor we have at stake, the countless Afghans, especially women, who are risking everything by siding with us -- after all of this, we still have a realistic path to succeed in Afghanistan. And if the President chooses it, my colleagues and I in Congress will strive to secure the same bipartisan support for this war in its twilight hours as when it began more than a decade ago."

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