WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who will travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan this week, said on Tuesday he was “very wary” of sending more American troops to the region.
Minutes after getting off the phone to President Barack Obama about the issue, Kerry said neither of the two extremes — a nationwide counterinsurgency and nation-building effort in Afghanistan nor “walking away from the place” — were do-able.
“The key in Afghanistan is we have got to figure out what is achievable, measured against the legitimate interests of the United States, primary among which is al Qaeda,” he said.
“In Afghanistan itself we have to resolve the question of whether the Taliban are per se a threat to us.”
Kerry will meet the top U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and said he had many questions for the man who has recommended a radical change in U.S. strategy there, backed by at least 40,000 more troops.
“I may decide that there is a do-able strategy that achieves the goals I set out, that requires some additional troops,” Kerry told Reuters in an interview.
“I don’t know the answer to that question. I honestly don’t. I am very wary of it because of past experience and because of some of the challenges that I see.”
Kerry, who made his name in 1971 as a shaggy-haired, decorated veteran testifying to the Senate against the Vietnam war, says the lessons of that war suggest that more troops should not be sent to Afghanistan without a clear exit plan.
He failed to unseat former President George W. Bush in the 2004 election, and blamed Bush for missing the chance to capture Osama bin Laden when he had the chance.
He said the United States could not afford and its people would not accept a full nation-building effort in Afghanistan.
Nor would a full-fledged counterinsurgency campaign work properly with a corrupt and dysfunctional government in Kabul, without development and without adequate security.
“If the three cornerstones of counterinsurgency aren’t working, you have to ask yourself: ‘Can it work, will it work, when and how?’,” he said. “McChrystal is making the judgment that he can do that in certain places that are critical, and we owe to ourselves to test that judgment.”
Kerry is among a group of people Obama is consulting as he makes perhaps the most important foreign policy choice of his presidency, whether to commit more troops to an eight-year-long war where victory appears increasingly elusive.
He said he just got off the phone to Obama. “I said, ‘I’m leaving to Afghanistan tomorrow night and he said, ‘I’m really looking forward to your download when you get back.’”
Obama said on Tuesday he hoped to complete a review of his Afghan strategy in the coming weeks. Kerry said if he disagreed with the president’s final decision, he would not hesitate to say so publicly.
“This is war, this is life and death, it is not a party issue, this is an American issue.”
Editing by Cynthia Osterman