John Kerry Speaks at John Hopkins University SAIS on a Winning Strategy in Afghanistan

 While the focus in the past couple of days has been on the release of the NIE report on Iran, there’s been news of things heating up in Afghanistan that has remained somewhat under the wire. AP News reports that the Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide attack today that killed at least 13 people and wounded 20. The Bush administration has totally dropped the ball on Afghanistan, preferring to move on to their next target: Iran, who Bush still insists should ““come clean” on the extent of its nuclear activities” despite the NIE report.

Senator John Kerry, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East and South and Central Asian Affairs, delivered a major policy speech on Afghanistan today at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

In his speech, Kerry laid out new policies to rescue the NATO mission in Afghanistan and help build a stable country. He called for more troops to Afghanistan, a change in the mission to help reduce civilian casualties and a new policy to address the growing opium crisis. He also called for the formation of an Afghanistan Study Group.

The text of Kerry’s remarks as prepared (released to The Democratic Daily) are as follows:

Thanks for coming out on such a snowy day. It’s a privilege to be back at SAIS, an institution that’s left its mark on every corner of the world and every advance in American foreign policy since the dawn of the Cold War. In the days after World War Two, men like George Kennan and Paul Nitze—who founded this institution—understood that defeating communism required more than a collection of ad hoc tactics. They understood the need for a comprehensive long-term strategy, and they set about creating the doctrines that America and its allies followed for decades to come.

In that same spirit, I came here last June to advocate a new strategy for meeting our generation’s great challenge, terrorism. I called for replacing today’s mismanaged “war on terror” with a “global counterinsurgency” effort that places military action in its proper context alongside our moral authority and diplomatic persuasion. Regrettably, that remains an elusive goal.

Worse still, lost amid the chaos of Iraq, there is another dangerously overlooked U.S. engagement that, in stark contrast to Iraq, still enjoys the support of the American people; a genuine “coalition of the willing” of 37 nations contributing half the troops; and a fledgling government that has shown clear signs of being capable of getting it right. That mission, of course, is in Afghanistan, which, right next door to a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and to the crisis of Pakistan, remains—as it always was—the true frontline of the struggle against terrorism.

I don’t need to remind you what’s at stake. The very same people that attacked us on 9-11 are still there, right where we left them. Our nation’s own National Intelligence Estimate warned us this July that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have reconstituted themselves on the Afghan-Pakistan border and are planning more attacks on our homeland. Just yesterday, a senior official warned that we are “seeing early indicators that there may be some stepped-up activity by al-Qaeda” in Afghanistan.

Also at stake in Afghanistan is the viability of NATO itself—our best chance to share our security burden as it takes on its first mission out of theater and evolves to face new threats. As General James L Jones said: “If we don’t succeed in Afghanistan, you’re sending a very clear message to the terrorist organizations that the U.S., the U.N., and the 37 countries with troops on the ground can be defeated.” You may agree or disagree with the sweeping breadth of this conclusion, but any sound judgment must determine that our core mission is to foster a stable, self-governing Afghanistan, free from the Taliban’s tyranny and Al Qaeda’s terror. This will take years, but we can’t afford to fail.

Today we risk repeating the classic mistake that dooms many, perhaps most, counterinsurgencies: a failure to appreciate the difference between tactical success and a winning strategy. The fatal consequence, all too familiar to those of us who lived through Vietnam, is that you win every battle, but fail to win the war. Absent a new focus and a transformation, we are on pace to do just that in Afghanistan. And despite the evidence of thoughtful observers, we are witnessing an alarming lack of urgency from the Administration and some of our allies.

The first step in turning the tide is an honest assessment of where we stand, which is why I joined several other senators in proposing a non-partisan Afghanistan Study Group. There are already a number of comprehensive assessments underway by outside experts, so it shouldn’t take long for our government to complete one and create a baseline for future judgments.

Here’s what I see: On the positive side, allied troops in Afghanistan are doing a magnificent job when engaging the enemy. The American general responsible for training Afghan soldiers tells us that every significant combat engagement this year has ended in “a very decisive defeat” of the Taliban. The Afghan National Army is itself something of a success story as well. The Karzai government—despite its limited capacity and struggles with corruption—is making a good-faith effort at democratic governance in a country whose agrarian economy, tribal affinities, and war-torn history present daunting challenges.

Most of all, the Afghan people have shown unmistakable signs of wanting a peaceful, modern state. Their patience is finite, but they still support our presence. In the end, they’re our most important ally and asset, and that’s why we must immediately shift to a strategy that makes their allegiance to our common cause—more than any Taliban body count—the real measure of our success.

The bottom line is that, on the current course, we’re losing ground in Afghanistan. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have regrouped along the Afghan-Pakistan border, currently hold large swathes of territory, and are expanding their reach into regions that haven’t seen the Taliban since 2001, ever closer to the capital city and NATO stronghold of Kabul. Violence is at its highest levels since the invasion. Between 2001 and 2005, there were 5 suicide bombings in Afghanistan. There were 77 in the first six months of this year alone. Reconstruction efforts have stalled, and Oxfam is reporting “humanitarian conditions rarely seen outside sub-Saharan Africa.” Opium cultivation has soared to 93% of the world’s market. Meanwhile, the weak central government lacks the capacity to wage a nationwide counterinsurgency.

So, faced with these realities, what do we need to do to get Afghanistan right? First, we need to implement a comprehensive strategy that focuses as much on good governance and reconstruction as it does on kinetic military operations. Victory in a counterinsurgency is measured not just in enemies killed but also in kilowatt hours of electricity delivered, in citizens’ ability to get justice without paying bribes, in allies won and enemies not made. We must begin winning these battles in a way that also helps us win the war.

We should move forward with our eyes wide open, remembering the lessons of Afghanistan’s history. No foreign power has ever remained welcome in Afghanistan for a sustained period of time, and we all know that empires like the British and the Soviets paid a bitter price for trying. The Soviets invaded with 100,000 troops, bled their army dry, and left humiliated. Why? In part because they killed over a million Afghans and fundamentally alienated the Afghan people. Our goal has never been to dominate Afghanistan—but rather to empower the Afghans to govern their own country in line with their own best interests and our own national security. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we are in anything but a race against time in a region suspicious of foreign footprints. Time is not on our side.

Clearly, some military steps are necessary to make our crucial non-military efforts successful and sustainable. And the most obvious is providing sufficient numbers of troops to stabilize a deteriorating security situation. I’ve spoken with top military officials who have emphasized to me just how thinly stretched our troops are in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Unquestionably, if we want to clear, hold, and build—which is what you do in a counterinsurgency—we need more boots on the ground.

It may seem counterintuitive, but we also need more troops to make our overall counterinsurgency effort ultimately depend less on the use of military force. During the first half of 2007, while the Administration escalated troop levels in Iraq, there were four times as many air strikes in Afghanistan as there were in Iraq. That’s because, without enough troops, we were forced to rely more on air operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Inevitably, that results in excessive civilian casualties that only serve to inflame public opinion in the Muslim world and facilitate recruitment for jihadists. In southwestern Afghanistan, support for NATO forces has plummeted from 83% a year ago to 45% this year, due in large part to civilian casualties. Just last week in Nuristan Province, coalition planes acting on faulty intelligence are said to have bombed and killed 14 Afghan civilians asleep in their tents. The men were a construction crew building roads. We cannot allow warplanes to be the leading edge of our presence in Afghanistan. That’s a recipe for winning the battle and losing the war.

In the first half of 2007, the UN estimates that Afghan government and international forces killed 314 civilians while 279 were killed by insurgents. Each civilian death—however unintentional—risks a blood feud and could turn an entire clan or village against us. Our troops on the ground are doing a heroic job with the resources they’ve been given to fight an enemy that often hides among civilians. Ultimately, minimizing civilian casualties is a matter of strategic priorities—which can be driven by setting policies like a soldier’s rules of engagement. To that end, retired Army General Barry McCaffrey recently called for a goal of “zero innocent civilian casualties—even where this means Taliban units escape destruction by hiding among the people.”

General Dan McNeill, who commands NATO forces in Afghanistan, has asked for 5,000 more troops, and we should make sure he gets them. We need to lean hard on our NATO allies to pull their weight by expanding their current troop commitments and make sure the job gets done. NATO should reach out to Muslim partners in the Mediterranean Dialogue—countries like Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. We also need the right kind of troops, including Special Forces, civil affairs forces, translators, and trainers. We can’t win with a “duct tape” approach, patching up crises as they arise. Our troop presence needs to be the glue that holds the country together so that reconstruction is given a fighting chance.

We also need to work to convince our allies to lift counterproductive restrictions on their troops. General McNeill keeps a chart on the wall of his office with a sea of yellow and red blocks, each showing the restrictions that national governments have placed on the forces he commands. Red blocks show tasks a country won’t do, like hunting Taliban and Al Qaeda troops, and yellow blocks show missions a country is willing to consider, but only after asking their capitals for permission.

Meanwhile, American, British, Canadian, and Dutch troops face the most intense fighting because they are the only countries deployed in the south. All our best efforts will come to naught if we can’t convince the Europeans that this isn’t just another of George Bush’s wars. Their populations remain deeply skeptical of this Administration’s adventures—no matter how legitimate the cause. We have to persuade our allies that a broader strategy focused on good governance and reconstruction to help the long-suffering Afghan people, not just counterterrorism, deserves a bigger commitment. They need to know the challenge to NATO is real, with real implications for each of their countries.

Empowering the Afghan National Army is also an imperative. Just yesterday, senior Afghan military officials pleaded with Secretary Gates for more weapons, armored vehicles, and planes. We should be increasing training and mentoring through Operational Mentor Liaison Teams; giving the Afghans the equipment they’ve asked for and increasing funding for salaries to build on our fragile success. Today a new foot soldier in the Afghan National Army receives the equivalent of $100 a month from the government. The Taliban has been known to pay three times that much. You’re not going to win this by buying people’s loyalty, but the other guys can win if they practice better politics on the ground. It would be an epic failure if we lost the hearts and minds of able-bodied Afghan fighters because we were only willing to build an army on the cheap.

At every turn, we must constantly be aware of the synergy between military and non-military strategies. We can’t afford to achieve one crucial goal at the other’s expense. There’s a story about a school we built early on in the Afghan war to show there was a better future than what the Taliban offered. A year or two later, the Taliban overran the area, and started using the school as a base of operations. Eventually, despite our best intentions, our military had no choice but to bomb the school we’d built for Afghan children. It was a painful lesson: There’s no reconstruction without security—and there’s no real security without reconstruction.

Security is an essential precondition—but ultimately our success depends on bolstering a government that provides basic services to people all across the country and enforces the rule of law. Let’s be honest about the challenge we face on this front: Afghanistan now ranks #8 in Foreign Policy magazine’s “Failed States Index,” just behind the Democratic Republic of Congo. We don’t have a prayer of succeeding unless that index is rapidly changed for the better.

Frankly, what Afghanistan needs most is what the President once famously declared he “doesn’t do” – nation-building. In parts of Afghanistan, there is a shooting war going on today. But everywhere there’s a larger struggle underway for the future. Sarah Chayes, an American living in Kandahar, recently wrote: “Proper conduct of government is the best antidote to the Taliban.” General Karl Eikenberry put it this way: “Wherever the road ends, that’s where the Taliban starts.” That’s why our generals are asking for more reconstruction funds to win over the local population—and that’s why we should give it to them.

It’s incredible that Iraq has received five times the assistance of Afghanistan despite Afghanistan’s roughly equal population, larger territory, and more stable aid environment. Moreover, far too little of our money in Afghanistan has gone to reconstruction. The same year the President promised a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan, the country received less per capita assistance than post-conflict states like Bosnia, Haiti, and Kosovo. We cannot continue to fake even ourselves out with our own rhetoric. After cutting aid by 38% in 2006, Washington hopes to spend $9 billion in aid to Afghanistan, but most of this money will go to security assistance, not development or reconstruction. This despite glaring shortcomings in our development effort: In a country with an economy that’s 80% rural, one senior American commander said: Even as our military force grew in Afghanistan last year, he “could count on the fingers of one or two hands the number of U.S. government agricultural experts.”

The bottom line is we could use those missing experts, because it’s crucial that we find a smarter way to deal with Afghanistan’s skyrocketing opium production. Opium exports constitute 1/3 to ½ of Afghanistan’s GDP—and despite our spending $1.6 billion since 2001 on counter-narcotics operations, production rose by 17% in 2007.

Opium money funds criminal networks tied to the Taliban, but it also feeds farmers across the country. One farmer told an American reporter: “I know the opium is turned into drugs that destroy young people, and I am sorry, but we are twenty people and we have no help. We must grow it to survive. If we get help we won’t grow it next year.” Like illegal drugs everywhere, right now opium is extremely profitable. If a farmer gets 33 dollars from an acre of wheat and between 500 and 700 from an acre of poppies, he’s going to feel obliged to grow poppies. Instead of just punishing farmers, we should be subsidizing viable crop alternatives to opium. If we send planes to eradicate that man’s fields—as the Soviets did—we create new recruits for the Taliban and more Afghans who want to kill Americans.

Eradication has often worked at cross purposes with our larger goals by alienating the local populace. It has come at the expense of other pillars of our policy that deserve greater emphasis: alternative development, interdiction, judicial reform, and public information. That’s why we should shift our attention toward the processing labs and traffickers, and make sure the Karzai government does its part and targets police chiefs, tribal leaders and even governors who are part of the problem. Otherwise today’s narco-economy can metastasize into a narco-state like we’ve seen in South America. I don’t expect to see wheat fields sprouting up across Afghanistan overnight, but we should be using our full arsenal, not just force, to wean farmers off the opium industry.

And make no mistake, there is no solution to the poppy problem and no stabilizing Afghanistan without demanding that Afghan leaders themselves enforce a deeper commitment to the rule of law—and then helping them do so. Today Afghanistan lacks judges, lawyers, and an effective police force. Judges ask for a fortune for a positive verdict. Customs agents expect kickbacks. Cops kidnap people for ransom. Corruption is endemic, and we need to devote more resources to governance at the local levels and in the countryside. We should push Karzai to reform the Ministry of Interior and the National Police. At the same time, we should more vigorously support efforts to educate and empower women, protect them under tougher laws, and bring them into the political process. An illegitimate and isolated central government in Kabul would be the surest way to undo all our best efforts—and drive the people into the hands of the Taliban.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We should be putting the Afghan government and people at the center of our reconstruction efforts—not US-based private contractors. Afghanistan remains among the world’s poorest countries. Life expectancy at birth is only 43 years. 20% of children die before the age of 5. What better way to win hearts and minds than to save a child’s life? Unemployment is estimated at around 40% and adult literacy at 28%. What better way to prevent men from joining the Taliban than to offer them a peaceful way to support their families?

To date, the international community’s reconstruction and development response has been disjointed. Military and civilian components remain segregated. There are 25 Provisional Reconstruction teams, of radically different sizes and capabilities, with different countries in charge of each one. Until now, there has not been a single authority to coordinate the various components of a very complex mission. I’m very glad to hear that talks are now underway to appoint Paddy Ashdown as a joint UN-NATO envoy. This should improve coordination among the international community and with the Afghan government. He should have a broad mandate, and the backing necessary to tackle Afghanistan’s myriad and interrelated problems.

Finally, we must recognize that Afghanistan cannot be fully stabilized unless Pakistan and others fully join the effort. As long as the Taliban and Al Qaeda have a sanctuary right next door, we’ve got a problem—and so do the people giving them sanctuary. 80% of suicide bombers in Afghanistan now originate in Pakistan. We should bolster efforts to root out extremists in the tribal areas—in part by supporting a “frontier corps” made up of local tribesmen who know the terrain. At the same time, we should ensure that our $750 million aid package actually reaches the people we seek to influence. As we seek to spread economic opportunity, we should push the Pakistani government to do the same and also integrate these areas into national political life.

Pakistan also needs to be part of a regional dialogue designed to help stabilize Afghanistan. It is no secret that real tensions exist between Presidents Musharraf and Karzai. We have to redouble our efforts to bring about cooperation between these two governments. You can’t have a free flow of extremists along their wide-open border. This cooperation must be one of the central tasks of our diplomacy today. Both Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s futures depend on it. Pakistan fears India is trying to improve relations with the Karzai government at its expense. U.S. and international community efforts to build trust between these two neighbors, including in Kashmir, could go a long way towards relieving Pakistan’s need to hedge its bets in Afghanistan. Ultimately, Pakistan must make a strategic decision to support a stable Afghanistan.

Ultimately, a Pakistan headed down the path of civilian democracy is best equipped to deal with extremism. It is in our vital security interest to help foster a government with the strength and legitimacy to fight terror. Now that Musharraf has taken off his uniform, we must push him to lift the state of emergency, restore the rule of law and judicial independence, free all political prisoners, and hold verifiably free and fair elections consistent with the Constitution.

That’s why Joe Biden and I introduced a resolution that calls for the suspension of aid for strategic weapons systems not directly tied to counterterrorism, if Musharraf does not follow through on his promise to take these critical steps toward civilian democracy. We need to look at how the billions of dollars we provide to Pakistan can most effectively advance our interests. Our massive Coalition Support Funds should be reviewed to ensure accountability and transparency. At the same time, less than 10% of our aid goes to development and humanitarian assistance. We should target more of our aid to projects that directly help the Pakistani people.

Getting Afghanistan right is important in itself, but it’s also part of a larger challenge our country faces. This Administration has devoted far more resources to destroying regimes than to building their successors. This is the case not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Somalia, where we helped the Ethiopians overrun an Islamist government harboring high-level Al Qaeda targets. We changed the regime, but the result has been a humanitarian crisis said to be worse today than Darfur, and not only did we fail to capture the terrorists—we’ve created a vacuum in which they can run amok. Replacing a “rogue regime” with no regime at all is costly, unpredictable, and far short of the strategic victory we’re seeking when we risk American blood and spend American treasure to shore up the soft spots in our globalized world.

The reality is we may be unable or unwilling to achieve strong, unified governments in complex societies that traditionally have been held together only by despotism and local ties. We need to support allies like Hamid Karzai and work from the top down to create strong national institutions—not just democracy and human rights but also all the trappings of good governance.

We must also get better at working from the bottom up, co-opting tribes in places like Helmand in the south and the lawless tribal areas of Northwest Pakistan. As we work to support central governments, we can’t put the cart before the horse. In these societies, real authority often comes at the tribal level, and we need to engage there to empower individuals, create security for them, and win people, families, villages, and tribes over to our side and against the terrorists. It’s worth remembering: That’s what made the first Loya Jirga (LOY-a JUR-gah) after the fall of the Taliban successful. Military force will be only a small part of this equation. This is painstaking work that takes on many different faces in different circumstances. But it happens to be our best—really, only—hope to contain and eventually defeat the forces of extremism that today are gaining strength and recruits from our own self-inflicted wounds.

If this all sounds complicated, that’s because it is. But if we’ve learned anything over the years since 9/11 it’s that the challenge we face doesn’t lend itself to simple slogans and solutions. Those often create more complications than they solve. Frankly, we’ve had about as much of a “shoot-first, think-later, pay-tomorrow” approach as our budget and our Army, not to mention the region, can stand. It’s time for comprehensive, dedicated, thoughtful diplomacy.

One of today’s preeminent thinkers on counterinsurgency, David Kilcullen, wrote a piece called “28 Articles” offering advice for a recruit struggling to make sense of Iraq and Afghanistan. His suggestions range from how to treat children in a war zone to how to train local forces. His final admonition, above all else, is this: “Whatever else you do, keep the initiative.” In Afghanistan today, we haven’t lost the war—but we have lost the initiative, and we need to recover it.

150 years ago, the British could lose a military campaign in Afghanistan in September and word wouldn’t get back to London until spring. They had a very good excuse: Messengers couldn’t get through the mountain passes until the snow melted. We have no excuse today for failing to take quick and dramatic action to correct a situation that is rapidly deteriorating.

When Colin Powell spoke at SAIS’ 60th anniversary three years ago, he told a great story he’d heard about the 2004 Afghan elections. In one of the outlying provinces, a bridge had been blown so that people couldn’t reach the polling station. As Secretary Powell said, “People came to the destroyed bridge and they walked along the bank until they could find a ford, and they crossed the icy water to get to a polling station.”

That was Afghanistan 3 years ago. Despite the heroic efforts of our troops and of Afghans like the ones who crossed the river that day, we’ve moved backwards since that hopeful day—away from the stable democracy we promised and toward the failed-state turned Al Qaeda safe haven that harbored the killers who struck us on 9-11. With a new approach, we can finally make good on the many promises we made to the Afghan people back in 2001—and the promise we made to the American people of a safer world. Thank you.

UPDATE: You can listen to audio of John Kerry’s speech here.

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About Pamela Leavey

Pamela Leavey is the Editor in Chief, Owner/Publisher of The Democratic Daily as well as a freelance writer and photographer. Pamela holds a certificate in Contemporary Communications from UMass Lowell, a Journalism Certificate from UMass Amherst and a B.A. in Creative Writing and Digital Age Communications from UMass Amherst UWW.
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