I am releasing a private letter I sent to Senator John Kerry on July 28, 2010. After being a 2004 proponent of Afghanistan as a “good war”, his evolution has been very welcome. His experience, his carefully study of the realities, and the power of his Massachusetts anti-war constituency have been factors in his coming to this new position. I think it’s particularly important that Sen. Kerry was willing to send this letter to the peace movement through Progressive Democrats of America (PDA). Congratulations!
Sen. John Kerry's Letter to PDA:
June 22, 2011
From Senator John F. Kerry
Not long ago I had a good conversation with Tim Carpenter, and we agreed it would be smart to begin a discussion about Afghanistan between me and all of you. I wanted to start that dialogue today.
Tonight President Obama [has announced] his plans to wind down the war in Afghanistan, as he promised he would do. While I do not know the precise details of his plan, I am told it will be a very significant reduction by the end of next year with a clear pathway to bringing nearly all of our troops home by 2014 when Afghans will take complete control of their country.
Now, sometimes people assume that the every day work we do in the Senate is received in its entirety at home in Massachusetts. I know that much of what we do here is not covered in a comprehensive way, so I wanted to take this opportunity to convey to you all I’ve been doing, and the direction in which I’ve been pushing on Afghanistan.
A little history probably helps—even though, here in 2011 it may feel like ancient history. In 2009, in some of my very first hearings Chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I said, "[T]he parallels" to Vietnam "just really keep leaping out in so many different ways."
That comment caused a political firestorm of sorts—but I defended it, and I’m proud of it. I published an OpEd in the Washington Post that said,
“We shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking that we are in anything but a race against time in a region suspicious of foreign footprints. The United States is not in Afghanistan to make it our 51st state.”
Why did I think this was so important? Because the bottom line was that for close to seven years under the Bush Administration, the war in Afghanistan had drifted and drifted without any sense of definition—vague and gauzy aspirations of building a flourishing Afghan state. I saw that as a recipe for quagmire. If the goal was to create a Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan, we’d never come home. That is why from the very start of the Obama Administration I pushed very forcefully that we narrow the mission. President Obama ultimately defined a much clearer American mission in Afghanistan—not nation-building. This was a very important course correction.
Preventing quagmire in Afghanistan has been very personal to me. Forty years ago, I testified in front of the Foreign Relations Committee about a war that had to end. Today, as the Chairman of that Committee, I have from the start felt a profound responsibility never to see or allow another Vietnam. Making sure Afghanistan does not go down that tragic road has been a mission for me. That’s why this spring I launched a series of comprehensive hearings to examine the Afghan war which the president has already decided will end.
My goal was to study every question and ultimately articulate a policy of how that war should end in a way that makes America stronger. I want to be very clear about the troop levels issue. I have said very clearly that our goal should be to get to “the smallest military footprint possible, as quickly as possible.” I said that at the hearings. I also said again last month in those hearings that “it is fundamentally unsustainable to continue spending $10 billion a month on a massive military operation with no end in sight.” So, the question is not whether we are drawing down in Afghanistan. We are—and we must—and I have been pushing in this direction all along.
But I also want to address with you what I think is perhaps an even bigger question. I came out of activist politics—I dedicated years of my life to ending the Vietnam War, and as a Senator—against enormous pressure in my own Party even—I forced the first votes again and again on setting a date to end the Iraq War. I understand that we often get fixated on simple questions of “how many troops out” and “when.”
We agree on the big picture—the war must end, and we need to get to a small footprint as quickly as we can. But I want to engage you in a discussion of the details of “how”—and what we will leave behind in Afghanistan—because those are frankly far more difficult issues.
Here’s what I am working on and trying to measure: The transfer of responsibility to the Afghans offers both hope and challenge. The hope is that we can help bring stability and security to Afghanistan and bring our men and women in uniform home safely. The challenge is that the transition can be thrown off course by increased violence from the insurgents and a lack of resolve from our partners in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
Now it is not enough to simply lay out our goals—to dismantle and destroy Al Qaeda and avoid destabilizing Pakistan. We need to demonstrate what type of Afghanistan we plan to leave in our wake so that we may actually achieve these objectives. Do we need to build a democratic Afghanistan that can secure its borders and deliver services to its citizens? Or is it enough to create an Afghan state—undemocratic, corrupt, or otherwise—that will still deny sanctuary to extremists groups that could harm the United States and its allies?
Our hearings challenged any lingering assumption that the conflict will have a quick and decisive end. The truth is that there is no purely military victory possible in Afghanistan, despite the skill and sacrifice of our troops. What we face instead is a political resolution that could deteriorate into civil war unless we accept some basic truths and adjust our tactics accordingly.
First, despite our best efforts, the transition to Afghan security control faces many hurdles. The army is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and veterans of the Northern Alliance, with few officers from the Pashtuns, who are the country’s largest ethnic group and comprise the majority of the Taliban. Independent of coalition forces, it may be unable to operate effectively in Pashtun areas where few of its officers speak the local language or understand the tribal dynamics.
Corruption and inefficiency continue to plague the Afghan police despite some well-meaning reforms. Coalition plans to expand the Afghan National Security Forces to roughly 375,000 ignore questions of who will pay the $6 billion to $8 billion annually to sustain a force this size. And we need to be equally concerned about what happens if these armed troops and police go unpaid.
I published a report this month to help re-examine our approach to aid/civilian assistance. It takes a close look at how we are spending civilian aid dollars in Afghanistan. The report is meant to be a constructive, cooperative look at our approach. The report argues that U.S. assistance should meet three basic conditions before money is spent: our projects should be necessary, achievable, and sustainable, and it finds that today we are not meeting that threshold in many areas.
Getting that right is important to the transition. Second, reconciliation will not be a silver bullet—there may be no grand bargain to be had with Mullah Omar and certainly not with Al Qaeda. Groups like the Haqqani network, which is closely aligned with Al Qaeda, have shown little interest in a political deal. Still, some Taliban appear willing to negotiate, so we must send a strong message that the United States supports a political solution through reconciliation talks among the Afghans. It will be difficult, as it was in Iraq, but Afghans themselves must make the hard choices to bring stability to their country.
Finally, the sanctuaries in Pakistan continue to threaten our progress in Afghanistan. Deep-seated Pakistani suspicions of Indian aspirations in Afghanistan and strong anti-American sentiment have made it difficult for Pakistan’s leaders to take sufficient action against the Taliban and other groups that target the US and coalition forces. We must continue working with our allies in Pakistan to remove these sanctuaries to have a chance of success across the border.
In Afghanistan, the administration is negotiating a status of forces agreement with President Karzai that will determine the contours of our post-transition relationship. These negotiations should reflect realistic goals for the United States. This means fewer troops and a smaller footprint to help deny extremists sanctuaries. Fulfilling our hopes and alleviating our worst-case worries will require political engagement with Afghanistan and its neighbors on an acceptable end state. And it will require a sustainable civilian strategy that leaves behind an Afghan state that can function without indefinite donor resources.
Getting the transition right is an enormous challenge for the administration. Getting the transition debate right is a challenge for all of us.
So, this is a candid but comprehensive summary of where we are. I want to have a serious dialogue with all of you, and I’d like to follow up on all these questions. In the Senate, I have the megaphone of the Foreign Relations Committee, and even tomorrow Secretary Clinton will be testifying in front of our Committee. So please come back to me with thoughts on where we go from here and how we best achieve the resolution to this war which we all seek.
John Kerry, United States Senator
Tom Hayden's letter to Sen. John Kerry:
July 28, 2010
Dear Sen. Kerry,
Dear John, old friend,
I am writing personally in hope that you will play a leading role in saving us from this Afghanistan quagmire, as you did when testifying almost 40 years ago before the Senate committee you now chair.
My proposal is that you commence hearings to rethink Afghanistan.
Some may advise you not to wade further into a crisis that will result in your being branded a flip-flopper one more time. But to listen to those voices year after year is to join a growing petrified forest of politicians.
Seven years after advocating, funding and legislating for these wars, you are fully entitled to evaluate the evidence on the ground, and to ask the resonating question: who will be the last American soldier to die for Karzai?
As I view the politics,  the President and White House are locked into their escalation and resistant to a serious exit strategy. Perhaps they hope for a repeat of the Petraeus surge of 2007 applied to Kandahar and the tribal areas of Pakistan,  the House anti-war numbers will never climb above 125 if the vote is to cut funding without an exit plan,  and only 18 Senators voted for an exit plan with a timetable. You didn’t join them, for reasons I still don’t understand.
This means, if I am right, that the war(s) will becoming a deepening quagmire into the foreseeable future. The Karzai government will not be “reformed”. If approximately 35 American soldiers are killed per month, and hundreds are wounded, the math is truly morbid – another 1,000 dead Americans on Obama’s watch. As for fiscal costs, at the rate it’s going Afghanistan will be a trillion dollar war through the vague 2014 transition date now being floated. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda and related insurgents are creating havens in Yemen and many other places, proving over and over that they do not need a fixed geographic sanctuary in Afghanistan.
Only hearings by your committee can create the space for rethinking the strategy and building a favorable climate towards a plausible way out. Then it will be possible for the President and a majority of elected Democrats to follow the direction of the hearings – a reset, a rethink, whatever one calls it – while minimizing accusations of either flip-flopping or abandoning the battle with terrorism.
As chairman, your charge might be to examine the plausibility of real-world exit plans in the run-up to the December White House review.
If you are interested, I can offer details of my own. In very broad strokes I think what is necessary is:
- Consider creating a new Baker-Hamilton-style “Afghanistan Study Group” parallel to or as an outcome of the hearings; this time, however, giving greater direction to the report through public hearings involving a public audience;
- It is most important to challenge the administration’s blanket assertion that our national security is at risk if we leave Afghanistan. The truth is that threats against our country are only increased by the wanton destruction of Muslim countries. Al Qaeda has relocated to Pakistan and beyond (including Iraq). We have survived several narrow misses (Detroit, Times Square) from militants inflamed by our policies and suffered one direct attack (Ft. Hood). There will be more.
- It is equally important to respond to the question, are you in favor of just getting out?, by answering with an affirmative plan for a peace process or, if you will, conflict resolution. We cannot let Afghanistan become a failed state and fall to the Taliban again – but there are alternatives. Realism begins with the insight that we are in the middle of another civil war with proxies, and that peace requires the recognition and supervision of a stalemate. On one side are the Taliban and Pashtun insurgents, Pakistan and China; on the other side are the northern ethnics and India, the same forces we supported a decade ago. A compromise solution requires some sort of federation, perhaps with Kabul having special guaranteed status, and a new peacekeeping force from Islamic countries or others not currently engaged on either side.
- The barriers to immediate talks with the Taliban need to be eliminated and a safe haven established for an extended period of contact and discussions. It simply prolongs the war when we ask the Taliban to lay down their arms when they have not been defeated;
- For the talks to go anywhere, the U.S. must put a troop withdrawal on the table, with a deadline. In exchange, the Taliban and new regime will have to grant the U.S. a right to retaliate if inspections reveal an Al Qaeda base anywhere in Afghanistan (This could borrow from the proposals of George Will or Vice President Biden).
- Advocates of women’s rights deserve a place in the process, allied with Secretary Clinton, to protect the meager gains achieved so far and ensure greater opportunities for women. But the cause of women’s rights can no longer serve as a pretext for war which causes thousands of women and children to die or become widows and orphans.
- I would begin with Afghanistan, then approach the nightmare of Pakistan as a related second stage;
- Recognize that Pakistan has a reasonable right to a friendly or at least neutral neighbor in Afghanistan, as expressed through its allies in the Taliban, the Haqqani networks, etc. In return, Pakistan must join in promoting a compromise solution in Afghanistan with guarantees that an Al Qaeda base will not be reborn in Taliban areas;
- Recognize that U.S. policy since the 2001-2002 war has tilted towards India’s interests (through the Northern Alliance, support for Karzai’s regime, building of strategic embassies, consulates, roads, etc). We should stop adopting India as a Hindu-dominated power towards the Muslim world, and a U.S. ally against China in great power politics.
- To win the deep support of Pakistan, we need to seriously promote a resolution of the Kashmir crisis by discussions of autonomy and international protections. This is a situation somewhat like the Middle East where the antagonists are so divided that a trusted intermediary must be deployed.
- Use the $7.5-12 billion in U.S. funds for Pakistan to build up the civil society, including the ranks of those who opposed Bush’s devastating support of a military dictatorship in response to 9/11.
I could go on, but I realize each point requires elaboration and debate ad infinitum – which is why the venue of hearings would be so appropriate. So forgive this length, and allow me to close.
There is a real opportunity for you to lead the Democratic Party and the country to an alternative in Afghanistan that will save our soldiers’ lives, our taxpayers the unfunded costs, and permit a refocus of foreign and domestic policy before it all becomes uglier. I hope you will consider seizing the moment. If you do, I am certain millions of people will appreciate your becoming the peacemaker.