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Interview: U.S. Senator Says Visit Gives Him Better Understanding Of Afghan War

U.S. Senator John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts) talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul last year.
U.S. Senator John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts) talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul last year.
KABUL -- John Kerry, the chairman of the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, says he has a better understanding of Afghanistan's war and the problems facing ordinary Afghans after visiting the country this week.

Kerry spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sattar Ferogh late on August 18 at the conclusion of a two-day visit.

RFE/RL: You had a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on August 17. What did you two discuss during that meeting?

John Kerry:
We talked about all of the issues involving the partnership, with respect to succeeding in the Afghan goals in Afghanistan. We are here to help.

I wanted to learn from President Karzai his views about how he thinks we could do a better job -- all of us. I wanted to learn what his plans are with respect to the efforts to improve the delivery of services to the people of Afghanistan, and we had a very good meeting, a very positive meeting.

We had a good discussion -- a very frank discussion. I'm convinced that the president [Karzai] understands the challenges as well as anybody and that he is committed to trying to move forward in a very constructive partnership.

RFE/RL: How do you think your visit will help the Afghan government and the international community reach their goals in Afghanistan -- particularly considering the date of July 2011 that President Barack Obama has set for U.S. troops to start pulling out of the country?

We are committed to helping the government of Afghanistan be able to deliver services to the people of Afghanistan so that the people of Afghanistan feel improvement in their lives. There are many ways that that can happen -- some through health projects, education projects, construction projects, jobs and better security.

I know some people are concerned about the date President Obama has set next year [for U.S. troops to start withdrawing from Afghanistan]. But part of my message to President Karzai and to others I met with here is that we are committed to the long-term sustainability of Afghanistan. It's important for the people of Afghanistan to take on additional responsibilities because this is their country, but we will continue to be supportive well beyond next year or any year after that. We are here for the long haul.

Visiting The Troubled South

RFE/RL: Can you please tell me about your visit to Kandahar on August 18 and what you did there? Is it true that you were accompanied by the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, and by the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry?

I just went down to Kandahar Province just now and I had a wonderful visit in the city of Kandahar with the mayor and with the governor. We met with a shura, a small shura. I listened to the hopes and concerns of some of the leaders in Kandahar with respect to health, hospitals, education, security, electricity, power -- those kinds of issues. It was very helpful for me to hear those things from them. I think we had a very good exchange.

General Petraeus and Ambassador Eikenberry were both there. Both had a chance to be able to share some views. I think the transformation that is taking place there already is very significant and people need to know the success that is being achieved.

RFE/RL: How did you find the situation in Kandahar and how did you assess the reports about good governance and improving government institutions and security?

I was impressed with the initial start-up efforts. We have to remember that this is the beginning and just the beginning. But I saw a lot of willpower. I saw a lot of effort by Afghans to take the lead, which is the way it should be.

I think that a number of things are going to begin to happen over the next months. The governor there is committed to improving the delivery of electricity to the city of Kandahar. That can help create jobs. It can provide a better quality of life and there are other things that I think will continue.

Fighting Corruption

RFE/RL: You have been quoted as saying in the past that the United States would not tolerate a corrupt government in Afghanistan forever. What will the U.S. reaction be if Karzai does not succeed in the fight against corruption?

I'm convinced President Karzai is committed to taking steps with respect to corruption. Everybody knows there have been some instances -- this is not news in Afghanistan -- of people abusing the process at certain levels, different levels. Everybody understands that when you are in a transition like this in a conflict like this one, there are opportunities for some bad actors to take advantage of that.

I think President Karzai is very clear and committed to making sure that he continues to take steps. I think those steps will become more clear as time goes on. But as he pointed out [on August 17], there are people -- judges have been dismissed, different levels of efforts have been made, governors have been changed, things have happened. And I think over the course of time, more will happen.

RFE/RL: Karzai recently ordered all private security companies in Afghanistan to stop operations within four months. This will affect the escort of NATO supplies in Afghanistan. What is the reaction of NATO and the United States to this?

In principle, we support the concept. But I think we have to work carefully to make sure the implementation isn't counterproductive in any way. Whether you can exactly do it in four months or five months, whatever -- it's hard for me to say. I'm not an expert at that.

I think, though, in principle, we believe that the independent security companies in some cases have been part of a problem, and I think that Afghanistan needs to assert its own sovereignty in those ways. We support the president in his efforts to do that and we are going to work with him very closely. He agreed to convene meetings and begin to talk about its implementation. The key here is not to be counterproductive in any ways in which we try to implement it.

Strategy Going Forward

RFE/RL: General Petraeus has cast doubt on the feasibility of withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan starting in July 2011. At the same time, the U.S. secretary of defense has said that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will start in July 2011. What do you think about the apparent contradiction in these two views?

I don't think there is any difference, but I know that I heard General Petraeus say that he believes there is an ability -- providing we keep on track and providing we continue to make the progress that we are making -- to be able to shift some of the surge forces out.

President Karzai would like to see more Afghan leadership and assumption of responsibility. Part of the reason that that is doable is because President Obama set a goal. But it's not a goal that is so rigid that it is without recognition of the realities on the ground, and we are all going to measure that very closely as we go forward over the course of the next months.

The people doing the training of [Afghan] forces and working with the [Afghan] police are crystal-clear that because the target [date] is there, it has helped enormously in speeding up the recruitment and development of Afghanistan's own armed forces. Nothing could be better than for Afghanistan to assume those responsibilities. That's our goal. That's [Afghanistan's] goal. We need to continue to try to meet it.

RFE/RL: How did you respond to the Afghan president's calls for the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan to be revised? How did you respond to Karzai's ideas about a new strategy for Afghan and international forces in the country?

We are always prepared to listen very, very carefully to the president of the country. We have great respect for his knowledge of his own country. If he thinks there are ways that we can do things better, it's important for us to listen to those and to see how we can bring our notion of strategy together with his and have the most effective strategy for this mission. So we are going to do that. We are going to look very closely at the ways. I intend to continue my discussions with the president to learn more about how he thinks we can do that and over what time frame.

RFE/RL: The recent disclosure of classified U.S. military documents by WikiLeaks shows that Pakistan has been interfering in Afghanistan. You are also visiting Pakistan during your travels. How serious do you think this issue is?

Much of what was released in the WikiLeaks episode represented old news. Almost all of those documents referred to a period of time before President Obama put his strategy in place. So none of that, that I have seen, is referring to this year or last year specifically.

The concern remains real that some components of Pakistan agencies may not have implemented the full desire of the leadership all the way down through the ranks. We are concerned about that. We have raised that with the Pakistani leadership. It is very, very important. What happens in Pakistan -- I have said many times -- is critical to the outcome of the efforts here in Afghanistan.