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Magazine / Cover Story

The Doubter

Still haunted by Vietnam, John Kerry has begun to waver in his support of the Afghanistan war. Will he take the country with him?

Linchpin: President Obama needs Kerry’s support to marshal skittish Senate Democrats behind his Afghan strategy.(Richard A. Bloom)

photo of Michael Hirsh
December 9, 2010

John Kerry has seen, up close, the worst of Hamid Karzai. In February 2008, Kerry traveled to Afghanistan along with two fellow senators, Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel, and was invited to dinner at the Afghan president’s palace. The three Senate heavyweights were in no mood to be wined and dined. Hagel abruptly raised the subject of corruption in Karzai’s government: the runaway graft, the narcotics connections. Responding in the smooth, aristocratic English that had so charmed the Bush administration officials who installed him in power in 2002, Karzai replied, “My dear senator, there is no corruption in my government.” Things got testier from there. The American visitors insisted they had a list of corrupt officials and that Karzai’s brother was at the top of it, but the Afghan leader disingenuously denied it all—until Biden, by the dessert course, had had enough. “This dinner is over,” he said, throwing down his napkin and walking out. Hagel and Kerry followed.

Biden never really regained trust in Karzai, and by 2009, after he became Barack Obama’s vice president, he turned into the new administration’s No. 1 skeptic, contending that the real issue was Pakistan, not an unwinnable war in Afghanistan waged in partnership with an unreliable president.

But Kerry went in a very different direction—and, in his ambivalence, became a stand-in for fragile congressional support. A year and a half after that dinner, having taken over the Foreign Relations Committee from Biden, Kerry happened to be on one of his frequent trips to the region. Karzai, by then estranged from Obama’s top emissaries and increasingly uncooperative—at one point the Afghan leader even threatened to join the Taliban—was refusing to admit he had won reelection fraudulently. Kerry went to the palace and, putting what one aide called the “big Kerry arm” around Karzai’s shoulder, talked to him as one misunderstood politician to another. The senator from Massachusetts took the Afghan leader for a long stroll on the grounds and managed to do what no one else could: He persuaded Karzai to hold a runoff election.

 

“We had hours of personal conversations,” Kerry recalled to National Journal recently. “He gave me a tour of the palace, we walked through the garden, and we talked about what we were trying to achieve and where we wanted to go. And I think we found some common ground.” U.S special representative Richard Holbrooke, who was then at loggerheads with Karzai, recalled that Kerry “worked Karzai very effectively, talking to him very personally from the gut. John talked about his own acceptance of the [disputed] outcome in Ohio in 2004 in order to get Karzai to understand there was nothing wrong with getting a second round.”

Asked about Karzai now, Kerry says that the Afghan leader is still salvageable as an ally—along with Afghanistan itself. Kerry snorts at questions about whether the Afghan president is insane, unstable, or drug-addicted—common accusations in Washington these days, especially since the recent WikiLeaks document dump revealed even harsher assessments of him than were previously known. “That’s not in my equation of evaluation,” the senator says with typical Kerry grandiloquence. “I find him very capable, very interesting.… Is he emotional? Yes. Does he sometimes let fly in a public way that may not advantage everybody’s efforts? Yeah, I mean, he does. But I also understand the pressures.… I think President Karzai needs to be listened to carefully when he talks about his own country.”

Privately, some aides say, Kerry is more skeptical. But he also knows that Karzai’s dependability may well be the deciding factor in whether he, John Kerry—the defeated and much-derided 2004 presidential candidate who has recast himself as an American statesman—can keep supporting Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan.

There may not be a better litmus test of American sentiment on Afghanistan than Kerry. With his hair now gone mostly gray, and the famously long face looking ever more hangdog with the years, it’s easy to forget that this is the same John Kerry who, as a dynamic young veteran honored with the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts, rocketed to political stardom 40 years ago in opposition to another misbegotten war.

With American forces regularly accused of killing innocents in Afghanistan, it’s also easy to forget that this is the same Kerry who, on Meet the Press in 1971, effectively confessed to having been a war criminal in Vietnam. As he told then-moderator Lawrence Spivak: “I committed the same kinds of atrocities as thousands of others in that I shot in free-fire zones … joined in search-and-destroy missions, and burned villages.”

Sens. Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel walked out of a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2008.

Kerry became a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War and, in that role,  delivered perhaps the most riveting testimony ever heard before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In April 1971, his voice quivering with a rare display of public emotion, the 27-year-old Navy lieutenant famously ridiculed the idea of “Vietnamization,” the precursor for what we’re now trying to do in Afghanistan. “Now we are told that the men who fought there must watch quietly while American lives are lost,” he declared to loud applause in the committee chamber, “so that we can exercise the incredible arrogance of Vietnamizing the Vietnamese.” Kerry, who had lost his best friend, Dick Pershing, in Vietnam, explained to the awestruck senators why the strategy—the whole damn war—was wrong. He ended by uttering the most famous question of his career: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Today, Afghanistan has already surpassed Vietnam as America’s longest war. And the conflict is beginning to look more and more like Vietnam as the projected “exit” for U.S. forces recedes with each year. In recent weeks another grim milestone was passed: On November 27, America’s presence in Afghanistan exceeded the disastrous Soviet occupation of the 1980s (nine years, seven weeks).

Moreover, the Afghanistan strategy is now based on a fundamental misunderstanding back home: Many Capitol Hill Democrats are still taking Obama’s originally announced July 2011 deadline for partial withdrawal seriously, telling their constituencies that they support the war on the condition that a significant drawdown of troops will occur. That’s why most Democrats are still standing with Obama and Gen. David Petraeus’s strategy, as are most Republicans, despite recent polls showing that public support for the 98,000-soldier deployment in Afghanistan has dropped below 50 percent.

But, in truth, July 2011 is no longer discussed even inside the military as a realistic date for a substantial U.S. withdrawal, according to officials on the ground in Afghanistan. Obama announced at last month’s NATO summit that he now hopes to wrap up combat operations there by the end of 2014. Today, the watchword at Bagram Air Base is, “2014 is the new 2011,” according to one Army official. A strategy review planned for this month, once seen as important, is now viewed as pro forma—a “full speed ahead” for the strategy laid out by Petraeus. The newest offensive in Kandahar seems to be going better for the moment—even some skeptics on Kerry’s staff and elsewhere agree—but observers fear that the Taliban have merely disappeared into the woodwork temporarily once again. This war is not about to wind down.

At some point, this mismatch of expectations is going to produce an explosion of protest on the Hill, and Kerry will be caught in the middle as a bellwether for just how long congressional support will last. If he wavers and then goes against the Afghanistan strategy, Kerry is likely to take significant numbers of the fence-sitting Democratic caucus with him, according to several Capitol Hill sources. “There’s a split in the caucus,” a key Democratic Senate aide said. “We haven’t done an appropriations bill, so there’s been no opportunity to force a change of policy. That’s why most people haven’t been smoked out yet. But Kerry could make it happen.” As Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, a member of Kerry’s Foreign Relations Committee, told National Journal: “He is the man the caucus looks to.”

ECHOES OF VIETNAM

After years in the doldrums, Kerry’s prestige is at new heights in the Senate, where he has found a fresh role for himself as a restless elder statesman. As Foreign Relations chairman, he roams the globe at will, trailed by a flurry of PR releases. In just the past several months, Kerry has marshaled votes on the New START pact, led a valiant if failed effort on climate change, mediated in Sudan, and negotiated with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over Middle East peace and Lebanon. But it is Kerry’s stand on Afghanistan and Pakistan that could make the most difference in the months or years ahead.

In the end, Afghanistan comes down to this: If Karzai’s government and its military can be relied on to assume control, much else can still fall into place. If not, then the United States may already be hurtling toward the abyss, one that resembles what Vietnam became in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when we lashed ourselves to the discredited South Vietnamese government. Kerry “did the responsible thing” in prodding Karzai on the elections, Hagel says now. Still, the former senator from Nebraska, who until he departed in 2008 was one of the few other Vietnam vets left on the Hill, believes that the overall policy is not working. “I’m not sure we know what the hell we are doing in Afghanistan,” Hagel told National Journal. “It’s not sustainable at all. I think we’re marking time as we slaughter more young people.”

The Vietnam parallels are almost painful. Today, Kerry is chairing the committee presided over in 1971 by the legendary Sen. J. William Fulbright, one of the earliest and most outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War and the man to whom Kerry delivered that compelling testimony. And if Hagel and an increasing number of other doubters are correct, then American leaders—Kerry among them—are once again asking our young people to die and be maimed for a “mistake.”

Fulbright’s stalwart stand against the war and against his own president, fellow Southern Democrat Lyndon Johnson, marked an important moment in the breakdown of the nation’s support for the war—and of the Cold War consensus on containment that had led the U.S. into Vietnam. Kerry could easily play a Fulbright-like role today if he wanted to. His open opposition to the American presence in Afghanistan could help precipitate the final fracturing of the increasingly fragile consensus on combating terrorism since 9/11—a consensus that barely survived the Iraq war.

In terms of combat casualties, the numbers are not as high now as they were during the Cold War, but some observers have argued that when it comes to strategic direction, the stakes may be even higher. Vietnam didn’t make the United States demonstrably weaker, but by focusing on the wrong jihadists—and getting sucked into exactly the draining Soviet-style war that Osama bin Laden hoped the September attacks would elicit—Washington is ignoring real threats elsewhere.

The political stakes are high as well. Just as Vietnam led to détente with the Soviet Union, splits in both parties, and a weakened national commitment to wage the Cold War, leaving Afghanistan to its own chaos—and the Taliban—could trigger a huge political upheaval at home. Among other things, such a defeat could force an acknowledgement from unrepentant supporters of the Iraq war that the United States botched the war on terrorism by failing to finish the job in Afghanistan.

President Johnson wished for more stalwart support from fellow Democrat and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright. Instead, Fulbright used his post to challenge the Vietnam War.

Kerry, of course, is all too aware of the Vietnam-Fulbright comparison. But he is quick to note the differences between now and then. “Senator Fulbright was obviously opposed to what Johnson was doing. And I’m trying to work here to refine what we’re doing, to see what we can achieve,” Kerry says. “There really is an enormous difference between Vietnam and our presence in Afghanistan, and that difference centers on the fact that there really was no realistic national-security threat to the United States of America in Vietnam. There is a realistic national-security threat through the Taliban’s affiliation with al-Qaida and al-Qaida’s efforts to attack us.… Look at what happened in the Times Square bomber case; look what happened to the airplanes” that were recently threatened by package bombs.

Yet Kerry acknowledges that credible participants in the discussion—among them his old pals Hagel and Biden (at least before the latter acceded to Obama’s surge)—argue that it’s not that different; that in fact, the Karzai government will never control more than a sliver of the country; that the Afghan military will never be up to snuff; that the Taliban insurgents are not as damaging to American security as al-Qaida; and that with the U.S. effort there now into its 10th year, it’s time to wind down and get out. Hagel says, “It’s a huge mistake to get bogged down with over 100,000 American troops. And this latest decision to bring in armor, that’s astounding to me at a time when we’re trying to work our way out. When you sink in a battalion of armor, sophisticated tanks, you’re going in deeper. You’re not getting out. The optics of that go back to Vietnam. When people see tanks in their country, they think occupation. That’s not something that’s winnable.”

Indeed, a debate still rages over whether the counterinsurgency strategy that Petraeus, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has adopted—and Kerry has endorsed—can ever succeed, especially given Americans’ limited patience for war. The fundamental COIN strategy is based on the idea of protecting the people and thereby winning hearts and minds and getting the locals’ help in rooting out the guerrillas or terrorists (back then, the Vietcong; today, the Taliban).

But a number of well-informed critics say that in Afghanistan, several prerequisites for success are as absent today as they once were in Vietnam—in particular, a central government with credibility, a large-enough military presence for the size of the country, and a local force (the Afghan army and police) to hand things off to. “Requirement No. 1 is to have a host country government that is up to the task. We don’t,” says Paul Pillar, the CIA’s former top counterterrorism analyst, who has become a strident critic of the war. “But Petraeus’s prestige is such that very few people dare to challenge him or the COIN doctrine.”

Questions about the reliability of the Afghan government elicit long pauses—and a lot of sighing—from U.S. military advisers in Afghanistan. One big problem is the mismatch of timelines: Effective counterinsurgency just takes too long. Consider the buildup of Afghan forces. “In the Army, it takes 20 years to make a colonel, best case. But we don’t have 20 years. We’ve got an Afghan army of 50,000 privates,” many of them on drugs, says another critic of COIN, an Army officer who is engaged in the debate inside the Pentagon but would talk about it only on condition of anonymity. “Especially among U.S. soldiers coming back from Afghanistan, it’s very hard to find true believers at this point. It’s hard to find people who tell me the plan is actually working.”

Yet Obama and Petraeus insist that it is. “Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control,” Obama told U.S. troops last week on a surprise visit to Bagram. “We said we were going to break the Taliban’s momentum. That’s what you’re doing.” The outcome of all this happy talk, critics say, could be the worst of all possible worlds: no prospect of “winning” at all in an endlessly prolonged and bloody conflict in which we deceive ourselves for years that we are winning. In other words, something like Vietnam.

Beyond that, according to many military experts, Biden was largely correct in his original assessment: Pakistan does seem to be harboring the worst of al-Qaida. To take the two examples Kerry cited: The would-be Times Square bomber was from Pakistan and got his training there; and the group responsible for the air-package bombs, the Yemeni-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is mainly an offshoot of the core group located in Pakistan, U.S. counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and other U.S. officials have said. A blue-ribbon panel called the Afghanistan Study Group, led by Pillar, concluded recently that not only is the U.S. strategy failing, it is also fundamentally misguided. “A complete (and unlikely) victory in Afghanistan and the dismantling of the Taliban would not make al-Qaida disappear; indeed, it would probably have no appreciable effect on al-Qaida,” the study group reported. “At the same time, dramatically scaling back U.S. military engagement will not significantly increase the threat from al-Qaida.”

STILL SORTING IT OUT

It is on these crucial questions that Kerry starts to get a little squishy, if not (dare one say) flip-floppy. By his own admission and that of his staffers, he is still “struggling” with an Afghanistan policy that risks Americans lives to bet on Karzai and COIN. Kerry is clearly torn—between his undying ambition (he’s occasionally talked of as secretary of State if Hillary Rodham Clinton leaves early) and his hard-won leeriness of quagmires. Torn between his deep skepticism of counterinsurgency, learned in Vietnam, and his reluctance to turn away from a fight, even against frightful odds. “Kerry doesn’t walk out. He never walks out,” Tommy Vallely, his close friend and fellow Vietnam vet says. Another Vietnam friend, Paul Nace, agrees: “John Kerry has never been in a fight that he didn’t think he could win.”

Vietnam still “informs everything he does,” adds Chris Gregory, a onetime campaign aide and a Vietnam veteran who has known Kerry since his antiwar phase. “He had a hard war, an extremely hard war. You don’t move on from that. It’s part of his marrow.” Bred especially deep into Kerry, Vallely says, is a suspiciousness of generals and their grand strategies if they are disconnected from what the grunts are seeing on the ground: “I think John is naturally skeptical. He is capable of being William Fulbright … if he thought he was in a situation that was completely bogus militarily.”

Asked about this, Kerry responds, “What I feel particularly is the responsibility here to get this right. I believe the adjustments we have made have significantly altered the course that we’re on there—and can help us avoid the potential of the word ‘mistake’ being attached to their endeavor.” But when I asked him directly, “Do you feel reasonably confident that no young Americans are being sent needlessly to their deaths?” he began to sound like someone who is still staying at arm’s length from the Petraeus strategy. “What’s very clear to me is that we’re not prepared financially, politically, and militarily to do a nationwide counterinsurgency effort, or even a very significant one,” he says, now echoing Biden. “So I think you have to make certain you’re not putting these folks in a less-than-achievable position.” Pressed further, he acknowledged that he is “very close” to Biden’s thinking, in terms of the need to focus on Pakistan, to reduce the U.S. “footprint,” and to accept that the al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan has been “overblown.”

When it comes to politics, Kerry has always gravitated to the middle of the road. Even back in 1971, after delivering his passionate Senate testimony, he threw only his combat ribbons, not his medals, during a demonstration at the Capitol. In 2004, well before the notorious “Swift Boat” campaign against him, Kerry’s attempts to play both hawk and skeptic on Iraq—approving Congress’s war resolution, on one hand, and yet becoming a bitter critic of the war afterward—became major grist for President Bush’s reelection campaign.

Asked if Vietnam affects his judgment on Afghanistan in other ways, Kerry replies, “You bet it does.” But for a long time in the 2004 campaign, he appeared to avoid the Vietnam issue altogether. He seemed more afraid of reminding opponents and voters of his antiwar stand and his brief alliance with peace activists such as “Hanoi Jane” Fonda—who appeared at demonstrations with him—than he appeared proud of his war medals. “He just thought it would go away,” Gregory says. “He quite correctly thought that, strategically, being an antiwar veteran at that time would not work.”

And now, Kerry still tilts this way and that on Afghanistan, depending on the last person who has briefed him, according to close associates. Not unlike the Obama administration—which underwent an agonizing four-month debate over Afghanistan. Kerry’s suspicion of COIN may be hindered, too, by the need to be a loyal Senate supporter of the war if he ever hopes to become secretary of State. “There’s always been a joke about that; people will say he’s ‘running’ for secretary of State,” says Andy Fisher, who until recently was a minority spokesman on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Indeed, when he’s not expressing doubts, Kerry sometimes sounds like a mouthpiece for the administration rather than a watchdog in the Fulbright mode. Asked about whether a U.S. withdrawal timeline is wise or merely a spur to the enemy, he replies: “It’s just like Iraq. Why is a date good for George Bush in Iraq and it’s not good for Barack Obama in Afghanistan?”

Kerry, of course, denies that he’s carrying Obama’s water—or agitating for a last great political post. He takes his oversight role seriously. “We’re a separate branch of government. Our responsibility is accountability. And we have major constitutional responsibilities in the waging of war.”

According to one senior Obama official who knows him, Kerry’s reduced political horizons have made him a much better public official. “He reached for the biggest of the brass rings, which he had spent his whole life preparing for,” the official said. “Then he hoped to be Obama’s running mate, hoped to be Obama’s secretary of State. He got nothing, and emerged as chairman of this committee, and one of the most effective ones ever, in terms of his focus and his activism abroad.”

The kindest explanation of Kerry’s support for the Afghan strategy is that, for all his many flaws, he is an extraordinarily disciplined man who honestly thinks that this is a different situation from Vietnam. And that he believes Obama and Petraeus—though the two often seem at odds—are trying their hardest to wend through what is clearly a quagmire without the blood price of Vietnam. “When we started Vietnam Veterans Against the War, 350 people a week were dying,” Gregory says. Walter Cronkite was announcing the tally every night on the TV news. Fewer than 500 Americans have died in the past year in Afghanistan.

Kerry is, of course, aware of the expectations surrounding him. He proudly points to an album on his wall featuring the Bruce Springsteen song “Last to Die,” with an inscription from the Boss: “John, thanks for the inspiration.”

“Anybody who’s thinking in depth about our involvement there had better struggle with those questions,” Kerry says. “They are the right questions to be asking.” And he says that he’s open to changing his mind about whether the Petraeus strategy can succeed: “I’ll make that call tomorrow, if I need to.”

Some who are loyal to him think that he mainly wants to remain an elder statesman but the restless young Kerry inside him won’t allow it. “There’s a side of him that doesn’t want to be Henry Kissinger, that still wants to be the John Kerry of 1971,” one of his advisers says. Especially if he finds himself ignored by Obama in the months ahead, Kerry could easily become the restless rebel again. In either case, another big fight over the U.S. presence in Afghanistan looms large—and it will probably start inside the Democratic Party. The only question is whether John Kerry will be the one pleading for more patience or the one touching the battle off. 

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