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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?

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

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?”

This article appears in the December 12, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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