The Corner

Kerry on Afghanistan

Sen. John Kerry, fresh from his experience as an emergency Obama-administration envoy to Afghan president Hamid Karzai, delivered an address yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Its title was “Afghanistan: Defining the Possibilities.”

The speech was classic Kerry: tough rhetoric about why we must stay in Afghanistan and win, coupled with caveats about the size of our footprint and comparisons to Vietnam. It offered a little something for everyone.

The speech started out with some rousing attacks on Vice President Cheney and the Bush administration’s supposed inattention to the war in Afghanistan. To his credit, Kerry has been making this point for years. But when President Bush was in office, Kerry argued that more troops were needed as soon as possible: In 2006 he called the Bush administration’s supposed unresponsiveness to troop requests from commanders on the ground “both a tragedy and a scandal.” Now, with Barack Obama in the White House, Kerry says that “President Obama has been right to deliberate and take the time necessary to find the best policy.”

Kerry also argued that, beyond troop levels, what is important is that we have an effective strategy. But it was difficult to see exactly what strategy Kerry was advocating. He explained why a strict counterterrorism approach will not be successful, and he dismissed the notion of what he called a “broad, nationwide counterinsurgency campaign” (which no one, including General McChrystal, is advocating).

So what does Kerry support? A counterinsurgency strategy, but one that is “as narrowly focused as possible.” This means that he supports sending additional troops, but does not believe they should be sent to clear new areas until an effective civilian strategy is in place.

Left unsaid was what he, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is willing to do to make this happen, given that the State Department can barely convince enough Foreign Service officers to serve in Baghdad, let alone in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Kerry is correct that we need a clear political and development strategy for Afghanistan; but if we wait for it to fall into place before we deploy troops and take on the Taliban, we will have lost.

It is unclear if Kerry was channeling the evolving Obama-administration position on Afghanistan. If President Obama decides to send additional troops, it is likely that the administration’s announcement will include rhetoric about the need for increased civilian resources. However, the administration’s previous efforts in this area have been less than stellar, and regardless, increased civilian resources will not be immediately applicable in areas that U.S. troops are clearing for the first time.

It is more likely that Kerry was doing what he does best — promoting John Kerry. To his credit, he’s at least talking publicly about what is at stake in Afghanistan — something President Obama has failed to do on a regular basis. Still, yesterday’s speech was more a continuation of the media tour Kerry has been on since returning from his political brokering in Kabul than a serious attempt to lay out a strategy for success in Afghanistan.

– Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

Jamie M. Fly — Mr. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. He served in the office of the secretary of defense and on the National Security Council staff from 2005 to 2009.