During Tuesday's debate, President Barack Obama tempered his claims about U.S. success in fighting al Qaeda, jettisoning his oft-repeated campaign-trail claim that the terrorist organization is "on its heels."
"I said that I'd end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said we'd refocus attention on those who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have gone after Al Qaeda's leadership like never before and Osama bin Laden is dead," Obama said during his second debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
That paragraph is part of Obama's regular stump speech, and he made nearly identical remarks at two campaign stops last week. But in those previous instances, Obama said that al Qaeda was "on its heels," a claim he didn't repeat in front of Tuesday night's national audience.
"Four years ago, I made a few commitments to you. I told you I'd end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said I'd end the war in Afghanistan, and we are. I said we'd refocus on the people who actually attacked us on 9/11 -- and today, al Qaeda is on its heels and Osama bin Laden is no more," he said in a campaign stop in San Francisco on Oct. 9.
Two days later, in another campaign stop in Miami, Obama said nearly the same thing.
"Four years ago, I told you we'd end the war in Iraq -- and we did. I said that we'd end the war in Afghanistan -- and we are. I said that we'd refocus on the people who actually attacked us on 9/11 -- and today, al Qaeda is on its heels and Osama bin Laden is dead," he said.
The attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi on 9/11 was reportedly the work of the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is thought to have ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM).
This month, the White House has been slowly but surely adding qualifications to its claims of progress in destroying al Qaeda, which has seen its ranks in North Africa increase recently.
For example, on Sept. 19 White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama's strategy in Afghanistan has "allowed us to take the fight to al Qaeda in the region in a way that we had not been able to before; that led to the decimation of al Qaeda's leadership."
By Oct. 10, after reports emerged tying al Qaeda links the Benghazi attack, Carney was specifying that al Qaeda "central" was hurting in two specific countries.
"Well, what we have said all along, what the president has said all along, is that ... progress has been made in decimating the senior ranks of al Qaeda and in decimating al Qaeda central in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region," adding that al Qaeda "remains our No. 1 foe."
Carney repeated his qualification that al Qaeda is hurting in Southwest Asia, but not necessarily in North Africa, two days later.
"[Obama] has made clear that he would refocus attention on what was a neglected war in Afghanistan, refocus our mission on al Qaeda, and decimating al Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- he has," Carney said Oct. 12.
In his debate Oct. 11, Vice President Joe Biden also declined to say that al Qaeda was completely decimated or on its heels during his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan.
"The fact is we went [to Afghanistan] for one reason: to get those people who killed Americans -- al Qaeda," Biden said "We decimated al Qaeda central; we have eliminated Osama bin Laden. That was our purpose."
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Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday night that the United States has successfully completed its one and only mission in Afghanistan: to destroy al Qaeda, seeming to narrow the administration's goals for the war.
"The fact is we went there for one reason: to get those people who killed Americans -- al Qaeda," Biden said during his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan. "We decimated al Qaeda central; we have eliminated Osama bin Laden. That was our purpose."
His running mate President Barack Obama, however, has often said that the mission in Afghanistan was twofold: to defeat al Qaeda and to make sure that it or other extremists groups could not find safe haven in Afghanistan to launch future attacks against the West.
"I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future," Obama said in a speech when announcing his 30,000-troop surge in March 2009.
Biden presented the mission of standing up the Afghanistan security forces to establish safety and security in Afghanistan as a side effort that was in Afghanistan's security interests but not an American task.
"It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security," he said. "The primary objective is almost completed. Now all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's."
Ryan criticized the Obama administration for withdrawing those surge troops during the 2012 fighting season; Obama fulfilled his pledge to withdraw all 30,000 surge troops by the end of September. But Biden argued that the Afghan fighting season was in spring, not summer.
Ryan pointed out that former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and former ISAF Commander David Petraeus had both testified that withdrawing the surge troops earlier increased the risks for the remaining troops in Afghanistan.
"Let me start by saying that I support the president's decisions, as do Generals Mattis and Petraeus. We were given voice in this process. We offered our views freely and without hesitation, and they were heard," Mullen testified last year.
"I provided assessments of risk. I provided recommendations. We discussed all of this, again at considerable length... All voices were heard in the Situation Room. And ultimately, the decision has been made," Petraeus testified.
The Obama campaign sent out a quote Thursday evening from current Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey supporting the timing of the surge withdrawal.
The intended purpose of the surge was "to buy us some time to push back on some Taliban initiatives -- particularly in the south and southwest -- and to buy us some space to grow the Afghan security forces... That objective clearly has been met,' Dempsey said last month.
The Obama campaign also noted in an e-mail to reporters that the Romney campaign's position on Afghanistan has changed over the course of the campaign. Biden said Romney's statements supporting Obama's 2014 deadline for withdrawal weren't credible because the Republican candidate has also said he would listen to generals and consider conditions on the ground before making a final decision.
"[Ryan] and the governor say it's based on conditions, which means ‘it depends.' It does not depend for us. It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security," Biden said in what appear to be the most emphatic statements on the 2014 departure date by an Obama administration official. "We are leaving in 2014. Period."
In Obama's December 2009 speech announcing the surge, he put it differently: "Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground."
More recently, in May 2012, Obama said, "I don't think that there's ever going to be an optimal point where we say -- this is all done, this is perfect, this is just the way we wanted it and now we can wrap up all our equipment and go home. This is a process, and it's sometimes a messy process, just as it was in Iraq."
Ryan said that the Romney campaign does support the 2014 date but would not have committed to it publicly "because we don't want to broadcast to our enemies ‘Put a date on your calendar, wait us out, and then come back.'"
The U.S. mission would not be complete and successful until Afghanistan can no longer be a safe haven for extremists who want to attack America, he said.
"We agree with the administration on their 2014 transition," said Ryan. "But we want to see the 2014 transition be successful, and that means we want to make sure our commanders have what they need to make sure that it is successful so that this does not once again become a launching pad for terrorists."
CHARLOTTE - Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) will lacerate Mitt Romney on foreign policy in a major speech tonight at the Democratic National Convention.
"In this campaign, we have a fundamental choice," Kerry will say, according to speech excerpts provided to The Cable. "Will we protect our country and our allies, advance our interests and ideals, do battle where we must, and make peace where we can? Or will we entrust our place in the world to someone who just hasn't learned the lessons of the last decade?"
Kerry will speak on a night peppered with remarks by national security types, including retired Lt. Gen. Walter Dalton, the lieutenant governor of North Carolina, retired Adm. John B. Nathman, and Delaware attorney general and Iraq war veteran Beau Biden, the vice president's son. Following Kerry will be the final events of the convention, including speeches by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Vice President Joe Biden, and President Barack Obama.
Kerry will hit Romney on his positions on a range of national security issues and will hammer the former Massachusetts governor for failing to outline a clear policy on the war in Afghanistan, a word that Romney didn't mention once in last week's acceptance speech.
"It isn't fair to say Mitt Romney doesn't have a position on Afghanistan. He has every position," Kerry will say.
Kerry plans to defend Obama's record on Israel, Iran, Russia, and arms control, and he will push back against the Romney campaign's refrain that Obama doesn't believe in "American exceptionalism."
"Our opponents like to talk about ‘American Exceptionalism.' But all they do is talk. They forget that we are exceptional not because we say we are, but because we do exceptional things," Kerry will say. "The only thing exceptional about today's Republicans is that -- almost without exception -- they oppose everything that has made America exceptional in the first place."
Kerry will point out that Romney criticized the idea of going into Pakistan to pursue Osama bin Laden but Obama gave the order that led to bin Laden's death.
"Ask Osama Bin Laden if he's better off now than he was four years ago!" Kerry will say.
Kerry will also make what The Cable believes is the first mention by either campaign of the only war Obama ever started, the 2011 NATO-led attack on Libya.
"When a brutal dictator promised to kill his own people ‘like dogs', President Obama enlisted our allies, built the coalition, shared the burden -- so that today, without a single American casualty -- Muammar Qaddafi is gone and Libya is free," Kerry will say.
Obama inherited a terrible foreign-policy position from the Bush administration and worked to improve it, Kerry will argue.
"So here's the choice in 2012: Mitt Romney -- out of touch at home, out of his depth abroad, and out of the mainstream?" he will say. "Or Barack Obama -- a president giving new life and truth to America's indispensable role in the world, a commander in chief who gives our troops the tools and training they need in war -- the honor and help they've earned when they come home. A man who will never ask other men and women to fight a war without a plan to win the peace."
In anticipation of Kerry's foreign policy speech, the Romney campaign released a long memo penned by campaign policy director Lanhee Chen entitled, "The Foreign Policy & National Security Failures Of President Obama," which lays out 10 separate lines of attack on the Obama administration's national security record.
"President Obama's failure on the economy has been so severe that it has overshadowed his manifold failures on foreign policy and national security," the memo states. "An inventory of his record shows that by nearly all measures, President Obama has diminished American influence abroad and compromised our interests and values. In no region of the world is the U.S. position stronger than it was four years ago... It is a failed record that no amount of bluster in Charlotte can mask."
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Recently departed U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker was arrested earlier this month for driving under the influence and hit and run in his hometown of Spokane, WA.
Washington state troopers placed Crocker under arrest the evening of Aug. 14 after he allegedly fled the scene of an accident and registered a blood-alcohol level nearly twice the legal limit, Washington's KXLY reported today. Crocker was reported to have swiped a semi-tractor trailer with his 2009 Ford Mustang while trying to make a right turn across two lanes of traffic from the leftmost lane. An eyewitness took down his vehicle information and gave it to the police. There were no injuries.
Crocker was placed under arrest and taken to the local precinct, where he blew a 0.16 blood-alcohol level in his first sobriety test. He registered a 0.152 BAC on his second test. The trooper on the scene said that Crocker was noticeably intoxicated but cooperative. He could not have been unaware of the accident, the troopers said.
He posted $1,000 bail for each charge and pleaded not guilty to both charges the next day. Crocker's next court hearing is Sept. 12 and he has been ordered not to consume alcohol or drugs unless prescribed and he will have to submit to alcohol testing beginning tomorrow.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One of America's most distinguished diplomats. Crocker stepped down as America's envoy in Kabul last month due to health problems. He had come out of retirement in 2011 to take the Afghanistan job at the personal request of President Barack Obama following a four-decade career in the Foreign Service, during which he served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon.
He was dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service from 2010 to 2011. President George W. Bush once called him "America's Lawrence of Arabia." His replacement, former Ambassador to Israel James Cunningham, was confirmed by the Senate Aug. 3 and is in Kabul now.
In June, the White House withdrew Obama's nominee to be ambassador to the Netherlands Timothy Broas following his arrest for drunk driving and resisting arrest.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah both issued statements of condolence following the death of USAID Foreign Service Officer Ragaei Abdelfattah, along with three ISAF soldiers, at the hands of a suicide bomber Thursday in Afghanistan.
"Ragaei's work over the last year was critical to our efforts to support Afghanistan's political, economic, and security transitions and was an example of the highest standards of service," Clinton said, noting that a State Department employee was also injured. "Over the last 15 months -- partnering with local officials -- he worked in eastern Afghanistan to help establish new schools and health clinics, and deliver electricity to the citizens of Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. Ragaei was so committed to our mission and to the people of Afghanistan that he volunteered to serve a second year."
"With the work of people such as Ragaei, the civilian surge we launched in Afghanistan in 2009 has made a tremendous impact, strengthening the capacity of the Afghan Government and laying a foundation for long-term sustainable development. Though we are shocked and saddened by this loss and will miss Ragaei, our efforts will continue," she said.
Shah said in his statement that the death is a testament to the commitment and sacrifice made by aid workers in conflict countries around the world. Ragaei had just begun a voluntary tour in Afghanistan, his second stint there. He had 15 years prior development experience and was working on his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech as well.
"Safety and security is an agency priority for USAID staff on the frontlines of poverty and conflict across the world," said Shah. "Ragaei gave his life in service to our country and our Agency's mission of providing help to those in need and advancing our national security. His sacrifice and the ongoing commitment of our staff in Afghanistan is building on progress from the past decade and helping to make both Afghanistan and America safer."
Ragaei is survived by his two teenage sons and wife.
Pakistan watchers were scratching their heads Thursday night when the Senate failed to confirm President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next ambassador to Pakistan, Rick Olson. On Friday, The Cable confirmed that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) objected to the nomination, pushing off Olson's confirmation until at least September.
Two senior Senate aides close to the issue told The Cable that the nominations of both Olson and James Cunningham to be the next ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan, respectively, were at risk of not being included in the string of nominations confirmed by the Senate by unanimous consent late Thursday, just before senators adjourned for a five-week recess. The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, whose health is declining, intervened and made calls on behalf of Cunningham and Olson, but only Cunningham got confirmed.
Two GOP Senate aides said that some Senate Foreign Relations Committee members were upset that the Cunningham and Olson nominations were rushed through the process and they didn't have time to submit questions for the record and get answers. There was no SFRC business meeting on the nominations, and both were discharged from the committee and sent to the floor without the committee weighing in.
The concerns about Olson, who previously served as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, aren't personal, but committee members want more detail on the would-be envoy's proposed approach to the Haqqani network, the militant group that has been waging cross-border attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Olson promised to make the issue a priority at his July 31 confirmation hearing, but multiple senators want to use the opportunity to gauge if the administration plans to include the Haqqani network in any effort to negotiate an end to the Afghanistan war.
"Given the highly sensitive U.S.-Pakistan relationship, it is important to have a fully vetted ambassador. Both the White House and Chairman Kerry know this, and should have planned accordingly," one GOP senate aide said.
For Paul, his hold on the Olson nomination is part of his overall effort to pressure the Pakistani government to release Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to help positively identify Osama bin Laden. Afridi was sentenced in June to 33 years in jail for treason. Paul is not only holding up the confirmation of the U.S. ambassador, he is also threatening to force a vote to cut all U.S. aid to Pakistan over the issue, the aides said.
Paul's office did not respond to our request for comment, but The Cable caught up with the senator himself in the hallways of the Capitol Thursday. He said he had met with the State Department and with Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman, and told them that he will keep pressing the issue unless Afridi is released. Afridi's next hearing is Aug. 29.
Senate leadership is dead-set against letting Paul have a vote on his amendment, out of concern that senators won't want to publicly stand up in defense of sending more American taxpayer money to Pakistan. But Paul said he plans to use Senate Rule 14 to force a vote. It's not clear if this legislative tactic will work, but Paul is confident.
"We are still hopeful that Pakistan will relook at the evidence and decide that they don't want to hold him. If they do, we will probably not press for the vote. If they don't, I have 16 signatures to try to force a vote," Paul said. "It's not a guarantee I'll get a vote, but it's a guarantee I'll be a thorn in somebody's side."
It's doubtful that the Pakistanis will free Afridi to satisfy Paul, and senior senators lament the delay in Olson's confirmation.
"Democrats and Republicans always say that the key to Afghanistan is securing cooperation with Pakistan. That's reason enough to have a top-notch diplomat in place in Islamabad," Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable.
"This is a complicated relationship that demands constant attention. We've been working day and night with Pakistan to build a stable economy and strengthen our engagement with its people, and after such a tumultuous year, this is exactly the wrong time to leave such an important post vacant. I can't think of a good reason for doing so. We recognized the importance of this position and expedited it out of committee and I urge the Senate to move this nomination through as quickly as possible when we return from the recess."
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Olson is headed to Pakistan prior to his confirmation. In fact, he will not go to Pakistan until he is confirmed.
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U.S. President Barack Obama has made his administration's successes against terrorist groups -- above all last year's killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden -- a central plank of his re-election campaign.
But according to the State Department's latest annual counterterrorism report, al Qaeda affiliates are gaining operational strength in the Middle East and South Asia, even though terrorist attacks worldwide are at their lowest level since 2005.
The report cited 2011 as a "landmark year" due to the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and other key al Qaeda operatives, and noted that the terrorist group's "core," largely based in Pakistan, had been weakened.
"I would not say that we are less safe now than we were several years ago, because the al Qaeda core was the most capable part of the organization by quite a lot, and was capable obviously of carrying out catastrophic attacks on a scale that none of the affiliates have been able to match," Coordinator for Counterterrorism Dan Benjamin said Tuesday at a briefing introducing the report.
Democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa also testified to the terrorist organization's decline, he said, though he offered a few cautionary notes.
"We saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful, public demands for change without any reference to al Qaeda's incendiary world view," Benjamin said.
"This upended the group's longstanding claim that change in this region would only come through violence. These men and women have underscored in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al Qaeda exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim majority nations."
Though AQAP benefited from the long and tumultuous political transition in Yemen, Benjamin said he expects the trend lines to go "in the right direction" under new president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Syria, on the other hand, remains a major cause for concern with no solution in sight. The New York Times reported Sunday that Muslim jihadists are "taking a more prominent role" in the resistance.
"We believe that the number of al Qaeda fighters who are in Syria is relatively small, but there's a larger group of foreign fighters, many of whom are not directly affiliated with al Qaeda, who are either in or headed to Syria," Benjamin said.
Iran remains the preeminent state sponsor of terrorism, according to the report, as its Lebanese client, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, is engaging in the most active and aggressive campaign since the 1990s.
Of the more than 10,000 attacks carried out in 70 countries, 64 percent occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but both Afghanistan and Iraq saw a decrease in the number of attacks from 2010.
In Africa, there was an 11.5 percent uptick in attacks, a result of Nigerian militant group Boko Haram's more aggressive strategies and tactics. Despite criticism from Congress, the Obama administration has refused to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization on the grounds that its attacks are not representative of its general ideology, though the State Department did designate three of its leaders terrorists in June.
The report also mentions the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated group attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan. On Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to pass a resolution urging the State Department to add the network to the list of terrorist groups, which would become effective with President Barack Obama's signature.
The Obama campaign Thursday called on Mitt Romney to clarify his policy on Afghanistan and highlighted a Romney's advisor's comments downplaying the importance of the issue.
"'Real Americans' care that Romney hasn't outlined a plan for Afghanistan," was the title of an e-mail sent out by the Obama campaign Thursday afternoon on behalf of Rob Diamond, the campaign's director for veterans and military families. Diamond was responding to comments Thursday morning made by Romney Senior Communications Adviser Tara Wall on MSNBC that "real Americans" don't care about Romney's Afghanistan policy.
Wall was responding to questions about an exclusive July 16 report on The Cable, in which we documented that senior senators on both sides of the aisle couldn't articulate Romney's Afghanistan policy, which currently contains sparse specifics on what Romney would do in Afghanistan if elected president.
"You would have to tell me what exactly you mean by ‘his policy.' That's a long discussion that I don't want to get into," Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl told The Cable.
When asked about those comments by MSNBC's Luke Russert, Wall demurred and called the issue a distraction.
"I'm not going to get into the details of that," she said. "Unfortunately it's disappointing that the attacks, these recent attacks on all these issues outside of what the issues are relative to Mitt Romney are diverting away from what real Americans want to talk about. And real Americans want to talk about getting back to work."
Diamond said that real Americans care about the mission in Afghanistan and he criticized Romney for supporting the Paul Ryan budget, which would reduce spending for veterans affairs by $11 billion per year compared to the administration's plan. Overall, the Obama campaign called on Romney to specify exactly what his plan in Afghanistan would be.
"Americans deserve to know what Mitt Romney would do as Commander-in-Chief, and rather than outlining a plan to end the war, he has thus far simply criticized the President for setting a timetable to bring our troops home," said Daimon. "If Governor Romney and his advisors don't have an answer because they don't have a plan, they should let us know that, too."
On Romney's website, the campaign criticizes President Barack Obama for announcing a "timetable" for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and accuses the administration of placing politics over the advice of military commanders by withdrawing 30,000 surge troops by September.
"Gov. Romney supports the 2014 timetable as a realistic timetable and a residual force post-2014. But he would not have announced that timetable publicly, as President Obama did, as doing so encourages the Taliban to wait us out and our allies to hedge their bets," a Romney campaign spokesperson told The Cable.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney's policy on the future of U.S.-led war in Afghanistan war is unclear and confusing, complicating attempts to either support or criticize it during the campaign, according to leading senators from both parties.
On Romney's website, the campaign criticizes President Barack Obama for announcing a "timetable" for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and accuses the administration of placing politics over the advice of military commanders by withdrawing 30,000 surge troops by September.
"Gov. Romney supports the 2014 timetable as a realistic timetable and a residual force post-2014. But he would not have announced that timetable publicly, as President Obama did, as doing so encourages the Taliban to wait us out and our allies to hedge their bets," a Romney campaign spokesperson told The Cable.
But when it comes to what a President Romney would do differently from Obama on Afghanistan if and when he became president, the details remain sketchy.
"Mitt Romney will never make national-security decisions based upon electoral politics," the campaign website reads. "Upon taking office, he will review our transition to the Afghan military by holding discussions with our commanders in the field. He will order a full interagency assessment of our military and assistance presence in Afghanistan to determine the level required to secure our gains and to train Afghan forces to the point where they can protect the sovereignty of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban. Withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan under a Romney administration will be based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders."
Last week, The Cable asked several senior senators from both parties whether they supported Romney's plan for Afghanistan. None was able to articulate exactly what that policy is or what the U.S. force in Afghanistan might look like if Romney is elected.
"What is it?" said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a Romney supporter and senior member of the Armed Services Committee. "I think [Romney's policy is] ‘listen to the commanders' and if it's that, that's OK with me."
Graham agreed with Romney's criticism of Obama's plan to withdraw the 30,000 surge troops by September, which means the bulk of them will not be around for this summer's fighting season. But overall, Graham supports the Obama plan to adhere to a 2014 deadline for handing over control to the Afghans while keeping a significant U.S. troop presence there afterwards.
"Generally speaking, the only problem I have with President Obama is the acceleration of the withdrawal of the surge forces," Graham said.
Graham wants Romney to publicly endorse a continued U.S. force presence in Afghanistan after the full handover of power in 2014. Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in May signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement that would extend the presence of U.S. troops another 10 years, an agreement Graham helped to negotiate.
"I hope Romney will tell the American people that we are going to have a follow-on force in Afghanistan." Graham said. "It's in our interest to do it."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said he wasn't sure exactly what Romney's Afghanistan policy entailed and didn't want to get into it.
"You would have to tell me what exactly you mean by ‘his policy.' That's a long discussion that I don't want to get into," Kyl told The Cable.
Part of the challenge for the Romney team is that Republican voters are split on Afghanistan, with 48 percent supporting withdrawing all troops as soon as possible and nearly as many, 45 percent, supporting leaving a follow-on force there until the country is stabilized. The electorate as a whole favors bringing the troops home quickly (60 percent) over keeping troops there longer (32 percent).
"These numbers point to Romney's political bind," wrote James Lindsey, vice president of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an online commentary. "He has talked tough on Afghanistan ever since last June, when Republican national security conservatives blasted him for what they saw as his insufficient commitment to the mission there. Romney responded with much tougher rhetoric even though the policies he favors look a lot like Obama's."
For the Obama team and for Senate Democrats, Romney's apparent unwillingness to get more specific on Afghanistan represents a good opportunity to call into question his foreign-policy bona fides and present Obama as tougher on national security because he has committed to another decade of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"Without getting into the campaign rhetoric of what [Romney]'s asserting, I think you've got 50 nations in NATO that agree to a plan in Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on ABC's This Week in May. "It's the Lisbon agreement, an agreement that, you know, others, President Bush, President Obama, everyone has agreed is the direction that we go in Afghanistan."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable that the issue is just one more example of the Romney campaign avoiding tackling tough issues.
"I sure don't know what [Romney's Afghanistan policy] is," Levin said. "From what I've read, I can't fathom his position on Afghanistan any more than I can fathom his position on a whole bunch of other things."
"I don't know that he's flip-flopped on Afghanistan. I don't know that he's ever taken a clear position. It's not like some of the other positions he's so consistently flip-flopped on," Levin said. "Here, I don't know what the flip is or the flop."
The Pakistani military is entitled to the $1.1 billion of U.S. taxpayer money that the Pentagon is asking Congress to approve giving them, according to top Senators from both parties.
The Obama administration has told Pakistan it will release $1.1 billion of Coalition Support Funds (CSF) to the Pakistan military now that Islamabad has reopened the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC) through which the U.S. supplies troops in Afghanistan. The funds are reimbursement money that Pakistan has already spent in the joint effort to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban that were already authorized by Congress.The U.S. government has been holding up the money over the past six months while the supply lines were closed.
Pakistan had closed those supply lines after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in November, but opened them this week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally, publically, said "we're sorry" for the mistakes that led to those killings. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) could hold up the funds, but its leaders say they don't plan to do so.
"I would approve it," SASC Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable on Tuesday in a short interview. "They've presumably earned it by the money they've laid out in terms of their anti-terrorist activities and protecting our flow of oil."
There are costs incurred by Pakistan in facilitating the movement of oil and training and equipping their own forces engaged in the fight againstinsurgents, Levin said.
"This is not supposed to be a gift, this is supposed to be a reimbursement," he explained. "That's the theory."
But Levin is still not satisfied with Pakistan's level of cooperation when it comes to combatting terrorist safe havens on their soil and protecting their side of the Afghanistan border.
"I think they've done an adequate job in some areas, a spotty job, a job that is not consistent. I wouldn't give them a grade A, I would give them a grade C on the work that they've undertaken," he said. "But the deal was therewould be reimbursement for their costs and that's what's been held up."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, told The Cable today that he also believes the CSF money should go through.
"The money's been stuck in a pipeline and the reason it hasn't flowed faster is that we can't be sure it's going to be spent wisely. If our commanders believe releasing the funds helps the war effort, I don't want to second guess them," Graham said in a short interview.
He said the biggest beneficiary of the opening of the supply lines were U.S. and international troops on the ground and he said the money is one of the only bargaining chips Washington has left when dealing with Islamabad.
"Pakistan on a good day is very hard. They are an unreliable ally. You can't trust them, you can't abandon them," Graham said. "But if you cut the money off, what leverage do you have? There may come a day when we do that, but not yet."
The Pentagon said they have been working with Congressional leaders and they are hopeful the funds will be released. "We look forward to working closely with Congress to process these claims," Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said last week.
There's only one hurdle left for the funds to cross over. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) plans to attempt to force a vote to cut off all aid to Pakistan later this month and will try to include the CSF funding in that effort.
The Obama administration is planning to release more than $1 billion of held-up funds to the Pakistani government this month, following Pakistan's opening of the supply lines to Afghanistan. But Congress can thwart that plan and at least one senator is going to try.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby confirmed to The Cable on Friday that the Pentagon is planning to give Pakistan $1.1 billion in Coalition Support Funds (CSF), reimbursement money that Pakistan has already spent in the joint effort to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban. The U.S. government has been holding up the money over the past six months while the supply lines were closed. Pakistan closed those supply lines after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in November, but opened them up again this week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally, publically, said "we're sorry" for the mistakes that led to those killings.
Clinton didn't mention the funds when she announced the deal to re-open the supply lines. Kirby didn't say the money was a quid pro quo deal in exchange for opening up the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC), as other officials and experts allege, but he did acknowledge that the two issues are linked.
"Now that the GLOCs are open, we intend to submit the approximately $1.1 billion in approved receipts under the Coalition Support Fund for costs associated with past Pakistani counter-terrorism operations," Kirby told The Cable. "Now that the GLOCs are open, we are prepared to move forward with these claims."
Kirby said that congressional leadership was kept in the loop during the discussions with Pakistan about re-opening the supply lines. "We look forward to working closely with Congress to process these claims," he said.
Multiple Senate offices told The Cable that the notification for releasing the $1.1 billion to the Pakistan military has not yet reached Capitol Hill but is expected in the coming days. After Congress receives the notification, lawmakers have 15 days to object to the release or the funds will go through.
Congressional anger at Pakistan is at an all-time high, and not just because of the closing of the supply lines, which have cost U.S. taxpayers about $100 million extra per month, according to Kirby. Lawmakers are upset that the Pakistani military can't or won't eliminate the safe havens in Pakistan where insurgents live and from where they launch cross-border attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Lawmakers are also upset that the Pakistani courts have condemned Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to help positively identify Osama bin Laden. Afridi was sentenced last month to 33 years in jail for treason. Last week, before the deal over the supply lines was announced, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) told The Cable he would force a vote on an amendment to halt all aid to Pakistan this month, due to the Afridi case.
"My goal is that the guy who helped us get bin Laden will not be in prison for the rest of his life," Paul said in an interview.
Afridi has an appeals hearing on July 19, so Paul is planning to wait and see if the Pakistani courts reverse themselves before he uses a rare procedural move to force a vote to cut off all aid to Pakistan.
"I've decided to try to have the vote on July 20 to give them one more chance to review his case," Paul said.
Senate leadership is dead set against letting Paul have a vote on his amendment, out of concern that senators won't want to publically stand up in defense of sending more American taxpayer money to our greatest frenemy. But Paul said he plans to use Senate Rule 14 to force a vote and his office has collected 33 signatures from other senators on a petition to push for that vote. It's not clear if this legislative tactic will work, but Paul is confident.
"I can go around the leadership on that. I don't think they can stop me from having a vote. There will be a vote on Pakistan," Paul said. "It doesn't happen very often, but I have the signatures and I can get a vote."
Paul met with the State Department and Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman last week. After the GLOC deal was struck this week, The Cable asked Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley if the Kentucky senator would also try to stop the release of the CSF money. She said he would.
"Sen. Paul is dedicated to seeing Dr. Afridi -- an integral figure in finding Osama bin Laden -- released from prison in Pakistan. He is prepared to use all legislative tools possible to obtain this goal, including blocking U.S. taxpayer-funded aid to the government of Pakistan until they cooperate with this request," she said. "Should the opportunity to block these ... funds come before the Senate, Sen. Paul will urge his colleagues to do so."
The funding is technically under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, but the leaders of those committees were out of town this week and their offices declined to comment on the CSF funding because they have not yet received the notification.
Clinton did a great job negotiating the re-opening of supply routes from
#Pakistan to #Afghanistan," Senate Armed Services Committee
ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) tweeted on July 4, but it's not clear if he will support the
release of the $1.1 billion CSF. McCain is currently traveling in Afghanistan
and the Middle East, he could not be reached for comment.
If Congress does let the funds go through, that could be a key confidence-building measure between the two countries, which are trying to dig themselves out of the worst period in the bilateral relationship in over a decade.
If Congress halts the funds, the very short uptick in relations will be scuttled and the two nations will return to their all-too-familiar pattern of retaliation and recriminations. But there's little chance that Pakistan will close the supply lines, now that they are open again.
"Several trucks have gone through, and they will continue," Kirby told Pentagon reporters at a Thursday briefing. "I mean, this will continue now that the gates are open."
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "sorry" to Pakistan today and announced that Pakistan would resume allowing U.S. military goods to flow through its border with Afghanistan, but her near-apology was only one piece in a much larger set of moving parts in the effort to restore some normalcy to the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
"We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military," Clinton said in a Tuesday statement, referring to the Nov. 25 incident when NATO forces killed 24 Pakistan soldiers on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. "We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again."
Clinton spoke with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar by phone Tuesday and said that Khar had promised Pakistan would reopen its supply lines for U.S. military flows into Afghanistan, which have been closed down for six months in retaliation for the killings. Pakistan dropped its demand for fees of up to $5,000 per truck and will not even charge the $250 per truck the United States was paying before the incident occurred, Clinton said.
She also indicated that the progress announced today carried with it the prospect of tackling some of the larger issues plaguing the bilateral relationship, namely Pakistan's reluctance to go after the Taliban and other militant groups as well as what the United States sees as Pakistan's refusal to play a useful role in reconciliation talks to end the Afghanistan war.
"Foreign Minister Khar and I talked about the importance of taking coordinated action against terrorists who threaten Pakistan, the United States, and the region; of supporting Afghanistan's security, stability, and efforts towards reconciliation; and of continuing to work together to advance the many other shared interests we have," Clinton said.
Tuesday's announcement came after months of protracted and often excruciating negotiations between the two governments. On the U.S. side of the table, the process was led by Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides, who was in Pakistan Monday, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Peter Lavoy, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman.
ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen also traveled to Pakistan twice over the past two weeks, once at the invitation of Pakistani Army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and again as part of larger discussions regarding the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The internal U.S. process that led to today's remarks by Clinton was extensive -- and rocky at times. It has been well reported that the State Department, especially soon-to-be-former U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter, urged the White House to apologize long ago but was overruled due to objections from the Defense Department, where officials were angered by the fact that the Pakstani military accused the U.S. military of killing the soldiers intentionally.
Three administration sources confirmed to The Cable that between December and early spring, the National Security Council convened at least 8 separate high-level meetings to debate the apology, and ultimately, the White House earlier this year decided to issue one.
The Pakistani government in early Spring asked the White House not to issue the apology because the Pakistani parliament was in the middle of its comprehensive review of the bilateral relationship. Then, following deadly attacks in Kabul on NATO forces in April, which were traced back to the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, the White House took the apology off the table.
That's why today's comments by Clinton came as a huge surprise to many Pakistan-watchers. But experts saw in her comments a careful dance that the administration thinks represents a compromise, because Clinton never actually said the word "apology" or "apologize."
"It allows the administration to say to Congress, we didn't ‘apologize,' we said we were ‘sorry,'" said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. He emphasized that discussions about several thorny issues in the relationship are still ongoing.
Asked directly at today's press briefing if the "sorry" comment constituted an "apology," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland wouldn't say that it did.
"The statement speaks for itself, the words are all there, and I'm not going to improve on it here," she said.
In conjunction with Tuesday's announcement, the Obama administration has agreed to hand over about $1.2 billion to the Pakistanis in Coalition Support Funds (CSF) that were owed but delayed as part of the overall unhappiness between the two governments, two administration sources confirmed. Pakistan, which views the funds as reimbursements the United Sates agreed to pay in exchange for Pakistan's help in fighting the war on terror, argues that America owes it a larger sum.
"It's not a coincidence," Nawaz said, referring to the timing of the CSF funding. "This was part of the overall discussion."
The deal may not stop there.
Pakistan might still ask for money to help repair the infrastructural wear and tear that comes along with thousands of NATO trucks traversing its highways. The Pakistanis might also demand a new system that institutes some regularity in the CSF funds because the U.S. government currently demands detailed receipts and then rejects about 40 percent of the Pakistani reimbursement requests.
In the past, the United States has used delays in the CSF funds to punish Pakistan when the administration is frustrated with Pakistani actions.
"Internally on the U.S. side, when the administration has been pissed off at the Pakistanis, they've just said, ‘Oh, we'll slow down the CSF funds and just not tell them,'" one former U.S. official told The Cable.
Getting the CSF funding was always the real goal of the negotiations as far as the Pakistanis were concerned, according to the former official.
"The Pakistani government doesn't care about the transit fees as much as they care about the coalition support funds," the official said. "CSF offers them more of a short-term benefit. The reason they were making such a big deal about the transit fees before was because that was their negotiating position."
The U.S. side still wants concrete steps to show that the Pakistani government is moving more aggressively to stem the flow of fighters from its territory into Afghanistan, where they regularly attack and kill U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces. Both sides want a better system of on-the-ground operational coordination to make sure incidents like the November killings aren't repeated.
Clinton didn't mention the CSF funds in her speech, perhaps because that money could still be held up by Congress, which has been engaged in some serious bipartisan Pakistan-bashing, especially since a Pakistani court sentenced the doctor who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden to 33 years in prison.
After the administration notifies Congress it wants to release the funds, a notification that could come today, Congress has 15 days to reject it or the money gets released.
A key Republican in the debate over Pakistan will be Sen. Lindsey Graham, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee. In a Tuesday statement, Graham indicated he would support the administration's position.
"These supply lines are essential to supporting our troops in Afghanistan and I believe the terms and conditions negotiated by Secretary Clinton's team are acceptable to American interests throughout the region," he said.
But Graham also indicated that any thawing of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship would only be endorsed by Congress if and when Pakistan gets more serious about helping in Afghanistan.
"This agreement is a good step in the right direction, but more has to be done between the United States and Pakistan in the area of counterterrorism," he said. "If the Pakistani military intelligence services would engage in aggressive efforts to combat terrorism in coordination with coalition forces, it would tremendously enhance our successes in Afghanistan, provide stability to the Pakistani government, and eventually a better life for people on both sides of the border."
Nawaz warned that the relationship is still very fragile and that any number of things could send it spiraling downward once again, including a clumsy drone strike, a U.S. troop incursion into Pakistan, or another attack on NATO forces by Pakistan-based militants.
"This is only a Band Aid for this relationship. Any number of new crises or recurring crises is likely to trigger another round of recrimination," he said. "‘Sorry' was the hardest word, but it's a bit too early to celebrate. We're not yet out of the woods."
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander of international forces in Afghanistan, said this week that the United States should bring back the draft if it ever goes to war again.
"I think we ought to have a draft. I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn't be solely be represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population," McChrystal said at a late-night event June 29 at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival. "I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game."
He argued that the burdens of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven't been properly shared across the U.S. population, and emphasized that the U.S. military could train draftees so that there wouldn't be a loss of effectiveness in the war effort.
"I've enjoyed the benefits of a professional service, but I think we'd be better if we actually went to a draft these days," he said. "There would some loss of professionalism, but for the nation it would be a better course."
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq placed unfair and extreme burdens on the professional military, especially reservists, and their families, McChrystal said.
"We've never done that in the United State before; we've never fought an extended war with an all- volunteer military. So what it means is you've got a very small population that you're going to and you're going to it over and over again," he said. "Because it's less than one percent of the population... people are very supportive but they don't have the same connection to it."
Reservists following multiple deployments have trouble maintaining careers and families and have a "frighteningly high" rate of suicide, he said.
"The reserve structure is designed for major war, you fight and then you stop, but what we've done instead is gone back over and over to the same people," he said. "We're going to have to relook the whole model because I don't think we can do this again."
McChrystal was speaking at a panel focused on how to manage marriage in the military. He was joined by Annie, his wife of 35 years, and the discussion was moderated by CNN's Suzanne Malveaux.
Multiple deployments often result in divorces and split families, he said.
"The marriages I see most strained are the senior NCOs and officers who have four or five tours... you're apart so much that it's hard to have a marriage if you're not together at least a critical mass of time, and that's tough," McChrystal said.
Malveaux asked McChrystal how he has managed to get through 35 years of marriage.
"One day at a time," he responded.
Craig Barritt/Getty Images
Singapore - The official events of the 2012 Shangri-la Security Dialogue have yet to begin, but in the meantime, scholars from the hosting International Institute for Strategic Studies have a message for the crowd here in Singapore: End the war on drugs.
That's the main message of the new book entitled, "Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States: the Problems of Prohibition," written by IISS experts Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli and launched here in Singapore today. Inkster held a press conference to talk about the project and told the assembled crowd of experts, officials, and reporters that the world's prohibition regime regarding narcotics is perpetuating violence in some of the world's most unstable regions.
"The policies that have been pursued in prohibition for the last over 100 years have not really delivered the results that were expected," he said. "We need to reframe this problem not as a problem that can be solved - this idea of a ‘drug free world' - but as a situation that can be managed in a way that creates minimal collateral damage."
He offered some suggestions about how states can reduce the criminality, violence and instability that the current world drug policy endures. States can ensure safe and ready access to legal drugs, reducing the demand for illegal drugs used for medical purposes, for example. Also, countries could alter the handling of drug abuse from a focus on penalization to an approach that treats drug addiction as a public health issue.
"Medical rehabilitation is not just the most effective but also the cheapest way of dealing with drugs misuse," Inkster said.
Legalization of narcotics wouldn't eliminate organized crime, but would significantly reduce low level crime, as the street trade in drugs would fade. Many argue that legalization would increase drug use, but Inkster said, "The honest answer is, we don't know."
He referenced the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Columbia in April, where several Latin American leaders advocated for a degree of decriminalization or legalization of drugs but ran into stiff opposition from the United States.
"We are critical of the U.S. policy, particularly the focus on the supply side with the virtual disregard of anything else," Inkster said. "The correctional lobby in the United states also has a powerful interest in incarcerating as many Americans as possible."
Meanwhile, drug producing states pay the heaviest price due to the illicit drug trade, Inkster said. Earlier this week, he wrote about the drug trade in Afghanistan in an article for Foreign Policy, in which he outlined the ineffectiveness of the international community's decade
"Accounting for between one-quarter and one-third of the national economy, it is an integral part of the insecurity blighting Afghan life for the past 30 years," he wrote. "Debate may continue for years as to whether the Western intervention in Afghanistan has made the world safer or more insecure in the post-9/11 era. But it has not only done nothing to reduce global supplies of illicit opium; rather, it has made the problem worse."
In a rare moment of bipartisan unity in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans joined together to admonish Pakistan for its treatment of the doctor who helped the United States find Osama bin Laden.
At a Senate Appropriations Committee markup this morning, senior senators from both sides of the aisle took turns accusing Pakistan of supporting terrorism, undermining the war in Afghanistan, extorting the U.S. taxpayer, and punishing Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to find Bin Laden and was sentenced this week to 33 years in jail for treason. One senior senator predicted the Pakistani government was about to fall.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the heads of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, co-sponsored an amendment to the fiscal 2013 foreign affairs funding bill that would withhold $33 million in foreign military aid to Pakistan -- one year for each year of Afridi's sentence. That amendment came on top of new restrictions in the bill that would withhold all counterinsurgency aid to Pakistan if Islamabad doesn't reopen trucking routes for supplies for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But senators' frustration with Pakistan was not limited to recent events; they piled on with criticism of Pakistan's government, military, and intelligence services' actions throughout the war in Afghanistan. All agreed that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as currently arranged was dysfunctional and undermining U.S. national security interests.
Graham started by pointing out that the Senate is proposing reductions in next year's emergency funding for Pakistan by 58 percent from the president's request.
"When it comes to Pakistan, every member of this committee is challenged to go home and answer the question, ‘Why are we helping Pakistan?'" he said. "We can't trust Pakistan, but we can't abandon them."
"If we don't get those truck routes open so we can serve our troops in Afghanistan, we're going to stop the funding ... I do not expect Americans to sit on the sideline and watch the negotiations turn into extortion," said Graham.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) launched into a widespread criticism of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), the country's premier spy agency.
"I have long believed that Pakistan, especially the ISI, walks both sides of the street when it comes to terror," she said, noting that most leaders of the Taliban and the Haqqani network are assessed to be living in Pakistan. She also spoke about the Afridi case.
"He was not and is not a spy for our country. This was not a crime against Pakistan. It was an effort and locate and help bring to justice the world's No. 1 terrorist," she said. "This conviction says to be that al Qaeda is viewed by the court to be Pakistan ... I don't know which side of the war Pakistan is on."
Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) went next and said Feinstein's sentiments about Afridi were shared by many in the Senate. He was followed by Leahy, who said he was "outraged" about the Afridi case and said Pakistan public statements criticizing terrorism don't match its actions.
"It is Alice in Wonderland, at best, but it is outrageous in itself. If this is cooperation, I would hate like heck to see opposition," Leahy said.
"Pakistan is a schizophrenic at best ally," Graham said as he introduced the amendment to cut funding over the Afridi situation. "They are helping the Haqqani network ... which is basically a mob trying to take over parts of Afghanistan. And the ISI constantly provides assistance in Quetta on the Pakistani side of the border."
"The situation with the doctor is a classic example of not understanding the world the way it is," Graham said. "We need Pakistan, but we don't need a Pakistan that cannot see the justice in bringing bin Laden to an end."
Graham then took a shot at Pakistan's civilian government, which is often at odds with the military and the intelligence agencies.
"This government is about to fall. They are not serving their own people," Graham said.
Feinstein did chime in at the end of the debate with praise for Pakistan's new ambassador to Washington, Sherry Rehman.
"To me this is a very sad day. I have met the new Pakistani ambassador," Feinstein said. "She is a brilliant woman, she speaks fluent English, she has had a distinguished career.... This is just very hard to reconcile."
The amendment passed unanimously 30-0.
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker will leave his post due to health concerns, the State Department confirmed today.
"Today, Ambassador Ryan Crocker confirmed to the Afghan Government, U.S. Mission Afghanistan, and the ISAF community that he intends to depart his post for health reasons in mid-summer, following the Kabul and Tokyo conferences," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "Ambassador Crocker's tenure has been marked by enormous achievements: the Bonn Conference, the conclusion of the Strategic Partnership Agreement, and the two Memoranda of Understanding on detentions and special operations, and the Chicago NATO Summit."
The Tokyo conference on Afghanistan is scheduled to take place in July.
Crocker came out of retirement in January 2011 to take up the Kabul envoy post. From 2009 until 2011 he was dean of the George Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. Previously, he was the top U.S. official in Kabul following the fall of the Taliban and reopened the U.S. Embassy there in 2003.
Two State Department officials also confirmed to The Cable that Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman will step down soon to become the U.N.'s under secretary for political affairs, replacing Lynn Pascoe. That was first reported in March by the U.N. blog Inner City Press, and was reported again by Reuters Monday.
At the U.N., Feltman will be in charge of coordinating that body's response to crises in the Middle East, among other places. There is no word on Feltman's replacement, but we're told by an administration source that State is considering bringing in someone to temporarily fill in for Feltman in the assistant secretary role.
As the war in Afghanistan winds down, Afghan women and those who support them are clamoring to make sure that years of progress in women's rights are not reversed as the international community leaves.
The State Department's ambassador at large for global women's issues, Melanne Verveer, represented the U.S. government at a series of events in Chicago meant to highlight the plight of Afghanistan's female population and urge their inclusion in the political process. There was only one woman in the Afghan government's official delegation, but Verveer and others strove to make sure the issue didn't get short shrift in Chicago.
Verveer headlined a "shadow summit for Afghan women" Sunday in Chicago that included the participation of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). The goal of the summit was to urge Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO leaders, especially President Barack Obama, to boost women's participation in Afghan civil society development and to call on them to protect hard-fought rights for Afghan women if and when the Taliban re-enter the Afghan government.
"This issue was not one that should be viewed as a favor to women, but one that is absolutely critical to any future progress, stability, or peace in Afghanistan," Verveer said in a Monday interview with The Cable.
She noted that the joint declaration issued at the summit Monday gave a nod to women's equality in Afghanistan but said that more work needed to be done to ensure promises will be kept if the Taliban join the government.
"Red lines have been established [for Taliban reconciliation] that, in addition to renunciation of violence and rejection of al Qaeda, talk about adherence to the constitution, which includes women's rights and all that represents," Verveer said. "It has been an intensive, extensive, ongoing effort and that will continue."
Leading human rights groups are not so sure that effort is succeeding. Amnesty International, the organization that convened the shadow summit, released Sunday an open letter to Obama and Karzai pleading for more protections and a greater role for Afghan women.
"We are concerned that the U.S. and allied withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 may put women and girls at even greater risk of abuses... In this climate, we are alarmed that inadequate attention is being paid to women's rights and participation in peace talks with the Taliban," stated the letter.
"The United States, Afghanistan and other relevant parties must commit to clear, measurable steps to ensure that women's and girls' rights are protected and that positive momentum is maintained. Without these safeguards, any peace agreement will represent false progress and doom Afghanistan to repeat its repressive past."
The letter was signed by Albright, Schakowsky, actress Meryl Streep, musician Joan Baez, former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, artist Yoko Ono, feminist leader Gloria Steinem, musician Sting, and many others.
Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, told The Cable Monday that although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken out about Afghan women, there's a lot more the U.S. government can and must do.
"This weekend's summit contained no specific recognition of the circumstances women faced under the Taliban, the progress that has been made over the last 10 years and the primary importance of making sure that progress continues," she said. "There's not a sense this is being considered a critical piece of the overall transition process. This really requires presidential leadership."
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Today, President Barack Obama announced today that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will hand over lead combat responsibility for all of Afghanistan in mid-2013 -- just as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in February.
"Today, we'll decide the next phase of the transition -- the next milestone," Obama said today at the NATO summit in Chicago. "We'll set a goal for Afghan forces to take the lead for combat operations across the country in 2013 -- next year -- so that ISAF can move to a supporting role. This will be another step toward Afghans taking full lead for their security as agreed to by 2014, when the ISAF combat mission will end."
Obama's announcement is meant to set a marker of progress next year when ISAF hands over the fifth and final tranche of territory to Afghan security forces. As of this week, three out of those five areas now have Afghan security forces in the lead. The announcement was made to show progress toward a complete end of the ISAF combat role in 2014, as agreed at the last NATO summit in Lisbon.
The announcement's weight and impact was lessened somewhat by the fact that Panetta had already made it in February, some say accidentally, most say inelegantly, on a plane ride to Brussels.
On the way to a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels, Panetta made news when he told reporters on the plane, "Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013... Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role."
Those remarks were initially interpreted as a speeding up of the Lisbon schedule, but two days later in Munich at an international conference, Panetta clarified that he was talking about a transfer of lead combat responsibility and that ISAF troops would retain some combat role well into 2014.
"We hope Afghan forces will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan sometime in 2013. But of course ISAF will continue to be fully combat capable and we will engage in combat as necessary thereafter," he said.
Your humble Cable guy was in Munich and heard from several NATO officials that they were surprised by Panetta's remarks because they expected the milestone announcement to come out in May. "It was all carefully planned and now that plan is completely ruined," one European defense official said at the time.
At the time, one administration official told The Cable that the reason Panetta disclosed the 2013 milestone inelegantly and months ahead of the planned rollout was that he accidentally went beyond the talking points cleared for public consumption to reporters on the plane.
Today, a senior defense official told The Cable that simply wasn't the case.
"The messages he delivered were the messages he intended to deliver. It's wrong to say that he accidentally read from internal documents. He drew from materials that officials across the interagency knew would be made public," the defense official said.
An internal document obtained after the fact by The Cable backs up that claim. According to the document, Panetta did have clearance to talk about the shift away from a combat mission during his Brussels/Munich trip, although not in explicit detail and not with the 2013 date attached.
"NATO and its partners in ISAF are discussing the establishment of an interim milestone for transition in Afghanistan, which would be announced at Chicago," reads the document. "When we reach the interim milestone ISAF forces will shift from a lead combat role to a supporting role - focused on training, advising and assisting the ANSF."
The internal document was marked "For use with allies and press."
Either way, the White House today said that Obama's announcement today about the milestone was still significant because it included the endorsement of all the relevant world leaders and made it the official ISAF policy, regardless of who said what and when.
"What happened this week codified at a head of state level a lot of hard work and planning that's been ongoing for months and which builds on what we agreed to at the Lisbon Summit," National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.
The Obama administration said Tuesday it is involved in ongoing consultations with various Taliban officials, but said that a long-negotiated deal to transfer five senior Taliban commanders out of the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay is "on hold" indefinitely.
The U.S. plan for Afghanistan took shape today when President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement to extend the U.S. security commitment in Afghanistan until 2024. The agreement was signed during Obama's surprise one-day visit to Afghanistan, which just happened to fall on the anniversary of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Two senior administration officials briefed reporters today on a conference call from Kabul. Asked by The Cable whether the Obama administration is still negotiating with the Taliban directly and whether the administration sees Taliban participation in the future of Afghanistan, the officials said yes on both counts.
"We continue to remain in contact with various Taliban leaders and we have several indications of intense interest in the reconciliation process," a senior administration official said. "It's quite clear to us that there is a range of interest among Taliban in reconciliation and there's quite a bit of internal political turbulence within the Taliban on that score."
But the official explained that a deal under consideration to transfer five senior Taliban commanders out of Gitmo to "house arrest" in Qatar, in exchange for the release of a Westerner in Taliban custody, was stalled due to internal divisions within the Taliban's ranks.
"For reasons that appear to have to do with internal political turbulence among the Taliban, those efforts have been basically put on hold for the time being," the official said. "The Taliban understand very well what needs to happen in that channel for those talks to restart and we'll see what they do with that knowledge."
Senior U.S. lawmakers in both parties have come out against the proposed transfer of Taliban commanders out of Gitmo, arguing that they were too dangerous to be released and that the Qatari arrangement would not be enough to ensure they did not return to violence. The deal would also have set up a Taliban representative office in Qatar from which the Taliban could operate.
Last month, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told a Washington audience that he also opposes releasing Taliban officials from Gitmo until the Taliban have shown some evidence that they are negotiating in good faith.
The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has expressed some hope that the deal would be a precursor to more positive interactions, although Afghan officials were initially upset that the United States had begun discussions with the Taliban outside their purview.
The Karzai government also has good reason to be suspicious of Taliban peace offers, considering that its most recent peace engagement with the Taliban literally blew up when a supposed Taliban negotiator detonated a suicide bomb that killed the leader of Karzai's peace council, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Former Deputy NATO Senior Civilian Representative at ISAF Mark Jacobson, now with the Truman National Security Project, told The Cable today that the administration's comments represented new openness about its talks with the Taliban.
"I think the White House is increasingly open about U.S. discussions with the Taliban -- an indication to me that we are in a good position to move these talks along," he said. "In the end its going to have to be about Karzai and the Taliban, but both sides feel much more comfortable in direct discussions with us because both sides see us as more reliable than the others. And in the end, any agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government will require the backing and support of the United States."
On the conference call from Kabul, the administration officials rejected assertions that the Obama administration is opening itself up to charges of politicizing bin Laden's killing by signing the agreement on the one-year anniversary of the mission. They said the timing was based on the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago.
"The negotiations were completed in recent weeks... The two presidents set a clear goal for the agreement to be signed before the summit in Chicago," one official said. "It was always the president's intention to spend this anniversary with our troops. What better place to spend that time with our troops here in Afghanistan who are in harm's way."
President Barack Obama has landed in Afghanistan and arrived at the presidential palace in Kabul, where he will sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Afghan government on the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
"President Barack Obama is in Afghanistan for a whirlwind visit that will culminate in a live, televised address to the American people," a White House pool report said Tuesday.
Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will sign the agreement shortly and Obama is scheduled to address the nation just after 7:30 EDT Tuesday evening (4 AM local time) from Bagram Airbase. The agreement commits the United States to a security presence in Afghanistan for years after the 2014 handover of control to the Afghan government, but exact troop numbers won't be decided until next year.
Obama's plane left Andrews Air Force Base just after midnight Monday and arrived at Bagram Tuesday evening Afghanistan time. He was greeted at Bagram by Amb. Ryan Crocker and Lt. Gen. Mike Scaparotti, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"Senior administration officials said the timing of the trip was driven by the negotiations over the Strategic Partnership Agreement and by the desire of both presidents to sign the agreement in Afghanistan prior to the NATO summit in Chicago later this month," the pool report stated. "However, the officials also acknowledged that the timing coincides with the first anniversary of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden."
At the Pentagon, defense officials released a new report on the progress of the mission in Afghanistan, required by Congress under section 1230 of the Defense Authorization Act. The report claims continued progress in the effort to defeat the Taliban and train the Afghan National Security Forces to take the lead.
"The year 2011 saw the first year-over-year decline in nationwide enemy-initiated attacks in five years. These trends have continued in 2012," the report stated. "The performance of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the close partnership between the ANSF and ISAF have been keys to this success. As a result, the ANSF continue to develop into a force capable of assuming the lead for security responsibility throughout Afghanistan."
The report did mention the dozen or so attacks on ISAF forces by soldiers in ANSF uniforms, known as "green on blue" attacks, but the report failed to note that some attempted "green on blue" attacks are never reported by ISAF because they were not successful, as reported by the Associated Press Monday.
While the Pentagon report praises the progress of allied forces in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, it excoriates Pakistan for harboring enemies of the Afghan government and accuses Karzai's government of rampant corruption.
"The Taliban-led insurgency and its al Qaeda affiliates still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan. The insurgency's safe haven in Pakistan, as well as the limited capacity of the Afghan Government, remain the biggest risks to the process of turning security gains into a durable and sustainable Afghanistan. The insurgency benefits from safe havens inside Pakistan with notable operational and regenerative capacity," the report states.
"Additionally, the Afghan Government continues to face widespread corruption that limits its effectiveness and legitimacy and bolsters insurgent messaging."
The handover of security control to Afghan government forces continues apace, according to the report. As of March 31, 2012, 20 of 34 provinces, comprising about half the Afghan population, were under Afghan control, the report said.
The report said that ANSF numbers will reach 352,000 by Oct. 2012, which is about when the United States will make decisions regarding how many American troops to leave in Afghanistan when the drawdown of "surge" troops is complete this fall. At that time, 68,000 U.S. troops will remain, with the goal of handing over complete control to the Afghan government in 2014.
The report claims that the insurgency is severely degraded and that Taliban reintegration programs are working well.
"ANSF-ISAF operations have widened the gap between the insurgents and the population in several key population centers, limiting insurgent freedom of movement, disrupting safe havens in Afghanistan, and degrading insurgent leadership," says the report. "Continued success of the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program appears to be amplifying this trend by degrading Taliban cohesiveness."
A senior State Department official said Tuesday that the the Strategic Partnership Agreement Obama is about to sign contains within it mechanisms to get at the problem of Afghan government corruption.
The agreement authorizes "a bilateral commission with a set of working groups that will further assure the donor community, including the United States, that the Afghans are making the kind of progress that they need to make in order to demonstrate to donors that it's worthwhile to continue providing the kind of assistance that we provide," the official said.
But the Pakistan problem remains. A senior Pentagon official said that the share of attacks in eastern Afghanistan has gone up due to the activity of the Pakistan-based Haqqani network.
"The Haqqani network continues to operate networks in Afghanistan and continues to carry out attacks in Afghanistan. When we're talking about the attacks on RC-East, the Haqqani network is the major actor in the major problem area," the official said. "We will continue to work to interdict their ability to act in Afghanistan and continue to make clear to Pakistan that we expect them to take action to prevent violence emanating from its borders, impacting other countries, including its neighbor Afghanistan."
This past weekend, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was denied entry into Afghanistan due to objections from Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Today, in an interview with The Cable, Rohrabacher recounted the episode, his longstanding feud with Karzai, and the personal intervention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that kept him from flying to Kabul.
Last Wednesday, Rohrabacher was added as a last minute addition to the congressional delegation led by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and including Reps. John Carter (R-TX), Michael Burgess (R-TX), Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), and Michele Bachmann (R-MN). Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) had to drop out at the last minute, so Rohrabacher took the spot. He didn't think there would be a problem.
Following a 13-hour flight to Dubai (Rohrabacher had to fly coach because of the last minute arrangements), he and the rest of the delegation prepared to board a military transport to Kabul. But the military staff on the ground wouldn't let him get on the plane.
"I was informed that the military plane was prohibited from taking off if I was on board," he said. "The State Department had asked the Defense Department not to fly me there."
Rohrabacher, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, didn't need the administration's approval to go to Afghanistan, so he and his staff began searching for commercial flights to Kabul. That's when Clinton called.
"She made the request of me saying that Karzai was personally upset with me and doesn't want me in his country. She said that if I went, there was a real possibility there would be a real crisis on their hands," Rohrabacher said.
Clinton mentioned the recent accidental burning of Qurans on a U.S. military base and the murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier. She told Rohrabacher that she feared Karzai might provoke another minor crisis in the relationship if the congressman went there, and asked him not to go.
"The secretary of state was asking me in a reasonable way so I said I would comply. If she thinks it's better for our country, I would forgo this trip, but not all trips," he said. "She was afraid that Karzai might try to get some of his people out on the streets and start targeting me, so she didn't need that."
The rest of the delegation went on to Kabul and met with embassy staff and members of the leadership of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, but not with Karzai. Meanwhile, Rohrabacher hung back in the United Arab Emirates and met with the emir of Abu Dhabi, the leader of the UAE military, and the UAE's minister of energy. When the delegation got back to Dubai, the representatives went on the Qatar for additional meetings before arriving back in Washington Tuesday afternoon.
Rohrabacher explained that his feud with Karzai goes back years, if not decades, and is based on Rohrabacher's longstanding and vocal support for a decentralization of power in Afghanistan and removal of U.S. financial and diplomatic support for Karzai, whom he sees as a corrupt and illegitimate leader.
Rohrabacher has been traveling to Afghanistan since the 1980s, when he worked in the Reagan White House. In 1988 he even picked up a machine gun and fought alongside the mujahideen on against the Russians near the Afghan city of Jalalabad. During the reign of the Taliban, Rohrabacher, by then a congressman, traveled to Afghanistan several times to meet with the groups that would eventually come to be known as the Northern Alliance.
The latest action to anger Karzai came when Rohrabacher traveled to an Aspen Institute conference in January with Gohmert, Steve King (R-IA), and Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), and met with the Northern Alliance to strategize on the way forward in Afghanistan.
"Serious efforts were made by the U.S. State Department to prevent this exchange of views from taking place," Rohrabacher said in a press release at the time.
It probably hasn't helped relations that Rohrabacher's subcommittee is working on an investigation strategy to bring to light the details of how Karzai and his family have enriched themselves of the last few years.
"Mr. Karzai is a very wealthy man and the tooth fairy didn't leave it under his pillow. If we don't do anything, the Taliban will take over that country and Karzai will disappear and emerge in Csota Rica with suitcases filled with money," he said. "Or even worse, our current government may push Karzai into a coalition government with the Taliban, and that would be a catastrophe and a horrible waste of American lives and resources over the last 10 years."
Rohrabacher said he didn't care much what Karzai thought about him one way or the other and promised to travel to Afghanistan again at a later time. He also claimed that Karzai is trying to prevent any members of the Afghan opposition from having direct contact with members of Congress.
"I think the reason that Karzai singled me out is that when I say something about Afghanistan people take it seriously because of my decades of experience in Afghanistan," he said. "There are few members of Congress who understand how little right Karzai has to the leadership of that government."
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The Obama administration is negotiating a deal with the Taliban that would include transferring five senior Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay to "house arrest" in Qatar, but the head of Afghanistan's defense ministry said today that the deal shouldn't go forward until or unless the Taliban shows it is serious about peace.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismellah Mohammadi are in Washington this week and spoke Thursday afternoon at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a non-partisan Washington think tank. The Cable asked both ministers what they thought about the pending deal, which would include the Taliban opening up an official office in Qatar and releasing a Western captive in exchange for the transfer of five senior Taliban officials from U.S. custody.
The Obama administration has been telling congressional leaders that the transfer deal is a "confidence-building measure," but Wardak said that the Taliban should give some reasons to have confidence before the deal is signed.
"Any war eventually ends up with peace, so any efforts to facilitate that process will be welcome. But before any deal, we have to make sure that the other side is sincere in their efforts," he said of the Taliban.
The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has expressed some hope that the deal would be a precursor to more positive interactions, although Afghan officials were initially upset that the United States had begun discussions with the Taliban outside their purview.
The Karzai government also has good reason to be suspicious of Taliban peace offers, considering that its most recent peace engagement with the Taliban literally blew up when a supposed Taliban negotiator detonated a suicide bomb that killed the leader of Karzai's peace council, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
At the Thursday event, Mohmmadi was more supportive of the potential U.S.-Taliban deal.
"We welcome any action that will take us even an inch closer to the realization of peace," he said. "At the end of the day, we must have a target point to reach and an address to refer to. The folks in Qatar wanted to set up an office; we agreed with that. We do hope that that will be a point of reference for the continuing process of peace talks and negotiations."
Wardak's statements urging that the Taliban show some signs of sincerity place him in the same position as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), who told The Cable last month that any Taliban prisoner transfer should come after some progress is made in the negotiations.
Other senior U.S. lawmakers are outright opposed to the transfer, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who told The Cable last month, "These are major Taliban figures, they are not minor people. And they will not be in the same kind of custody, maximum-security custody. Forget that it won't be Guantánamo, just maximum-security custody."
Feinstein said the timing of the deal, with the Taliban still actively engaged against Western forces on the battlefield, was particularly problematic. "To do this as just a confidence-building measure without any acceptance by the Taliban of any rules or agreements or anything else, and at a time when the Taliban are still carrying out raids, planting IEDS, still killing people.... I think if you're able to achieve with the Taliban an agreement then it wouldn't be as horrible as it is," she said.
Wardak and Mohammadi's overall message to their Washington audience was that the Afghan war is going well, great progress is being made, and victory is right around the corner, despite widespread reports to the contrary.
Both officials praised the progress of U.S.-Afghan negotiations toward a long-term security agreement, including a recent deal over night raids. Both officials said that the Afghan security forces would probably be drawn down after 2014 following the current buildup, based on the security situation at the time.
Wardak said that the pace of Taliban members switching sides has been increasing. He said that more than 4,000 Taliban members had been reintegrated and more than 1,600 Taliban were in negotiations over abandoning the fight.
Mohammadi said that victory against the Taliban is near.
"The security situation over the last two years has seen considerable progress... We do have information that shows a great weakening of the Taliban strength over the last two years," he said.
"Our assessment and our take [is] we can assure you that we are not that far away from final victory. Therefore we ask the people and the leadership of our greatest friend the United States for more patience and to not to forget the sacrifices that we have made together."
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The State Department's top official for Afghanistan is touring Europe this week, and he's got his tin cup out: His mission is to persuade the international community to contribute to the long-term funding of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Marc Grossman left Washington on Sunday for a trip to Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Warsaw, The Hague, Berlin, Paris, and Brussels. The trip is meant to consult and coordinate with allies on the path forward for Afghanistan in advance of the NATO summit this May in Chicago. At that summit, President Barack Obama's administration wants to announce a plan to keep Afghanistan's army equipped and fed long after the U.S. and coalition forces draw down.
"In the lead up to the summit, we are focused on how best to support sustainable and sufficient Afghan National Security Forces for Afghanistan's future and how we can further strengthen the NATO-Afghanistan Enduring Partnership," a State Department notice said. "Chicago will therefore be a critical milestone in our effort in Afghanistan, as leaders come together to discuss the transition and the future of our support for Afghanistan and its security forces."
The competence and sustainability of the ANSF is crucial to forging the conditions that will allow the United States to draw down in Afghanistan without sacrificing whatever security gains international forces have made there. Since 2002, the United States has spent over $43 billion to train, equip, and sustain the ANSF, according to the Government Accountability Office. Of that total, about $14 billion went to the Afghan National Police, with the rest going to the Afghan National Army.
The current goal is to build up the ANSF to 352,000 personnel by the end of 2014, when the handover of security to the Afghan government is set to be completed. But the international community understands that there's no way the Afghan government could afford to keep a force that large on its own and expectations that the international community will foot the bill are low.
Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller testified Tuesday morning before the House Armed Services Committee that it will make sense to reduce those levels after the 352,000 personnel goal is reached.
Grossman might have some surprise stops at the end of his trip, possibly in "Central Asia," State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said at Monday's press briefing. He probably won't be going to Pakistan, which is reevaluating its relationship with the United States in parliament this week, but he could make a stop in Kabul.
Another possible stop for Grossman is Qatar, the presumed destination of five Taliban commanders the administration is considering transferring from Guantanamo Bay and the possible location of a new Taliban representative office. Grossman met the Taliban in Qatar earlier this year.
"We are still working on that itinerary, so stand by," Nuland said.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Leading lawmakers on both sides kicked off the coming debate over the Obama administration's plans to speed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a partisan fight over how to extract the U.S. from its longest war with a measure of honor and success.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Obama administration is debating multiple new troop drawdown plans that would govern the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the surge forces is completed this September. According to the report, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is supporting a plan that would remove another 10,000 troops by the end of 2012 and an additional 20,000 troops by June of next year.
Vice President Joe Biden is said to support a plan for an even more precipitous withdrawal. Gen. John Allen, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, reportedly supports keeping more troops there longer than either Donilon or Biden would like.
A number of leading Republican senators told The Cable that they oppose the new, faster Afghanistan troop withdrawal plans under discussion in the Times report, which they see as a trial balloon floated by the White House to frame the coming discussion.
"I hope it's a balloon that busts," said Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Graham laid out the basic argument against the speedier withdrawal: that it is opposed by leading U.S. military officials, is based on the White House's political considerations, and risks sacrificing hard-fought security gains.
"The problem with this administration is that every time the generals give them good advice, they've got to change it," said Graham. "Why is General Allen wrong? If I gotta pick between Joe Biden and General Allen, I'm picking General Allen.... The last thing we want is a bunch of politicians who have been wrong about everything controlling the war."
He also acknowledged that not all Republicans agree with him and even the GOP presidential candidates are becoming skittish on keeping the military committed in Afghanistan. Newt Gingrich said this week that the mission there might not be "doable."
"On the Republican side, we've had one or two folks talking about changing General Allen's withdrawal plan. They don't know what they're talking about. It would be a nightmare for this country for Afghanistan to go poorly," said Graham. "I hope the Republican nominee for president will say something very simple. ‘I know we're war weary. We're going to withdraw. We're going to transition. But we're going to do it based on what the general says.'"
Allen is coming to Washington next week and will testify on Capitol Hill. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable in an interview that Republicans will press Allen to admit the dangers of speeding up the withdrawal plan.
"I'll ask ‘is the risk greater' and he'll say ‘the risk is greater because of these decisions,'" McCain predicted. The Arizona senator described the new, speedier withdrawal option as the administration "continuing the president's stated withdrawals over the objections of his military advisors who he has appointed, sending the message to the region that we are leaving and you have to make accommodations for us not being in the neighborhood, which is a strategy for failure."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) wholly supports the administration removing more troops from Afghanistan at a steady pace, although he acknowledges that some generals disagree.
"After the 30,000 troops are removed by the end of September, the president said a couple months ago that there will be further reductions continuing at a ‘steady pace.' I favored that very much. A number of top uniformed leaders did not," said Levin.
He said the uniformed leadership favored halting the withdrawal of U.S. troops after the 30,000 surge troops leave. That would leave the number of U.S. troops at about 68,000 until as late as 2014, when they would then reduce steeply.
"I have felt the president's ‘steady pace' approach was the right approach. We ought to continue that approach. That was right in terms of success of the mission," said Levin.
He also said that the recent incidents in Afghanistan, including the accidental burning of Qurans and last weekend's alleged murder of 16 Afghan civilians, reinforce the need to continue withdrawing, an argument the president himself made this week.
The White House seems determined to continue the pace of withdrawals into next year despite the criticism coming from Republicans. GOP leaders want the administration to know they will be bringing up Obama's Afghanistan withdrawal plans early and often throughout this election season.
"If you start bleeding [General Allen], you leave everybody left behind in a force protection nightmare and our ability to withdraw with honor and security will be forfeited," said Graham. "And when it goes bad, [the White House] will be reminded of who created it. I promise you that."
UPDATE: National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor denied the Times report. Here's his statement to The Cable:
The White House is not currently reviewing options for further troop withdrawals and no decisions have been made. As the President has said, we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer. After that initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead.
The President will make decisions on further drawdowns at the appropriate time, based on our interests and in consultation with our Allies and Afghan partners. We look forward to meeting in Chicago with NATO leaders to define the next phase of transition.
There are no options, and Tom Donilon isn't pushing any specific option or policy proposal.
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The pending deal to move senior Taliban figures from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar is part of a trade for the return of a Western prisoner, according to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
The Obama administration's plan to move five top Taliban officials to live under house arrest in Qatar has been extensively reported but never openly discussed by administration officials. And until Feinstein confirmed it to The Cable, the fact that the crux of the deal is a swap for a Westerner had never been publicly disclosed.
"That's the framework of the exchange. But it's presented as a confidence-building measure," Feinstein said. "We are giving up people who killed a lot of people, people who were head of major efforts of the Taliban."
Feinstein said the deal involved the trade of one Westerner for the five Taliban leaders. She also confirmed the name of the Westerner in question, but The Cable has agreed to withhold that name at the request of U.S. officials out of concern for his safety.
Under the deal, the United States would reportedly place the Taliban officials under the responsibility of the Qatari government, where they would ostensibly remain under some degree of supervision and imprisonment. According to reports, the prisoners being considered for transfer include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister; Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan; and former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund.
But Feinstein said she opposes it.
"These are major Taliban figures, they are not minor people. And they will not be in the same kind of custody, maximum-security custody. Forget that it won't be Guantánamo, just maximum-security custody," she said. "And in my view, there's no way of knowing what they may do and what kind of propaganda they may breed."
Afghan officials have spoken about the deal as a step toward peace talks meant to end the decade-long Afghanistan war, but U.S. lawmakers suspect the released Taliban could eventually end up returning to the fight.
Feinstein said the timing of the deal, with the Taliban still actively engaged against Western forces on the battlefield, was particularly problematic. "To do this as just a confidence-building measure without any acceptance by the Taliban of any rules or agreements or anything else, and at a time when the Taliban are still carrying out raids, planting IEDS, still killing people.... I think if you're able to achieve with the Taliban an agreement then it wouldn't be as horrible as it is," Feinstein said.
The administration has sought hard to preserve the secrecy around the prisoner trade, and administration officials won't confirm any of the details publicly.
Last week, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden denied that a deal had been struck, saying, "The United States has not decided to transfer any Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay" after reports surfaced that the Taliban leaders in question had agreed to be transferred.
"We are not in a position to discuss ongoing deliberations or individual detainees, but our goal of closing Guantánamo is well established and widely understood," she said. "In general, any decision to transfer a detainee from Guantánamo would be undertaken in accordance with U.S. law and in consultation with the Congress."
On Jan. 31, top administration officials briefed eight senators on the deal, including Feinstein. The other senators invited to that classified briefing were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Intelligence Committee ranking Republican Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Senate Armed Services chiefs Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).
In a brief interview Tuesday, Levin declined to comment in any way on the trade. But he did say that he was opposed to any Taliban transfers unless it was part of a peace process.
"I believe that before there's a transfer of anybody that there should be some progress in the negotiations and discussions. That should be used as a way of promoting progress in the discussions with the Taliban, rather than doing that before those discussions have any evidence of success," he said.
McCain, in his own brief Tuesday interview with The Cable, said that a prisoner swap wasn't necessarily a bad idea in principle. But he poured cold water on the notion of linking any such swap to peace talks with the Taliban.
"If it's intended to be a ‘confidence-building measure,' that is an extreme measure. If it's a swap, it's worthy of consideration of Congress, if that is the premise of it," said McCain, a former prisoner himself. "But they're doing it as a ‘confidence-building measure.' That's not confidence building."
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
What a difference a few days make. After warning earlier this week that he was about to "pull the plug" on his support for the Afghanistan war, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is back on board with the mission following a new agreement on detainees.
Officials in Kabul announced Friday that the United States had agreed to gradually hand over control of most Afghan detainees in its custody over the next six months, representing a compromise between the Afghan demand that they be handed over now and the American refusal to hand them over at all. The issue became especially sensitive after the U.S. military admitted burning dozens of Qurans at the Parwan Detention Facility on Bagram Air Force Base late last month.
Graham traveled to Kabul recently and met with President Hamid Karzai to discuss the progress (or lack thereof) in negotiating a U.S.-Afghanistan Status of Forces Agreement that would provide the legal framework for the 20,000 U.S. troops expected to remain in Afghanistan past 2014, the deadline by which President Barack Obama has said full control of Afghanistan will be handed back to the Afghans.
On March 6, Graham told The Cable that if Karzai didn't budge on his demands for the immediate handover of all prisoners and the immediate cessation of night raids against the Taliban, he would "pull the plug" on his support for the whole war.
"If he insists that all the prisoners have to be turned over by March 9 and that we have to stop night raids, that means we will fail in Afghanistan and that means Lindsey Graham pulls the plug. It means that I no longer believe we can win and we might as well get out of there sooner rather than later," Graham said.
On Friday, in response to the announcement of the detainee deal, Graham issued a new statement expressing optimism that the issues between the United States and Karzai's government could be worked out.
"Today's agreement regarding detainees begins to clear the path for a broader strategic partnership agreement between our two nations which will be the biggest accomplishment to secure Afghanistan in over a decade. The remaining issue left to be dealt with is the issue of night raids with Afghans in the lead, a vitally important military tactic which must be preserved," Graham said. "This has been an emotional and contentious topic for all concerned."
He explained that the agreement creates a "double-key veto system" that would allow either the Americans or the Afghans to object to the release of any detainee believed to be a threat to coalitions forces. Also the Afghans have changed their law to allow for "administrative detention" of suspected insurgents without having to go through the Afghan criminal justice systems.
"The adoption of Protocol II of the Geneva Convention, allowing for nations facing an insurgency to detain individuals as a security threat, rather than a common criminal, is a major breakthrough in the war effort. It creates a lane of detention under Afghan law specifically designed to deal with the insurgent threat," Graham said. "As previously mentioned, this begins to clear the way for a broader strategic partnership between our two nations."
But if Karzai really wants to complete an agreement with the United States that has Graham's support, he's going to have to tackle the night raids issue sooner or later.
"With a rational agreement allowing for US captures to Afghan control, combined with an agreement that will continue night raids, we could be on the verge of reaching a turning point in the war - a strategic partnership agreement - that will allow us to reduce our military presence post-2014," Graham said. "This is an outcome that we have been fighting for and tremendously enhances our nation's national security."
If Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai doesn't change his tune fast on two key U.S. demands, the U.S. military should just pack up and go home and leave Afghanistan for good, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said today.
Graham, who has been one of the strongest congressional supporters for continuing the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan beyond 2014, said today that unless Karzai relents on his demands that the United States immediately hand over control of Afghan prisoners and end night raids against insurgents, there is no way the U.S. can achieve its objectives in Afghanistan and therefore should just end its involvement there.
"If the president of the country can't understand how irrational it is to expect us to turn over prisoners and if he doesn't understand that the night raids have been the biggest blow to the Taliban ... then there is no hope of winning. None," Graham said in the hallways of the Capitol Building just before entering the GOP caucus lunch.
"So if he insists that all the prisoners have to be turned over by March 9 and that we have to stop night raids, that means we will fail in Afghanistan and that means Lindsey Graham pulls the plug. It means that I no longer believe we can win and we might as well get out of there sooner rather than later."
Graham acknowledged that those two issues were crucial in ongoing negotiations over a U.S.-Afghanistan Status of Forces Agreement, which would provide the legal basis for the ongoing presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014, the deadline President Barack Obama has set for transferring full control of the country back to the Afghans.
"I am going to pull the plug on Afghanistan from a personal point of view if we don't get this strategic partnership signed," Graham said. "Karzai's insistence that all detainees we have in our custody be turned over by Friday to an Afghan system that will let guys walk right out the door and start killing Americans again is a non-starter."
Graham, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations' State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, visited Kabul and met with Karzai late last month. Today he said he supports a U.S.-Afghanistan agreement for a post-2014 presence of about 20,000 U.S. troops, with three or four U.S. airbases and coordination in the military, political, and economic spheres.
"But I'm not going to support signing that agreement if Karzai insists that we end night raids, which are the biggest blow available to our forces against the enemy," he said. "If he requires that we end night raids, we'll have no hope of being successful."
Regarding the prisoners, Graham said that any follow-on U.S. force would be put at risk if U.S.-held prisoners, currently numbering over 3,000, were placed under Afghan control.
"I cannot go back home to South Carolina and tell a mother, ‘I'm sorry your son or daughter was killed today by a guy we had in custody but let go for no good reason.' We want Afghan sovereignty over prisoners but they're not there yet," he said. "That's not good governance. That hurts the Afghan villagers that have been preyed on by these people and it sure as hell puts our people at risk. I want an agreement but not at all costs."
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The Pentagon's new budget request moves $3 billion of military pay and benefits out of the base budget into the war budget in an accounting maneuver experts and congressional staffers say is meant to get around legally mandated budget caps and bolster the administration's plan to cut the size of the Army and Marines.
According to the military personnel section of the Pentagon's fiscal 2013 budget request, released Feb. 13, the cost of pay and benefits for the military next year will go down by $6 billion in the "base budget," which is meant to fund the ongoing costs not related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in the war-funding section of the budget request, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, next year's request for military personnel goes up by $3 billion, even though the actual costs of paying for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would have no reason to rise as the United States withdraws.
What the Pentagon did was simply to move $3 billion from its regular budget to the war budget, where it does not count against the discretionary spending caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and where it does not count against the deficit.
It's a $3 billion accounting trick that allows the Pentagon to wiggle out of the spending caps by manipulating the war budgets, as it has done for years, said Gordon Adams, the former head of national security budgeting at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, now a professor at American University.
"It's just too much temptation to resist," he said. "Just a little budgetary slight of hand, as DOD tries to create pockets of room for things shrinking budgets make it hard to afford. We've been pouring programs back and forth between the OCO account and the base [budget] for a decade."
Overall, military personnel spending in 2012 totaled $141.8 billion in the base budget and $11.3 billion in the war budget. In the fiscal 2013 request, the Pentagon is asking for $135.1 billion in the base budget and $14.1 billion in the war budget for the same accounts.
Adams said the administration is acting as if its recently released strategy, which would cut the size of the Army and Marines by 67,100 and 15,200 troops, respectively, has already been implemented. The actual troop reductions would take three years to complete and face stiff opposition in Congress, but the administration is trying to cut their pay and benefits out of the base budget now.
"It means pocketing savings from reducing the size of the force by taking them early in the base budget, while the force is only shrinking over three years," he said. "The administration clearly intends to cut end strength by 2015, but scoop out room in the base budget by the slight of hand of jiving the continuing payroll costs over into the war budget."
The accounting manuever does track the amount of money that would be saved by cutting the number of troops in the Army and Marines, as the new strategy envisions. In fiscal 2012 Army personal costs totaled about $53 billion, with about $7 billion in the OCO account. For fiscal 2013, the Pentagon is requesting $52 billion, but this time, $9.4 billion is in the OCO section of the budget.
For the Marines, the fiscal 2013 OCO budget request for military personnel would result in an increase of about $1 billion.
In response to questions from The Cable, Pentagon spokesman George Little confirmed that troops above the level envisioned in the new strategy would now be funded in the war budget, but he disputed that this was an abuse of the war budgeting mechanism or an accounting trick.
"Now that we have clearly identified a long-term end state level for our ground forces, we can more clearly delineate the cost of our current forces in excess of that level, and as a result we do have more funding budgeted for personnel in FY2013 in OCO than we did in FY2012... That is completely consistent with, not an abuse of, the concept of using OCO funds to budget for costs you would not be incurring were it not for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Little.
"People cost what they cost, and the total cost of all Army and Marine Corps personnel, base and OCO combined, is what it is. Even if someone takes issue with our categorization of those costs between the base and OCO budgets, our request to Congress is a comprehensive one that includes both base and OCO funds," Little said. "We are not hiding the costs, either in the base budget or the OCO side. The total size of the defense budget request is not affected by the categorization of these costs."
For military staffers on Capitol Hill, especially those gearing up to fight the troop cuts when Congress tackles the Pentagon budget, the administration is trying to have it both ways by playing games with the money and by shrinking the force in a way that can't easily be reversed.
"The real world requires a large force to meet insurgent threats on the ground -- the defense strategy only has room for a small force to deter neatly drawn challenges. The temporary answer seems to be to push the troops you need and the real conflict you are fighting off the books into OCO," one GOP congressional aide close to the issue said.
"Should the president decide to accelerate withdrawal from Afghanistan, there won't be room to pay for these troops in the base budget. Future presidents will pay for that folly in the years to come, but the troops who get shoved prematurely into the unemployment line will have to pay for it much sooner."
MUNICH - At Saturday's morning session of the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta clarified that NATO forces will not stop fighting in Afghanistan in 2013, but he confirmed that the U.S. hopes to hand over the combat lead to Afghan forces that year. Many European and NATO officials in the room were still a little miffed they had to learn about the strategy shift in the newspapers two days ago.
On the way to Brussels to attend the NATO defense ministers meeting Feb. 2, Panetta made news by saying that U.S. forces will transition out of a lead combat role next year. "Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013," Panetta said. "Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role."
On Saturday morning here in Munich, sitting beside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Panetta made the same announcement again, but this time with a bit more nuance.
"Our bottom line [in Afghanistan] is ‘in together, out together.' As an alliance, we are fully committed to the Lisbon framework and transitioning to Afghan control by 2014. Our discussions included considerations about how ISAF will move from the lead combat role to a support, advise, and assist role as Afghan security forces move into the lead," he said. "We hope Afghan forces will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan sometime in 2013. But of course ISAF will continue to be fully combat capable and we will engage in combat as necessary thereafter."
Prior to Panetta's statements this week, the only public milestone between now and the full transition of responsibility to Afghan forces at the end of 2014, as was announced at the Lisbon conference last year, was the Sept. 2012 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. surge forces, as announced by President Barack Obama last June.
Panetta's remarks this week place a new milestone in the middle of those two dates, by setting a public goal of handing over lead combat responsibility for the last geographical area in Afghanistan, known as Tranche 5, over a year before the full handover of responsibility is set to take place.
European officials here in Munich said they understood the reason for the new milestone, which is to give the Afghans some time to adjust to having the combat lead while NATO forces are still present in large enough numbers to help them out, especially if there are bumps along the road.
But several NATO and European officials were shocked and some were even a little miffed that Panetta had made a major change in the messaging over the Afghanistan war without giving them a heads up.
There are two different theories as to why Panetta decided to announce the 2013 milestone on the plane to Europe, before telling his NATO counterparts about it, despite that he was about to see them only hours later.
Some here in Munich think that Panetta simply spoke too fast and didn't mean to surprise his European colleagues. Others believe that Panetta wanted to announce the news on his own terms, rather than tell the Europeans and then have it leak out to the press, perhaps in an even less articulate way.
One high ranking European official told The Cable that his government was expecting such an announcement at the NATO summit in Chicago in May, not here in Europe in February.
"The feeling was, well we can't say the same thing in Chicago as we said in Lisbon," the official said, referring to the expected May announcement. "It was all carefully planned and now that plan is completely ruined."
European governments had told the Obama administration that announcing a new milestone for drawdowns in Afghanistan was politically difficult for them, but that they were willing to go along with it, albeit reluctantly.
"We said, ‘Okay, if Obama needs this politically, that's fine. But please consider the bad side effects for us. This is hard to explain to our constituencies," the European official said. "Before today we could still say the drawdown was conditions based. Now we can't make the argument that it's anything but politically motivated."
Panetta's main mission Saturday was to reassure European countries that the United States was not abandoning Europe despite the defense budget cuts in the U.S. and the American strategic pivot to Asia. He announced that a battalion sized U.S. military force would rotate to Europe as America's first concrete presence in the NATO Response Force.
"Our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other region in the world," he said.
In the question and answer session following his remarks, Panetta said that the Pentagon was not planning to implement the defense "trigger" set to go into effect in Jan. 2013, which would mandate $600 billion in additional defense cuts over the next ten years.
"Sequestration is a crazy formula," he said. "We're not paying attention to sequester. Sequester is crazy... If sequester happened, the strategy I just developed would have to be thrown out the window."
Top Obama administration officials briefed eight senior Senate leaders Tuesday on a pending deal to transfer as many as five Taliban prisoners from the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.
The Cable staked out the classified briefing in the basement of the Capitol building Tuesday afternoon. The eight senators who attended the briefing were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Intelligence Committee heads Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Senate Armed Services chiefs Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).
The identities of the administration briefers were not shared, but we were told it was a high-level interagency briefing team.
All of the senators refused to discuss the contents of the briefing as they exited the secure briefing room in the Senate Visitors' Center. But Levin and McCain both discussed the issue in question before entering the briefing, namely the administration's negotiations with the Taliban over transferring the Taliban prisoners into Qatari custody.
Levin told reporters Tuesday that the briefing was "about the ongoing Taliban reconciliation efforts." Levin is open to the idea of transferring Taliban members to Qatar, but said the devil was in the details.
"It depends on what assurances we have from the [Qatari] government that they are not going to be released," Levin said. "But I also think the Afghans have to be very much involved in any discussions and any process. They weren't for a while."
"We're not releasing them. As I understand it they will be imprisoned in Qatar," Levin continued. But can the Qataris be trusted to keep them behind bars? "That's the question," Levin said.
Levin said he didn't know what the United States was getting in exchange for transferring the prisoners to Qatar, where the Taliban are preparing to open an office. But he said the possible transfer was not a significant concession to the Taliban, provided the prisoners remain in custody. "If that's what [the Taliban] are getting, it's not much of a gain [for them], going from one prison to another."
McCain, talking to reporters before the briefing, lashed out at the idea that the prisoners would be moved to Qatar in a possible exchange for a Taliban statement renouncing international violence, as has been reported.
"The whole idea that they're going to ‘transfer' these detainees in exchange for a statement by the Taliban? It is really, really bizarre," McCain said. "This whole thing is highly questionable because the Taliban know we are leaving. I know many experts who would say they are rope-a-doping us."
McCain said that Congress probably can't stop the administration from going ahead with the transfer if that's what it decides.
"I don't think right now we can do anything about it, but these people were in positions of authority. One of them was responsible for deaths of several Americans," said McCain, referring to reports that the prisoners being considered for transfer include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister, Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan, and former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund.
Is McCain confident that the Qataris will keep the Taliban prisoners locked up? "No I am not. And the Taliban don't think so either, otherwise the Taliban wouldn't want them transferred," he said.
McCain said he was last briefed about the potential deal in December.
Some of the confusion about the negotiations was caused when the State Department's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman said on Jan. 22 that talks with the Taliban were a long way off and that no deal to transfer prisoners had been finalized. Grossman was in Kabul when he made the statements and he traveled to Qatar the next day.
On Jan. 28, several former members of the Taliban government said that talks with the United States had begun over the prisoner transfer. "Currently there are no peace talks going on," Maulavi Qalamuddin, the former minister of "vice and virtue" for the Taliban, told The New York Times. "The only thing is the negotiations over release of Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo, which is still under discussion between both sides in Qatar."
At Tuesday morning's open hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Chambliss pressed Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director David Petraeus, and National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Matthew Olsen to confirm that the Taliban under consideration for transfer were still viewed as too dangerous to release by the U.S. intelligence community.
"It appears from these reports that in exchange for transferring detainees who had been determined to be too dangerous to transfer by the administration's own Guantánamo review task force, we get little to nothing in return. Apparently, the Taliban will not have to stop fighting our troops and won't even have to stop bombing them with IEDs," Chambliss said. "I have also heard nothing from the IC[intelligence community] that suggests that the assessments on the threat posed by these detainees have changed. I want to state publicly as strongly as I can that we should not transfer these detainees from Guantánamo."
Clapper said he stood by the original intelligence community assessments, which concluded that the Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo were too dangerous to be released.
"I don't think anyone in the administration harbors any illusions about the potential here," said Clapper. "And of course, part and parcel of such a decision if it were finally made would be the actual determination of where these detainees might go and the conditions in which they would be controlled or surveilled."
Olsen, who led the review task force that evaluated the Guantanamo detainees in 2009, confirmed that the 5 prisoners being considered for transfer "were deemed too dangerous to release and who could not be prosecuted," but Olsen said he had not evaluated those five prisoners since then.
Petraeus said that his staff had been asked for a more recent evaluation of the five prisoners and that the CIA completed risk analyses based on different possible conditions for the Taliban prisoners' transfer.
"In fact, our analyst did provide assessments of the five and the risks presented by various scenarios by which they could be sent somewhere, not back to Afghanistan or Pakistan, and then based on the various mitigating measures that could be implemented, to ensure that they could not return to militant activity," Petraeus said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.