The Cable

Rick Perry clarifies: No speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan

Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry kicked up a firestorm inside the GOP when he seemed to endorse Jon Huntsman's call for a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan during this week's debate, but his real views on Afghanistan don't match those of Huntsman, the GOP hawks, or President Barack Obama, a senior Perry foreign policy advisor told The Cable.

"In the dynamic of a debate when you follow someone, you kind of play off of them, and what Gov. Perry wanted to do was to express a similar sentiment to Gov. Huntsman that he very much wants to bring the troops home, we all do, but he wasn't saying ‘I want to bring the troops home now,'" the advisor said.

Perry's stance on Afghanistan seems to be searching for a middle ground. Like the Obama administration, he wants to shift emphasis to handing over responsibility to the Afghan security forces as a means of bringing U.S. troops home. But also thinks Obama's announcement of a timetable for withdrawal was unwise -- and he's unsure whether the United States really needs 100,000 troops fighting there still.

"If increasingly the Afghans can do this kind of work, then of course we want to bring our people home. It's good for us, it's good for them. But Gov. Perry is not confident in the Obama policy, which seems to be driven largely by politics, and he's not confident in the 100,000 troops number. He'd like to know if it's possible at 40,000," the advisor said, explaining that the rationale for the specific number of U.S. troops on the ground has never been clearly explained by the administration.

"He would lean toward wanting to bring our troops home, but he understands that we have vital strategic interests in Afghanistan and that a precipitous withdrawal is not what he's recommending."

Perry's stance on Afghanistan isn't likely to fully satisfy those calling for a more rapid withdrawal, or those calling for the 30,000 U.S. "surge" troops to remain in the country past summer 2012, when Obama has said he plans to remove them.

"What [Perry] doesn't have is confidence that [the Afghan  campaign] is being done in a way that's focused on achieving the mission, which would be keeping Afghanistan free of terrorists and not destabilizing the region," the advisor said.

So how many troops does Perry believe should be withdrawn and at what pace?

"We're not in a position to answer that question, we're not in those briefings," the senior advisor said.

Perry also believes the United States should focus greater attention on how it uses foreign aid. He wants to "shine a really bright light on that whole culture of foreign aid and revisit how it is deployed as part of our larger foreign policy," the advisor said.

The advisor touted the fact that Perry is a former member of the military, and signaled that the presidential candidate is prepared to stick to his middle-of-the-road stance in Afghanistan.

"He has a clear sense of the mission and wanting to win it, but not just by throwing the kitchen sink at it," the advisor said.

Update: The Romney and Hunstman campaigns respond, accusing Perry of "flip-flop."

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The Cable

U.S.-Burma engagement picks up steam

The U.S. and Burmese governments are reengaging, both in Rangoon and in New York, as the State Department makes a new push to test the willingness of the Burmese military junta to reform.

Special Envoy Derek Mitchell is on his way home after a five day visit to Burma, where he met with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as well as a host of Burmese government officials, although not President Thein Sein. He called his talks with government officials a success in a press conference at the end of his trip.

"I consider this a very highly productive visit," said Mitchell, explaining that he had discussed the release of political prisoners but received no firm commitments from the Burmese government. He also met with Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and Labor Minister Aung Kyi.

"We had a very candid dialogue on the subject" of human rights violations, Mitchell said. "The issue of sanctions was not a primary point of discussion."

"I know that many within the international community remain skeptical about [the Burmese government's] commitment to genuine reform and reconciliation, and I urge the authorities to prove the skeptics wrong," Mitchell said.

Apparently, the dialogue was encouraging enough for the State Department to schedule another round of meetings with Burmese officials, this time in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly next week. Maung Lwin is set to meet with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Cambell, according to a U.S. official traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in San Francisco this week.

"There are clear winds of change blowing through Burma. We are trying to get a sense of how strong those winds are and whether it's possible to substantially improve our relationship," the official said.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), one of only two U.S. senators to visit Burma, is also renewing his push for more interactions with the Burmese government. He argued in a recent statement that, despite the severely flawed elections in Burma that took place last November, positive change was occurring on the ground.

"The election resulted in a new governmental system and opportunities for engagement. Burma is now in the midst of a key transitional period that has yielded greater opportunities for interaction with government leaders and civil society, and restructuring of government and military institutions," said Webb.

The Senate is actually considering a bill this week to reauthorize sanctions on Burma. However, Senate Democrats decided to try to attach $6.8 billion in emergency disaster aid to that bill, which provoked resistance from the GOP, so its path in Congress is now caught up in the fight over the relief funds - despite the fact that neither party has any objection to the renewal of sanctions.

Webb said the bill should be passed but noted that it allows the president to waive specific sanctions if and when he feels it's in the U.S. national interest.

"There are clear indications of a new openness from the government, and the United States should be prepared to adjust our policy toward Burma accordingly," Webb said.