Sen. John Kerry On Hamid Karzai's U.S. Visit
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Afghan president Hamid Karzai is in Washington, where the emphasis is on fence mending, positive talk about the future and a discreet silence about some of the discordant moments in recent U.S.-Afghan relations.
Secretary of State Clinton met with Karzai today and in a joint appearance she said this about long-term U.S. goals in Afghanistan: We will not abandon the Afghan people. Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future. And the Afghan leader thanked the U.S. for ousting the Taliban regime. And he said that he now receives an apology from U.S. commander General Stanley McChrystal whenever U.S. actions cause civilian casualties.
President Karzai will also meet with President Obama this week and with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry of Massachusetts, who joins us now. Welcome to the program, once again.
Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Thank you, glad to be with you.
SIEGEL: And as you know, there are doubts expressed about President Karzai ranging from vote stealing in the last election to allegations of his brother's corruption, to whether his government is capable of governing territories that are liberated. What's something that he can say or do on this trip that might address those doubts and make you more confident?
Sen. KERRY: Well, I think he is addressing those doubts on a consistent basis, at least lately. He's brought with him the top members of his cabinet, very significant group of people, all of whom are deeply involved in the current efforts to bring better civilian governance to Afghanistan and a better partnership to the United States' efforts.
I think that just being here and going through these discussions and having a meeting of the minds with respect to the agenda is helpful, though obviously the tough work is on the ground in Afghanistan and particularly in Kandahar. But I think this is a terrific opportunity to begin to clear the air, have an honest, candid discussion about the hurdles you have to get over and go on from there.
SIEGEL: Our correspondent in Afghanistan reported yesterday on her interview with a Taliban commander near Kandahar. And he told her that they get their weapons from shopkeepers who buy them from Afghan police officers. This doesn't sound very encouraging, what's going on on the ground.
Sen. KERRY: Well, the police situation in Afghanistan is probably the single worst link in the whole chain. We've known that for some time. There is no surprise about it at all. And I think there are a number of plans on the table right now to try to deal with the police situation. It has really been the most difficult, least productive of all of the efforts over there thus far.
SIEGEL: What do you make of President Karzai's statements and actions - for example, blaming us for Afghan election fraud or threatening to join the Taliban or inviting Iran's president, Ahmadinejad, to Kabul, things that have given rise to real doubts about his dependability.
Sen. KERRY: Well, you know, first of all, I disagree. Inviting Ahmadinejad to Afghanistan, he's your near neighbor - your immediate neighbor with an impact on what happens in Afghanistan. And the fact is that we had a partnership with Iran when we went into Afghanistan in the beginning.
You know, the Iranians were very helpful to us in helping to remove the Taliban and the Taliban are not friends of the Iranians. So the Iranians actually have an interest with respect to the outcome there. And I think it makes sense for him to talk to his neighbor. It'd make a lot of sense for us, frankly, to be able to talk to the Iranians more directly.
The fact is that Hamid Karzai does have a sense of what the possibilities are for a better relationship with us now. He was deeply, deeply concerned about Western involvement in the election. And so he drew his own conclusions from that. All of this is old, let me emphasize.
SIEGEL: But what you're saying then is that whatever pomp and protocol accompanies this visit, it's of substance. It's important to persuade President Karzai of the U.S.' full acceptance of him.
Sen. KERRY: Absolutely.
SIEGEL: As the president of Afghanistan.
Sen. KERRY: It is of substance for that reason. But, you know, it's important to remember that those complaints that he made referred back to the kinds of hurdles that I was working with him to get over a year ago when we went through the post-election period and he finally accepted the results. Those were really those arguments and he was referring back to them.
And I think that we're on a decent track now and I have hopes that the efforts that we make in Kandahar, the efforts that President Karzai makes with the peace jirga that is coming up at the end of May, and then a subsequent major summit in Kabul in the summer, all of these are major steps forward in trying to resolve the political differences of Afghanistan.
SIEGEL: But when you hear of, say, the great difficulties the Afghans have had in installing a functioning alternative to the Taliban, say in Helmand province after the Taliban had been pushed out by the Marines, is the lesson you take away from that that if only Karzai could get his act together, if only they could be cleaner about governance, they could do it? Or is Afghanistan simply just not up to the task of governing itself right now?
Sen. KERRY: I don't take either lesson. I don't believe that a central government run from Kabul is in the Afghan tradition, nor do I accept the notion that people aren't up to doing what they've done for hundreds of years without us. I'm convinced that if one empowers people locally to be able to resist against this intimidation campaign and terror campaign, and if they have the prospect of jobs and better life and some security, they'll take care of themselves.
But I think the long-term tradition of Afghanistan is not to have some kind of central government with a Kabul-recognized seat of power. And I don't see that as the solution for Afghanistan at all.
SIEGEL: Senator Kerry, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Sen. KERRY: Thank you.
SIEGEL: John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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