In an interview in his photo-filled inner sanctum in the Capitol, Sen. John Kerry is careful, reflective in his statements, and usually PC. But suddenly, he becomes surprisingly candid. We are talking about one of the most contentious issues facing the country today: Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation to send an additional 40,000 troops to help quell the insurgency in Afghanistan. Although Kerry views the general as “a great warrior and a top soldier,” he is quick to point out that McChrystal’s purview is limited in both command and scope.
The senator seems to suggest the general is sidelined because he is not involved in the big picture of the war. “He’s got a specific task—commander of the International Security Afghan Forces—and he does not go beyond that,” said Kerry. “His responsibility is to view and win his theater, and he's looking at that, which why there’s not a lot of mention of Pakistan.”
Members of his entourage have noticed a change in their boss. Many believe Kerry has come into his own as a high-powered diplomatic negotiator, has exorcized the ghosts of the past and finally found his niche.
But isn’t Pakistan the crux of the whole situation?
“Exactly the point,” Kerry responds. "The president's job is to view all of the theaters, particularly the Pakistan impact.”
Such directness isn’t typical for the senator. But after a few minutes with him, you notice the stiffness and formality are gone. He seems confident in his roles as the new senior senator from Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And since his recent headline-making foray to Pakistan and Afghanistan, even members of his entourage have noticed a change in their boss. Many believe Kerry has come into his own as a high-powered diplomatic negotiator, has exorcized the ghosts of the past and finally found his niche. “He’s not bound by protocol or any large bureaucracy,” says one observer. “He’s really free and able to move around the world.”
Sliding into a colorfully upholstered wing chair, Kerry, in shirtsleeves, sits back, one arm casually draped over the side of the chair, and puts a positive spin on the chaotic situation in Afghanistan. The U.S. is at "a moment of opportunity,” he says. “Hamid Karzai has won a term and the ability to win a new legitimacy, and it’s very important for him to take steps to do that.’’ What’s crucial for Karzai, Kerry says, is to “step up, put the right people in positions, remove those who need to be removed, go after the corruption, and change the governance. Karzai has the ability to be a good partner if he commits to that path.”
When questioned about reports that he forged a close bond with Karzai while special envoy Richard Holbrooke did not—and in fact were at each other's throats—Kerry demurs. “I'm not going to comment. I don't want to suggest that Holbrooke didn't [forge a bond]. Don't believe everything you read,” he advises, explaining that his relationship with the beleaguered Afghan leader goes back many years. “We have a good rapport, we’ve known each other in previous visits, and worked on these issues,” Kerry says of Karzai. “We have a mutual respect and the ability to deal. I’m not saying that as any comment on anybody else. I don’t think it’s appropriate. Dick Holbrooke put a good team together. He’s done a lot of good stuff, and some people in Washington are picking on him.”
Kerry also downplays the rumors that swirl around National Security Adviser Jim Jones—that he's on his way out. "Not to my knowledge," says Kerry. "I've heard the Washington chitchat, people who speculate. I don't speculate or get into that. He was there when I met with the president when I came back from Afghanistan. I think he's doing a terrific job. I like him, have confidence in him and am confident the president does, too.”
He will not divulge his advice to Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan, calling it “private,” but allows that he is has some concerns about the Afghans’ readiness for self-governance. “We have to be very, very careful and very thoughtful about putting all the legs of the counterinsurgency in place,” Kerry says. “I have total confidence in the ability of our troops to do their job. I do not have confidence, at this point, that we have the governance, development, or civilian legs sufficiently in place.”
His main concern: Troops could accomplish their mission and be left holding the bag when the others fail to show up. He defends President Obama’s caution on the issue: “I don't think his taking this extra time is costing the United States strategic value, I think it's enhancing that value. So I'm all for him being deliberative, thoughtful.”
Kerry remains wary of analogies to Vietnam and his own battlefield experience. “One of the things I've been very careful to try to do is to not allow Vietnam to dominate my analysis, or to be so front-and-center. I don't want to lose track of the lessons, but not all the ones are applicable and not every situation is the same, not every war is the same. The fact is that Afghanistan is not Vietnam, in the whole. Are there some similarities? Sure.”
“People walking around with guns and big vehicles, in another country, with another religion, another language, another culture, another history, in a far-off land. But there are also enormous differences. Afghanistan is much more complicated, and the place from which the greatest attack against the U.S. since Pearl Harbor was launched. The fact is that we knew and understood the threat of al Qaeda that came out of Afghanistan, and the country unanimously decided we’re going to go and stop those guys from doing that to us again. That’s legit.”
Legit, but where’s the win?
“We're not there to do what the Soviets or Alexander the Great did, or the Brits; they know that. The Afghans don’t hate us—yet. We have to be very, very careful about that. They do hate the Taliban. But the problem is you’ve got to change people's lives for the better.” Improved intelligence and law enforcement are crucial to Kerry’s plan. “The military piece is an important component, but you’ve got to have the knowledge.”
He rejects the notion that Democrats will be perceived as weak if they start to withdraw, or if Obama fails to fulfill McChrystal’s request for more boots on the ground. “Categorically, unequivocally, one of the lessons is: Do not put a party label, or insert any party considerations into the issue of war and peace. I think that happened a few years ago, when we were told Dick Cheney was planning to use the war for political purposes, et cetera. If there's any lesson from all of that, it is: Don't, don't. You have to have a strategy of standing up for America’s interests and make decisions based on realities, not political cover.”
As his “body man,” Jason, comes in with a note, Kerry nods and unwinds his lanky fame from the chair. Saying goodbye and heading for the door he admits, “I'm very lucky, you know—chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, at a point in my life where I know who I am, I know what I believe, I know what I care about, and I'm very happy. It would be a tragedy if I sat here and thought this isn't a great opportunity to get things done.”
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Washington Post, Time and Forbes.