Voices of Power: Sen. Carl Levin

Interview by Lois Romano
Thursday, December 10, 2009 5:49 AM

LOIS ROMANO: Welcome, Senate Carl Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Thank you for joining us today.

SENATOR LEVIN: Lois, good to be with you.

MS. ROMANO: President Obama has announced a surge in Afghanistan, an escalation. What is your major concern about the plan as offered?

SENATOR LEVIN: The surge that is needed is a surge of Afghan troops and a surge of Afghan honest government and Afghan economic development. So, I believe that the most important that can happen in terms of Afghan security is for Afghan troops to be added at a much faster pace, to be trained at a much faster pace, to be partnered much more quickly with us because there's a huge advantage to having Afghans hold their own territory after it's cleared of Taliban rather than to have American forces there.

So I would not have added at this time American combat troops. I would have put in any additional trainers that we need for the basic training. We already have more than enough combat troops there in terms of partnering with Afghan units. We have many too few Afghans in the fight. That's the bottom line, and there need to be many more in the fight, both in terms of training but also in terms of acceptance by the Afghan population.

MS. ROMANO: Does the plan account heavily for training or not enough for you?

SENATOR LEVIN: There's not enough Afghan troops to be trained.


SENATOR LEVIN: That we do need more trainers, apparently. And I believe after talking to General McChrystal that there'll be--about 3,000 of those 30,000 will be what we call "trainers," which will be sort of the basic training before they go in the field.

But the real partnering, which is essential, which is the sort of the on-the-job training instead of the basic training, that requires partnering between our units and Afghan units, and there's just too few Afghan units to be partnered with, unlike the Australians and the British, who insist that they have Afghan units training with their units, unit for unit, and that that is their mission, to partner with and train the Afghans. And we have proceeded with ratios that are, in Helmand Province, as little as one American--excuse me, one Afghan for five Americans. That should be reversed, I think.

MS. ROMANO: Afghan President Karzai said this morning that it will be at least five years before they can secure themselves and be self-sufficient and as much as 15 to 20 years. How does that mesh with our 18-month plan?

SENATOR LEVIN: It doesn't mesh with what Secretary Gates has even said, which would be that we'll be there several years. We're not removing all of our troops in July of 2011. We'll begin to reduce the number of American troops, according to the President's decision. But the pace of that reduction and where they will be reduced is going to be "conditions-based." But what Secretary Gates said is that it'll be several years that we'll be there and then he mentioned something like three or four or two, but five is more than what was Secretary Gates' understanding, and so I think there is still a failure on the part of the Afghan government to get the message that the responsibility for their security and their own well-being is in their hands. This is not open-ended, and the whole purpose of that July 2011 date to begin the reductions was to send a very clear, strong message to President Karzai from President Obama that this is not an open-ended commitment.

MS. ROMANO: How difficult is it for the Afghans to get--and to build up their troop levels?

. SENATOR LEVIN: There's a lot of desertion, too much; that has to be reduced, but there's no shortage of men who are willing to join. There's huge unemployment. The Taliban is not liked. The pay has now been doubled, so that it's being closer to what the Taliban pay. And so there is a--we've been told--no shortage of men willing to join the Afghan army.

MS. ROMANO: What do you want to know from General Stanley McChrystal, who wanted this surge, and Ambassador Eikenberry, who was not in favor of it? What do you hope to learn from them?

SENATOR LEVIN: Do they--particularly does General McChrystal support the President's decision. Now, he's going to say yes, he supports it, as he will, as--in the chain of command. But more importantly is the question to General McChrystal whether he personally supports it.

Now, that is a term of art, and when you ask a military man or woman do you personally agree or support a policy, they are required under the commitment they make to us when they're confirmed to give us their own personal opinion, even if it differs from the administration.

It's a specific question we ask upon confirmation of every single person who's confirmed in the military, civilian or uniformed. So, McChrystal is very well aware of that, and I know he has been asked that question already. He's been asked by me.

MS. ROMANO: Isn't this largely his plan, the way he envisioned it?

SENATOR LEVIN: There's some differences. I would say the numbers are different. The mission, I think, is more different--is more limited, somewhat more restricted. It's more of a putting the Taliban on the defensive rather than trying to defeat the Taliban, because there's a recognition that the Taliban are part of a fabric of Afghan society. The only people who can defeat that approach to living are the Afghan people, themselves.

MS. ROMANO: How quickly do we need to see some indicators to know if this surge is succeeding?

SENATOR LEVIN: I think we'll know in the next 6 months, when most of our troops get there, as to whether or not the Taliban are going to be in the fight or whether they're going to lie low as long as they can; and if they do lie low, that'll be a victory of sorts clearly for us. I mean, some people say, Well, aren't they just going to wait us out and lie low if there's a July 2011 date set? Well, that would be a blessing if they do that for 15 months or more, 18 months, because during that period, the Afghan army will be built up and hopefully the government become less corrupt and more efficient.

MS. ROMANO: In your view, what's an objective indicator of success?

SENATOR LEVIN: Whether or not the control of areas is in Afghan hands--Afghan government hands and our hands or whether or not this area--these areas of Taliban control remain in their effective control, and whether there are other indicators that the population sees their own government as their future rather than the Taliban.

And right now there's a shadow government. There's competition in a lot of areas in Afghanistan between the government and the Taliban shadow government, competition for the--excuse me--the loyalty of the Afghan people, and I think we'll know probably in the next--by the middle of 2010 whether or not that momentum is swinging towards the Afghan government.

MS. ROMANO: And what if things go really well and we're close and people come back to you and say, We just need one more surge in 2010 and we can get this thing"?

SENATOR LEVIN: I think the critical thing now is for the--everybody to understand, particularly Karzai, that the President has made a decision. Obviously, the President can change that decision. He can modify it in either direction. He can say we're coming out earlier than July of 2011, if he wants. Or he can say we're going to stay longer, or we're going to have additional troops. I mean, he can change his mind. That goes without saying.

But the key thing now, I believe, for success in Afghanistan is that the Afghan government understand that this is a limited number of troops and that they're there--they're going to begin to reduce their presence in July of 2011 and do not believe and do not assume that that date's going to change. That's an action-forcing mechanism on Karzai. So, to speculate that what if, what if, what if just means that he can feel less pressured, that would be a terrible mistake.

MS. ROMANO: You were against the war in Iraq and you were also against the surge. Is there a genuine difference between President Bush's surge in Iraq and President Obama's surge in Afghanistan?

SENATOR LEVIN: Well, the key difference is that President Bush's surge came after there was a form of reconciliation or reintegration of the Sunni elements that had not been reintegrated, that were putting up a fight, and there was a political decision made by tribal leaders to basically not side any longer with the opposition, with the insurgents. They switched sides. They joined us politically before the surge began. And so what the surge did was reinforce a critical political decision which had been made by tribal leaders to stop fighting, and that political decision has not yet been made to any extent in Afghanistan; that's the necessary reintegration, which has not yet occurred. So, this surge is occurring before the political decision by the tribal leaders to no longer support the Taliban and to throw their lot in with the central government.

MS. ROMANO: This is a very unpopular war in America, as all the polls are showing. What do you say [to] the American people why we need to be in this conflict at this time?

SENATOR LEVIN: Because it's in our security interest, I believe, that the Taliban not control Afghanistan. They have shown that they're willing to give haven to the people who killed us, who attacked us on 9/11 and will attack us again. And so that concern that the Al-Qaeda will again be given a safe haven in Afghanistan if the Taliban once again control Afghanistan it seems to me is a reasonable, real concern of ours. And so it is important that we succeed in Afghanistan, but the question is how do we succeed. Do we go at it like the British and the Australians go at it, in terms of training and partnering with the Afghan forces so that they can succeed? Or are we going to be continuing to take the lead, which opens us up to the Taliban attack that we're just an occupying power or dominating instead of we are partnering with the Afghans to control their own destiny.

When I was down in Helmand Province maybe 6 months ago now, we met with the elders in a village, called a "Shura." They happened to be meeting that day, so met with them. And the question we asked them was, Well, do you want us here? This was down in the Pashtun area, where they've never been friendly to foreigners. And their answer was: only to partner and train our troops and then we want you to leave. That is, I think, a lesson that we should follow and that's the path we should follow. It's what the British forces are doing, it's what the Australian forces are doing, and we should do the same.

00:16:03MS. ROMANO: So, are you going to support this plan?

SENATOR LEVIN: Well, I will support the troops.


SENATOR LEVIN: I always supported the troops. Once the decision is made to send troops, I support them. Clearly, I think it's the right thing to do when we put men and women in harm's way. My views in terms of different approach were--

MS. ROMANO: Your personal views?

SENATOR LEVIN: Yah, and they're clear. And they're clear now and they were clear to the President that we should have focused this on partnering and training the Afghan forces and getting up--them up to the numbers and to the training where they can control their own security. That I think is the most successful path.

MS. ROMANO: Secretary Gates said today on the plane that there isn't even enough housing for our troops. are we sending troops a little too fast?

SENATOR LEVIN: Well, from my perspective, we shouldn't be sending additional combat forces at all. So, from that--because I think we ought to be focusing on the training and the partnering with the Afghan forces. So, from my perspective, we're sending them too fast for that reason.

In terms of whether there's housing available and Secretary Gates says there's inadequate housing, I'll rely on his assessment.

MS. ROMANO: Let me ask you one final political question. President Obama campaigned against both wars, yet here we are still in both conflicts and a lot of the base is very upset; supporters are upset. How concerned are you about the mid-term elections?

SENATOR LEVIN: Well, the main concern I have would be an economy where I think people may just be so unhappy with that they'll turn to people who are not in office who may promise them something. Excuse me.

President Obama inherited a terrible economy, a recession, and I think he's taken the right steps to turn it around. But whether or not those seeds that have been planted will bear fruit by the November elections is impossible to predict. But if the unemployment rates stay where they are, people will--many people will either be turned off and not vote out of just frustration or anger, or they may turn to alternatives that they would not turn to if times were better or if they see a clear upswing.

© 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive