Interview with Senator Lieberman in Afghanistan

Interview with Senator Lieberman in Afghanistan

By Fox News Sunday - July 4, 2010

MAJOR GARRETT, GUEST HOST: Joining us now from Afghanistan, where he is taking a firsthand look at the war, is Connecticut independent senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

Senator Lieberman, welcome to "Fox News Sunday."

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN, I-CONN.: Happy 4th of July, Major, to you and everyone back home.

GARRETT: Thanks so much, Senator. You just met with General David Petraeus. What new did he tell you about the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan?

And specifically, did he tell you whether or not he's going to loosen the rules of engagement, meaning is he going to allow U.S. forces to attack unseen Taliban fighters? And did he pledge to not only work with but retain diplomats Karl Eikenberry and Richard Holbrooke?

LIEBERMAN: Well, we didn't really - Ambassador Eikenberry was in the meeting. We didn't talk about civil-military relations at this point, except that General Petraeus talked about how committed he was to a unity of effort among Americans here in Kabul.

But on the question of the rules of engagement, I did raise that question. It's a term of art, but what it basically means is what are the circumstances in which American troops under fire can call in fire on their behalf, particularly, air power.

And you know, we're in a counterinsurgency here. We're trying to gain the support of the Afghan people against the Taliban. And therefore, when there are civilian casualties, that hurts the cause.

But ultimately, we've got to be concerned about the safety of our American troops here. And there definitely have been cases that we've heard anecdotally from some of our troops where they've been in a situation, in a firefight, where it's taken much too long for them to get air power support, and we can't let that happen and endanger their lives.

General Petraeus said that he was committed to reviewing the rules of engagement. I'm here with Senator McCain and Senator Graham, and we encouraged him to do that and, obviously, to emphasize the safety of the Americans who are over here fighting for our freedom.

Incidentally, we came on July 4th to thank our soldiers here for what they're doing on Independence Day to fight for our freedom against Islamist extremist terrorists who are threatening it today. And also, if I may, through you, Major, thank the families of our troops back home for all the support they give in this cause.

GARRETT: Senator, what's the time line for General Petraeus' decision on reviewing the rules of engagement? And speaking of time lines, where are we on the time line for troop withdrawals next year?

The president's new phrase is "a transition phase." What does that mean? And do you want U.S. forces, the surge forces, to start leaving July of next year, or do you want them to stay longer and fight longer?

LIEBERMAN: On the first question, Major, I'd say that General Petraeus' review of the rules of engagement will occur as soon as possible. He didn't give us a deadline.

But I think that the current rules of engagement, at least as our troops have felt they've been interpreted, have hurt morale here among American military. And so I hope he changes those rules, clarifies them as quickly as possible.

Secondly, with regard to the date of July 2011, which President Obama said was the date by which he would begin withdrawing troops, I understand why President Obama said that when he committed to Afghanistan and winning in Afghanistan last December. I think he did it so the Afghans wouldn't think we'd stay here forever.

But on balance, I think it was a mistake, because it sent a message to the Afghans, to the Taliban, to people in the neighborhood we're going to leave regardless. And that's not the fact. General Petraeus has clarified that. The president has come some distance now in the last couple of weeks and clarified that.

Whatever we do in July of 2011 will be based on conditions on the ground at the time because, you know, the president made the right decision last December that America has a vital national security interest on the line here in Afghanistan. We've got to win it. And therefore, you don't - - you don't put that on a time line.

Of course, we'd all love to bring our troops home as soon as possible. But if conditions don't allow it next July, I don't think it's going to happen. And I don't think General Petraeus will let it happen.

I said to General Petraeus today, "Don't hesitate, please, to make the case to the commander in chief, to Congress, if you feel it's justified that you actually need more troops, more American troops, here in the short run so that we can win here and not stretch this out over the long run."

I say one final word about this, Major. When President Karzai was in Washington a month or so ago, I met with him, and he and I had a very good talk about this deadline. And I think what the Afghans are looking for is an understanding not just about what happens next year but what happens after the war is won.

And I think we ought to enter into negotiations with Afghanistan for a neutral security commitment and agreement such as we have with Japan, or South Korea, or Australia or New Zealand, to basically say, "After this war is over, your security and the stability of this region - Iran, Pakistan next door - we're committed to you for the long run, not with 100,000 troops here, but we're going to give you our commitment we're going to stick with you."

GARRETT: Senator Lieberman, you mentioned Congress. There were three votes were held in the House this week all about Afghan withdrawal components. All of them failed. But 162 members of the House voted for not only making the July 2011 time line ironclad but also following up with an actual plan to remove all U.S. forces.

What do the three votes, especially the last one I mentioned, tell you about what Democrats think and are willing to do to continue to fund and support the Afghan war effort?

LIEBERMAN: Well, I found those votes troubling. Of course, people have a right to their opinion, but President Obama conducted a lengthy review of our policy in Afghanistan as initiated by President Bush, who brought us in here to throw out the Taliban that gave a safe haven to Al Qaida that attacked America on 9/11 and began this war we're in.

President Obama decided after that review that he was going to continue this policy and that he was committed to winning here. He's a Democratic president, and I hope some of the Democrats in the House and Senate will stand by him.

I must say in the unfortunate statements that Michael Steele, the Republican national chairman, made today, which were certainly interpreted as calling this Obama's war and suggesting that we get out - although I know he clarified that, the reaction from some of the leading Republican spokespeople to me was very heartening, which is, "No, we've got to win in Afghanistan. It's important to America's security and freedom."

If we lose here, if we pull out, it's going to energize those radical Islamist extremist groups, those terrorist groups, all around the world. And it'll be a tremendous cut down in America's prestige and credibility in the world, and that ultimately is bad for the safety and freedom of the American people.

GARRETT: Picking up on Michael Steele's comments and your reaction, Senator, do you think they undermined the ability of the Republican Party to effectively join and continue to participate in this debate on Afghanistan?

LIEBERMAN: No, I think we had a kind of very positive boomerang effect here. There was such a strong reaction from Republican leaders to Michael Steele's comments, which, as I say, he retracted, that I think you now - I think the Republican Party gives me encouragement to believe that they're going to take the high road and not make a partisan political fight out of the war in Afghanistan or try to take advantage politically of a war that will get tough and will test our steadfastness.

So I'm encouraged today that the Republicans in Congress are going to do what's right for the country and not turn Afghanistan into another partisan political battleground. There's too much at stake to let that happen.

GARRETT: That would be a welcome, I guess, component of a midterm election season, always fraught with politics. Senator Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent. Thank you very much for joining us from Kabul, Afghanistan. And of course, Senator, happy 4th of July and safe travels.

LIEBERMAN: Thanks, Major. Happy 4th of July to you and all your viewers. God bless you.


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