Interview with Senator McCain in Afghanistan

Interview with Senator McCain in Afghanistan

By This Week - July 4, 2010

TAPPER: Good morning, and happy Fourth of July. This morning at a ceremony in Kabul, General David Petraeus formally took command of international forces in Afghanistan, including 93,000 American troops. Petraeus acknowledged gains made by the Taliban, but assured his audience that the U.S. was in the nearly 9-year-old war to win.

Joining me this morning from Kabul, Senator John McCain. He's leading a congressional delegation to Afghanistan.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

MCCAIN: Thank you. Good to be with you.

TAPPER: Senator, General Petraeus assumed command in Afghanistan earlier today, and here's how he defined what he called a critical moment in this fight.


PETRAEUS: We're engaged in a contest of wills. Our enemies are doing all that they can to undermine the confidence of the Afghan people. In so doing, they are killing and maiming innocent civilians on a daily basis. No tactic is beneath the insurgents.


TAPPER: Senator, I think a lot of Americans are wondering why, after nine years of war, the Taliban has the momentum in this fight.

MCCAIN: Well, I'm not sure that the Taliban have the momentum right now, Jake. The Taliban obviously are entrenched in places in parts of, actually, the outskirts of Kandahar. There's areas where they are still in control. There has been some progress. It's been hard-fought and with great sacrifice.

But there's no doubt that we spent a lot of time, effort, American blood and treasure on Iraq. And now is the time for us to continue this mission and complete it successfully in Afghanistan.

TAPPER: There are currently 93,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, plus 43,000 NATO troops. You've said we need more troops because it's unlikely that NATO will be able to fill its obligation, its pledge of 10,000 additional troops. Should President Obama tell the Pentagon to send even more U.S. troops than he has already ordered?

MCCAIN: There will be an evaluation, an assessment made in December. I think at that time, we will have a much better idea as to how the mission is -- is progressing and whether we need more troops and whether our NATO allies have fulfilled their commitment.

But what I worry about more than anything else is the -- the July of 2011 firm date, which the president has not -- certainly has not been positive as far as our commitment is concerned. In other words, we need a conditions-based situation, not a date for withdrawal.

A statement like, "We're not going to turn out the lights in the middle of 2011," is indecipherable and certainly sounds an uncertain trumpet. So I'm more concerned about the perception of our friends and our enemies, as well as the people in Afghanistan, as to the depth of our commitment. Our commitment must be: We will succeed, and then we will withdraw.

TAPPER: Let's talk about that uncertain trumpet that -- that you mentioned. What did the Bush trumpet sound like? There was an unlimited commitment of U.S. troops for an unlimited amount of time there, and that didn't seem to be effective, and yet you're criticizing this July 2011 deadline, which would be the beginning of a transition period. What did the previous strategy trumpet sound like?

MCCAIN: Well, the previous strategy was failing, and I said that it was failing, and disagreed with our then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, as well as the president. Then we initiated a surge with General Petraeus in charge, and we succeeded.

I just came from Baghdad. I went downtown with my two colleagues to a bakery and to a store. The success there is remarkable. There are still problems, but the success in remarkable.

But we didn't say that we were leaving until we had succeeded. I'm all for dates for withdrawal, but that's after the strategy succeeds, not before. That's a dramatic difference.

And I can tell you for sure, our people in the region are not sure about whether we are going to be here after the middle of 2011, whether we have succeeded or not. And it's clear that this strategy has not gone as well as we had hoped, so that right away brings into question the middle of 2011.

TAPPER: General Petraeus was asked about this July 2011 deadline in his Senate confirmation hearings this week. Here's what he had to say.


PETRAEUS: Let me be very clear, if I could, Senator. And not only did I say that I supported it, I said that I agreed with it. I saw this most importantly as the message of urgency to complement the message of enormous additional commitment.


TAPPER: So General Petraeus said that he not only supports it, he agrees with it, that it's a message of urgency to the Afghan government. Is General Petraeus wrong?

MCCAIN: General Petraeus has repeatedly said that it also has to be condition-based. In other words, it's the president that leads. The president should state unequivocally that we will leave when we have succeeded. And to somehow put that burden on General Petraeus is not appropriate. He is the military leader.

But the fact is that, if you say that you are setting a date certain for leaving as his key advisers have, including, I think, one on your show that said that we were -- that it is a, quote, "firm date," his spokesperson said it's, quote, "etched in stone and he has the chisel," and other statements by his civilian advisers have undermined the belief that we will have a conditions-based withdrawal.

So I know enough about warfare. I know enough about what strategy and tactics are about. If you tell the enemy that you're leaving on a date certain, unequivocally, then that enemy will wait until you leave.

TAPPER: Well, let's talk about the civilian leadership that -- that you just mentioned. You seem to have been critical of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Special Representative Richard Holbrooke. Do you think Eikenberry should be replaced?

MCCAIN: I hope that -- that the ambassador and General Petraeus can work together. I think that assessment needs to be made. Obviously, the past relationships have not worked out as well as -- as they should have, but I think an assessment ought to be made as to all of those relationships, and we have to have the best team in place.

The ideal team, of course, was Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus in Iraq. Let's hope we can establish that same kind of relationship here in Afghanistan.

TAPPER: Almost a year ago, in August 2009, you were on this program and you and George Stephanopoulos had this exchange about the progress you said you were confident we would see in Afghanistan within 12 to 18 months.


STEPHANOPOULOS: You say 12 to 18 months. What do we need to see in 12 to 18 months to make sure the public and the Congress stay behind this war?

MCCAIN: I think you need to see a reversal of these very alarming and disturbing trends on attacks, casualties, areas of the country that the Taliban has increased control of. In other words, you need to see all of those things reversed and on a significant downward slope, and I think we can do that.


TAPPER: Senator, do you think that we're going to see a reversal of those trends in the next seven months?

MCCAIN: Well, I hope so. And as I said then, that it -- it needs to happen. As I said earlier in response to your questions, it hasn't gone as well as we had hoped. There has been some success, although it's been bought at great cost in Marjah and other places. And we need to succeed here. We cannot afford to lose. There will be catastrophic effects in the region, as well as a return of the Taliban and Al Qaida.

And the people of -- of Afghanistan do not want the Taliban back. So it -- I would remind you that the situation in Iraq, before we started that surge, was far worse than the conditions here in Afghanistan.

I'm a bit disappointed we haven't seen more progress, but I still believe we can succeed.

TAPPER: Senator, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, was recorded in recent days privately telling Republican candidates the following about Afghanistan. Quote, "Keep in mind, again, federal candidates, this was a war of Obama's choosing. This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in. If Obama is such a student of history, has he not understood that you know that's the one thing you don't do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan, all right, because everyone who has tried over 1,000 years of history has failed," unquote.

Republicans such as Congressman Tom Cole, William Kristol, Liz Cheney have -- have said that Michael Steele needs to resign because of those comments. Do you think a chairman of the Republican National Committee can be effective if he thinks that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, as Steele seems to think?

MCCAIN: I think those statements are wildly inaccurate, and there's no excuse for them. Chairman Steele sent me an e-mail saying that he was -- his remarks were misconstrued.

Look, I'm a Ronald Reagan Republican. I believe we have to win here. I believe in freedom. But the fact is that I think that Mr. Steele is going to have to assess as to whether he can still lead the Republican Party as chairman of the Republican National Committee and make an appropriate decision.

TAPPER: Senator, just one last question on Afghanistan, and then I want to move on to Iraq. This week, a key House subcommittee blocked $4 billion in non-military and non-humanitarian aid for Afghanistan because of concerns of rampant corruption in Afghanistan, including Karzai allies having investigations into their behavior -- into their activities being blocked. General Petraeus met with Karzai yesterday, and Karzai called these concerns "baseless."

Do you support blocking these funds until the U.S. is more confident the money is not being stolen?

MCCAIN: I think we need to go ahead and spend the money, but corruption is a problem here in Afghanistan, and it's a serious one, and it begins with the policemen on the beat, and that's why we're beginning to have our military police partner with the police in places like Kandahar. And there has to be a lot of work to be done.

There has been some small progress, but a lot more has to be done, but I do not believe that it would -- we would succeed in motivating the government to crack down on corruption if we cut off the funds. But I also acknowledge it's a serious problem.

TAPPER: You were also in Iraq over the last few days where you met with local officials. The inconclusive election there has increased tensions and raised questions about President Obama's plan to end combat operations at the end of August. Is that deadline still wise, given the lack of a government right now?

MCCAIN: The deadline is still wise. And thanks to the security situation, it can be met. We will be withdrawing an additional 28,000 troops between now and the end of August.

We had an inconclusive election in the year 2000, as well, and it took us some time to sort it out. I think maybe we could look at the glass being half-full in that it was a competitive election and one that there was wide participation, something that doesn't happen a lot in this part of the world.

TAPPER: I want to turn to...

MCCAIN: And I think they'll work it out.

TAPPER: I want to turn to some domestic issues, as long as I have you. President Obama delivered a speech on immigration reform this week. He mentioned you at one point. Here's part of that speech.


OBAMA: Under the leadership of Senator Kennedy and Senator John McCain, we worked across the aisle to help pass a bipartisan bill through the Senate. And now, under the pressures of partisanship and election year politics, many of the 11 Republican senators who voted for reform in the past have now backed away from their previous support.


TAPPER: Senator, that's you he's talking about. Why have you backed away from comprehensive immigration reform, which you spoke so passionately about in 2006 and 2007?

MCCAIN: First of all, let me -- and I -- I don't enjoy bringing this up, but the fact is, then-Senator Obama supported amendments which would have gutted the proposal that we had before the United States Senate, which he said he would propose, an amendment that basically gutted the temporary -- legal temporary worker program.

But setting that aside, I invite the president to come -- Jon Kyl and I invite the president to come to the Arizona-Sonora border. The violence is incredibly high. The human smuggling and drug cartels are at a level of violence where 25,000 -- 23,000 Mexican citizens have been murdered in the last few years, 5,000 already this year. There's a level of violence which has increased to a significant degree, which makes the situation far different than it was in 2007.

We have to secure our borders. When the -- when the -- when our government has to put up signs in the southern part of our state that warns people that they are in a human smuggling and drug smuggling area and they have to be careful and are warned, then our border is not secure and our citizens are not safe.

We can get the border secure. Jon Kyl and I have a 10-point plan. We can get it secure, and then we can move on with comprehensive immigration reform.

But I invite the president to come to the border, and he can see for himself the absolute necessity of getting our border secure before more violence spills over onto our side of the border, as this existential struggle takes place between the Mexican government and the drug cartels and the human smugglers, who are now working hand in glove.

TAPPER: I only have a couple more questions, Senator. I know your time is valuable. Just to follow up on that, in 2007, you were quoted as follows by Vanity Fair. "McCain had been asked how debate over the immigration bill was playing politically. 'In the short term, it probably galvanizes our base,' he said, 'In the long term, if you alienate the Hispanics, you'll pay a heavy price.' Then he added, unable to help himself, 'By the way, I think the fence is least effective, but I'll build the goddamned fence if they want it.'"

You've long been critical of then-Senator Obama for pandering to unions during the 2007 immigration reform debate. You just talked about it a second ago. And -- and you're right. He did vote for amendments that threatened to unravel the coalition.

But how is what you're doing now any different, except you're pandering to the other side?

MCCAIN: Because, as I said before, the level of violence on the border, the human smuggling, the fact that Phoenix, Arizona, is the number-two kidnapping capital of the world, according to media reports, the fact that a recent -- a ring recently was broken up that brought people across our border to Phoenix, Arizona, where people were -- drugs were distributed all over the country, as well as people, means that the situation has changed dramatically.

That's why I asked the president to come to the border. It is not the same as it was in 2007. And the people deserve not to have our ranchers murdered, not to have a deputy shot by a drug smuggler with an AK-47 in Pinal County. The situation has dramatically changed, and the statistics absolutely back that up.

TAPPER: All right. Finally, Senator, Senator Republican Leader Mitch McConnell just announced in the last few days that he will vote against Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination, if her nomination does get to the floor of the Senate. Have you made a decision about how you will vote?

MCCAIN: Not quite, but I intend to decide this coming week, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Senator John McCain, thanks so much. Safe travels, and thanks for joining us.


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