Kerry Sort Of Steps Up On Afghanistan

Last week, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) seemed to be stepping up to cast doubt on the Afghan strategy. He told the Boston Globe that U.S. policy in Afghanistan should not be allowed to “continue […] simply because it is there and in place.” Kerry pledged to hold hearings reviewing the strategy in the spring. CAP’s Colin Cookman noted that this provides an opportunity to challenge assumptions that “went largely unchallenged in the White House’s own review released last December.”

Kerry’s comments were interpreted by the Globe as a sign that the Massachusetts Senator would become an outspoken critic of the policy. Kerry, however backtracked and moderated his comments, insisting he just wanted to “tweak” the policy.

That’s a shame. The absence of a strong voice from progressive political leaders has weakened the hand of those advocating for a more aggressive timeline for withdrawal within the administration. The Afghan war is crying out for a voice like Kerry’s to call for a draw-down of our military forces. Kerry has an opportunity to play the role that the late Congressman Jack Murtha played on Iraq. While the two are very different, the fact is that Kerry’s closeness with the administration would make his public calls for withdrawal from Afghanistan a huge deal.

Currently Democrats on the Hill have fallen in line behind the President’s policy. That was understandable. But as the accounts from Bob Woodward’s book indicate, the administration is itself deeply divided on what to do and has often muddled through in formulating its policy. This is where Kerry could play a hugely important role. By arguing for a more rapid transition and draw-down of US forces, Kerry would increase the credibility of the withdrawal position and create cover for other progressive political leaders to become more outspoken in their opposition to endlessly staying in Afghanistan.

The administration may feel it is stuck. Having laid out the strategy, it doesn’t want to admit failure. But the war is incredibly unpopular with the American people. The clear difficulties being encountered in Afghanistan and the unlikelihood that the current approach will yield any results led to a slew of think tank reports this fall. The National Security Network surmised:

A consensus has quietly emerged among experts across the centrist-realist-progressive spectrum on a way forward in Afghanistan… This fall, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for American Progress, the Afghanistan Study Group and the Center for a New American Security all issued reports on Afghanistan that — perhaps surprisingly — largely agreed [that] … A military drawdown must begin in 2011, moving faster, not slower, if progress is lacking.

Kerry and Congressional leaders can help unstuck the debate and force a realistic hard-nosed assessment of the current course in Afghanistan. As Cookman points out:

Congressional leaders have a responsibility to the American public and the Afghan people to bring new scrutiny to our Afghan strategy if the transition is to develop into something more meaningful than an ever-shifting date continuously put off into the future.