Bruce Fein Sullies the Debate on Our Role in Afghanistan

It doesn't save a single life or advance our goals in Afghanistan to go off half-cocked, without the facts, and blast those who are asking the tough questions -- and working to find answers.
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This week, Bruce Fein showed up here at HuffPost claiming John Kerry as Foreign Relations Committee Chairman hasn't fulfilled his obligation to provide oversight and watch over the war in Afghanistan.

Nothing could be farther from the truth -- or less constructive in addressing the most vexing American foreign policy issue today.

In fact, since becoming Chairman, Senator Kerry has vigorously exercised the Foreign Relations Committee's oversight role to ensure that our policy in Afghanistan best serves U.S. national security.

Not only did Chairman Kerry begin his term as Chairman by reviving the Committee's investigative role -- hiring a team of investigators, positions unfilled in previous years -- but since January 2009, the Committee has conducted fourteen oversight hearings to thoroughly examine and assess our strategy in Afghanistan, including the first congressional hearings on two critical issues related to the war -- reconciliation and the mission in Marja.

The Committee has also released two reports on Afghanistan examining the links between drug traffickers and insurgents and the failed capture of Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora and its implications for U.S. policy today.

Moreover, as Chairman, Senator Kerry has traveled to Afghanistan twice, including in the fall of 2009 when his hands-on, active diplomacy was credited with President Karzai agreeing to an election run-off at the eleventh hour -- and most recently this summer when he personally raised the visibility and focus on corruption issues.

Where was Bruce Fein during all of this?

Chairman Kerry meets frequently with senior officials in the Obama Administration, including President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary Clinton, and National Security Council staff to discuss our strategy in the region -- and has most recently been engaged in serious conversations with thinkers on the issue representing a range of views, in preparation for the Committee's next round of oversight hearings.

What's the effect of this comprehensive approach? During the Committee's oversight hearings, members asked senior administration officials and military leaders tough questions to help clarify the administration's goals. In an effort to hear the widest range of views, leading civilian and military experts as well as critics and supporters of the administration's policy were among the many witnesses who testified.

In April 2009, on the anniversary of Kerry's testimony on Vietnam nearly 40 years before, he held a hearing with Afghan war veterans both opposed to and in favor of the direction of our engagement in Afghanistan. The hearing gave these young veterans the opportunity to provide their views of the conflict, just as Kerry offered his perspective on Vietnam in 1971. As Senator Kerry himself wrote in Newsweek just last year

"Critics of the war in Afghanistan often remind me that in 1971, I asked the Foreign Relations Committee, 'How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?' Thirty-eight years later, chairing the Committee, I keep that question very much in mind.... With certainty, we all know why we invaded Afghanistan. There was no contrived Gulf of Tonkin rationale. It was not a mistake to go in. We now have to choose a smart way forward so that no one is compelled to ask whether we've made a mistake in staying. I pledged to myself long ago to be informed by Vietnam, not imprisoned by it. The easiest way to make a mistake is to tolerate a debate that sells our country short. Politics has reduced an extraordinarily complex country in an extraordinarily complex region and a difficult mission to a simple, headline-ready 'yes or no' on troop numbers. What we need instead is a comprehensive and realistic assessment of our strategy, military and civilian combined. One of the architects of the Vietnam war, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, confessed in a book decades later that he knew victory was no longer a possibility long before half the American lives were lost; what a horrific lesson that the time to voice concerns is now, not after mistakes are cemented with tragic results. Comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam are inevitable. By overdoing them, we risk oversimplifying the current conflict and distorting the historic one. It does a disservice to our troops to conflate Vietnam with Afghanistan, just as it did a disservice to those of us fighting in Vietnam to compare our experience to World War II."

And last fall, surrounding President Obama's strategy review, Kerry presided over a series of hearings in the same vein as Chairman Fulbright's series on Vietnam. These hearings debated the key assumptions driving the different policy options in Afghanistan, including the role of Pakistan in advancing stability in Afghanistan and the broader region. In October 2009, Kerry delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations detailing his policy prescriptions and outlining his concerns and questions about a potential surge. This year, Senator Kerry chaired several hearings, which included a focus on evaluating the civilian strategy in Afghanistan. Kerry has repeatedly stated that a robust civilian strategy is vitally important to making military gains sustainable.

In light of this record, Fein's assertion that Senator Kerry has committed a "constitutional dereliction" is not only wrong, but woefully unconstructive. Yes, Afghanistan is a complicated and serious challenge. There are no easy answers. But it doesn't save a single life or advance our goals to go off half-cocked, without the facts, and blast those who are asking the tough questions -- and working to find answers.

Frederick L. Jones II is the Communications Director for Chairman John Kerry in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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