Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, states that the situation in Afghanistan is "deteriorating" ... and signs of this decline have been showing up more and more clearly. Despite the massive military operation in Afghanistan's Helmand province and a heavy military presence throughout the nation, violence continues to increase. Just yesterday, a suicide bomber east of Kabul, in Laghman province, killed a top intelligence officer and 23 others.
While U.S., Afghan and NATO coalition forces continue fighting Taliban members, the difficulties have led American military commanders in Afghanistan to make a case for more troops. But Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) sits on the Senate's Foreign Services and Intelligence Committees and has been calling for the opposite – and he's not alone. There are calls from both the left and the right to start making plans to reduce the boots on the ground.
"I am making sure I get inoculated from all illnesses by going to town meetings."
—Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisc) on how he is preparing for a resurgence of H1N1
John Hockenberry for The Takeaway: We are thrilled to welcome the junior senator from Wisconsin. Senator Russ Feingold joins us, Democratic senator from Wisconsin. Senator, thanks for being with us.
Sen. Russ Feingold: Good morning. It’s my pleasure.John Hockenberry: Would you take that message from the Taliban as a sign, as some have said, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mike Mullen, that the situation is deteriorating in Afghanistan?
Sen. Russ Feingold: I don’t take any messages from the Taliban and I don’t think that anybody else from America should. That’s not our concern. Our concern is how do we stop al Qaeda and whether or not what we are doing in Afghanistan by increasing troops is helping our attempt to stop al Qaeda or is it making it harder? My view is constantly building up troops makes it harder to get the confidence of the Afghan people and it probably helps elements of the Taliban that are interested in harming us as well.
John Hockenberry: You know, al Qaeda seems to be gone from the administration’s talk about Afghanistan. There’s lots of talk about the Taliban and the President even referred to this war as a war of necessity. Would you agree with him on that?
Sen. Russ Feingold: Well, I want to be fair to the administration. I don’t think they’ve dropped talking about al Qaeda in Afghanistan. There is of course a relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban given the events of 9/11 — obviously the connections that continue in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. So we can’t kid ourselves on that. But I am worried that just as the president did the right thing, when he came into office and started talking about the region and Pakistan, and looking at the broader question, he did place the emphasis on al Qaeda. I don’t think the huge troop build up that he is doing — and it will apparently get worse in Afghanistan — makes it easier. I even think, and I’ve had this confirmed by a number of people, there’s a very good chance that what we are doing is pushing a number of extremists, either Taliban people or sympathizers of al Qaeda into Pakistan and strengthening what they are doing there. Which is, frankly, everyone concedes, including George Will yesterday, that it’s a much more critical place for us today including Afghanistan. So, it’s the strategy. Not that the president doesn’t understand the importance of making sure that al Qaeda doesn’t get back into Afghanistan in a significant way and that the Taliban can’t be helpful to that. It’s the strategy. I don’t think the strategy of troop build up is helping us, I think it is hurting us.
John Hockenberry: Well let’s get clear here. Are you calling for an invasion of Pakistan?
Sen. Russ Feingold: No, of course not. This is the whole thing. The idea here of going after al Qaeda by invading countries hasn’t worked very well. I mean, yes, we were able to push al Qaeda essentially into Pakistan by invading Afghanistan, but we didn’t eliminate them. In fact, Osama Bin Laden and his deputy and Mullah Omar, who was the affiliate with the Taliban in Afghanistan with al Qaeda, they’re in Pakistan now. So invading a country is not the smart way. The smart way is the way that we got the guy who was in charge of al Qaeda in Iraq — that wasn’t through mass troop involvement. That was through finding out where he was and specifically targeting an attack on him, not the idea of an actual occupation that was the key for that. So, I agree with much of what George Will wrote yesterday. In fact, it was followed on my Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday, that there is a different way to fight a criminal syndicate like al Qaeda. And we’re using old ideas about invasions and occupying countries to go after an organization that sometimes thrives on our doing that. We’re falling into their hands. We’re weakening our military, we’re weakening our economy — that’s exactly the way al Qaeda would like us to proceed. So we are playing into their hands when we use this kind of a strategy. Of course, no, I am against the idea of any kind of invasion against Pakistan. That wouldn’t work either.
Celeste Headlee for The Takeaway: So are you confident that the Pakistani government is strong enough and will be cooperative enough and have targeted attacks within Pakistan to get these al Qaeda officials?Sen. Russ Feingold: Well, the jury is out on the Pakistan government.
John Hockenberry: Been out for eight years, Senator.
Celeste Headlee: Yeah.
Sen. Russ Feingold: The jury is out, but at least this is a civilian government. It’s not Musharraf, who showed absolutely no interest in democracy. A democracy that works in Pakistan is what’s necessary to get control away from the military in Pakistan and have a civilian support for stopping people like al Qaeda from being within their country. I think the people in that country would like that.
John Hockenberry: If, as you say, an invasion isn’t going to work on al Qaeda and, if anything, we are attracting or moving radicals into Pakistan, Senator Russ Feingold, what would you advise the Obama administration on a date of withdrawal from Afghanistan? When should we pull out?
Sen. Russ Feingold: Well, what I’m trying to say here is that all over the world we are working with governments: the Indonesian government, the Malaysian government, the Indian government. We’re finding out ways in a cooperative way to go after terrorists, al Qaeda, and others who may be in their midst. That’s the way to do it. So when we look at this whole troop thing in Afghanistan, what I have asked for is: Let’s have a conversation now about what kind of a time frame we can say. A flexible time frame is likely and [what] we intend for Afghanistan, so the Afghan people would know, the American people would know, the people around the world would know, that we don’t intend to keep the occupation of a country that we have already been in for nine years. So I think as a first step, and this is what I did for Iraq as well when I felt that it was time for us to go, let’s have our experts start talking about a time frame for us that makes sense and let’s have a conversation about it. I don’t claim to be the expert about when the time frame should be. It has to be flexible at this point. It has to have some common sense attached to it. But it would be a very positive signal, especially if it included benchmarks, to the world and especially to the Afghan people that we are getting ready to leave in some reasonable point of time. You know, we lost over 45 Americans in Afghanistan in July. We lost even more in August — the most ever since the war began. And the situation is going to continue to get worse and it’s going to energize the elements of the Taliban that want to hurt us and Afghanistan. And al Qaeda, if we play into their hands, and not indicate that we are not going to get stuck there forever.
John Hockenberry: Okay, Senator, quickly before you go. You’ve been critical about the Afghan policy of the administration. Do you think the administration has stepped away from the progressive agenda on health care as well? That perhaps Barack Obama is a little too centrist for your tastes?
Sen. Russ Feingold: Let me first say that in the situation of Afghanistan I have praised the administration for having a much better overall regional policy including Pakistan and India. So let’s be clear, it’s a huge improvement over the Bush Administration. I’m trying to target what I think is one mistake in the area of Afghanistan.
John Hockenberry: Gotcha.
Sen. Russ Feingold: Health care. I still don’t know. I am pleased that the administration has come back to me to talk about a public option after slipping there. And I’m watching this very carefully because we do need a progressive health care reform bill.
John Hockenberry: Before we go, what are you doing to prepare for H1N1?
Sen. Russ Feingold: Well, I'm hopefully going to work with everybody to get as much vaccine as possibly can be available, and we need to be at red alert for this thing ...
John Hockenberry: ... hand washing?
Sen. Russ Feingold: I understand there's going be some announcements about it today.
John Hockenberry: ... hand washing?
Sen. Russ Feingold: What am I doing, personally?
Celeste Headlee: Masks in the office?
Sen. Russ Feingold: I am making sure I get inoculated from all illnesses by going to town meetings.
John Hockenberry: Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin talking about health care, H1N1, and the situation in Afghanistan. He’s a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees. Thank you Senator.
Sen. Russ Feingold: You bet. Bye-bye.