The Highest Stakes of All

Sen. Kerry spoke at a CAPAF event about the need to integrate military and non-military efforts in the fight against Al Qaeda.


“We need a new framework. The threats our country faces remain strikingly similar to those we were facing eight years ago. We need a new approach to this fight, one that emphasizes stopping the breeding of future terrorists as much as eliminating the current ones,” John Podesta, President of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, told an audience at CAPAF on Thursday. Podesta introduced a speech by Senator John Kerry (D-MA) entitled “A New Approach to Fighting Terrorism,” which reflected Kerry’s findings from his recent trip to the Middle East.

Kerry began with a call to refocus the goals of the war on terror. “We must remake our military-dominated ‘War on Terror’ as the global counterinsurgency campaign it always should have been—namely, a battle for the hearts and minds that takes our military effort to capture and kill today’s terrorists and folds it into a larger ‘information war’ designed to prevent tomorrow’s bad guys from ever being recruited.” Noting that Al Qaeda has been successfully waging an “information war” for years, he argued, “it is long overdue that we, who ushered in the information age, start to fight one too.”

Kerry held up as an example of success Saudi Arabia’s campaign against violent extremism, which incorporates educational efforts, careful consideration of local conditions, and a counter-indoctrination program that seeks to rehabilitate and reintegrate detainees into society. “In a counterinsurgency, the people are the center of gravity, and the core objective is to isolate the insurgents by winning the support of the local population,” Kerry said.

“While humanitarian aid, development assistance, support for good governance, and smart diplomacy may not be much use in apprehending terrorists, they are invaluable in addressing the root causes of terrorism,” Kerry said. He argued that because the United States needs the moral authority to capitalize on the failures of our enemies, it should shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay to make it clear that “the United States does not torture. Period. Not in any form whatsoever.”

Kerry criticized Senator John McCain (R-AZ) for erroneously claiming that the “Anbar Awakening”—a coalition of tribal leaders in Anbar Province in Iraq that formed to counter the influence of Al Qaeda—was the product of the surge of five additional brigades of U.S. soldiers to the country. In fact, the Awakening Movement was the result of “an extensive outreach campaign to win over the local population” undertaken by U.S. commanders beginning in June 2006, and the surge was not announced by President Bush until January 2007. “This is more than just a political gotcha game or yet another instance of Senator McCain getting his facts wrong,” Kerry argued. “The Iraqis made a political calculation that they didn’t like Al Qaeda and wanted to work with us. The actions that led to the Awakening reflected our understanding that U.S. military action alone would not defeat the terrorists.”

Kerry emphasized the need to view the fight against Al Qaeda in a global context and cooperate with local governments and security forces. “Our current impasse in Afghanistan and Pakistan is partly a direct result of this administration’s fixation on Iraq and misjudgments about the demands of the new global counterinsurgency,” he argued.

Kerry criticized the administration for allowing Al Qaeda to take shelter in tribal areas in northwest Pakistan and stressed that a long-term solution requires helping the Pakistani government “implement a comprehensive plan that emphasizes education, economic development, political and legal integration, and tribal outreach.”

A bill passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday that would provide $7.5 billion over five years for non-military assistance to Pakistan in order to better win over the Pakistani people, while placing greater oversight on military assistance to ensure it is spent to improve the Pakistani military’s counterinsurgency capabilities. Kerry also proposed creating a joint operations center in which American intelligence officials could coordinate with trusted Pakistani counterparts.

Kerry proposed deploying additional combat troops to Afghanistan to counter Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but cautioned that efforts to curb corruption, warlordism, drug dealing, and weak government would be a necessary element of a broader strategy. He proposed placing one person in charge of “coordinating the many operations in Afghanistan.”

When asked about how his plan could be implemented, Kerry emphasized the need for presidential action. “First implementation is the election in November 2008, and hopefully things will run their course from there. This is something that the legislative branch really doesn’t have the influence to do,” he said.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.