Senator Cardin on Afghanistan and "the War on Terror"

05/25/2011 02:45 pm ET

Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) is a member of the important Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Judiciary Committee, where he chairs the critical subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

He graciously granted me an interview and expressed the concern and focus that his subcommittee has on the issues of the growth of terrorist organizations.

Kathleen Wells: As chairman of the Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee, how do you feel that the war in Afghanistan is fighting "the war on terror" and/or addressing the issues of terrorism?

Senator Cardin: Well, that is my focus. My focus is to protect our country - to protect our homeland. And Afghanistan is certainly part of that effort. We went to Afghanistan, not by choice, but because we were attacked by entities within Afghanistan. So, our focus in Afghanistan needs to be against "the war on terror."

Now, there is not much left of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan today. We want to make sure that al-Qaeda does not return to Afghanistan. Our focus is to deal with the problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan as it relates to rooting out and making sure terrorists have no safe havens.

Kathleen Wells: What is your position on sending more troops to Afghanistan?

Senator Cardin: I don't believe that American troops should be used to deal with the internal security in Afghanistan. I also believe that the Afghan government has a significant credibility problem as it relates to corruption, as it relates to free elections and, as it relates to reliability. I am concerned with the openness and the democratic aspects or lack of democratic aspects to the Afghan government.

I think the United States can play a role, with the international community, to help accelerate the training and readiness of their local police and their national security forces.

But, I do not believe that America's use of more soldiers should be used to deal with the internal security within the country.

Kathleen Wells: Should I interpret that to mean that you don't think additional troops should be sent to Afghanistan?

Senator Cardin: I'm going to wait to receive the President's recommendation and his strategy. I was pleased to see that he is focusing on an exit strategy. I am pleased that he is taking the time to listen to the different views and different options. I think he is proceeding in the right way as Commander-in-Chief. But I personally still feel very strongly against the use of American forces to maintain internal security in Afghanistan.

Kathleen Wells: The House has introduced bills to stop the funding for troops and also a bill to address an exit strategy? Will the Senate introduce similar legislation?

Senator Cardin: It's premature at this point. Again, I think we need to wait until the President has submitted a plan and see what is incorporated in that plan. And then you have to take a look at what options are available in the United States Congress for us to carry out our responsibilities. But it's just too early to say.

Kathleen Wells: Whose interests are served by the war in Afghanistan?

Senator Cardin: The war in Afghanistan was not a war of choice. We were forced into it, because of the attack on our country. We went there for the right purposes, but we can't rewrite history and we can't go over why we weren't more aggressive initially in dealing with the concerns in Afghanistan and how we got distracted in Iraq. That, to me, was the mistakes that were made. But you can't undo what has already been done - we are; where we are.

At this point, I think our main focus should be to make sure that Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorists and to assist the Afghan government in taking care of its own stability and security issues.

Kathleen Wells: How does the Obama administration differ from the Bush administration?

Senator Cardin: The Bush administration was distracted from the mission in Afghanistan by what it was doing in Iraq. I disagreed with the Bush administration's strategies in Iraq. I think we lost the focus in the war against terror. And as a result, we saw that al-Qaeda was able to operate in Afghanistan and operate in Pakistan and that the Taliban was getting stronger as a network in being able to assist and deal with the terrorist organizations.

We are now faced with those realities.

Kathleen Wells: Historically, empires/nations that have conducted war in Afghanistan have failed. Does this fact influence you in anyway?

Senator Cardin: Well, I think we need to understand Afghanistan. Afghanistan will continue to operate through a lot of tribal organizations. The rural areas particularly are going to be much more tribal in nature. The effectiveness of the centralized government, as it relates to internal security is one that is not going to be effective, unless it works with the tribal and rural areas. That's a fact of life in Afghanistan.

That doesn't mean you can't root out terrorists. The tribal networks are sympathetic to terrorist organizations. But it doesn't mean you can't establish a system where they do not harbor terrorist organizations. [I believe] you can.

Kathleen Wells: How is your subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security specifically addressing this issue of rooting out terrorism?

Senator Cardin: We do look at threats of terrorism against the United States. In that region [Afghanistan], our principal concern has been al-Qaeda. [al-Qaeda] has been the principal network of major concern because of their interest in attacking the United States. al-Qaeda was able to operate pretty effectively in Afghanistan, pre 9-11, through the Taliban organizations. We rooted that out and wanted to root that out. And today, al-Qaeda is minimal in Afghanistan -- it is more significant in Pakistan. Taliban has gotten stronger in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and that is of concern to our committee. [It is of concern] to those of us who are concerned about the growth of terrorist organizations.

But it goes beyond, just Afghanistan and Pakistan. We also know that countries,such as, Yemen are much more susceptible to terrorist organizations today. We know that some have left the Pakistan [and] Afghanistan region and have gone to Yemen. What we are concerned about is to have a comprehensive strategy to say that we are not going to allow safe havens anywhere for terrorist organizations.

Kathleen Wells: And that entails dealing with the government of Pakistan and other countries where you feel terrorists have safe havens?

Senator Cardin: Yes and trying to deal with the realities of Yemen, for example. [Yemen is] a country that has been very much plagued by poverty and corruption and lack of stable government. [It's] an area that we need to pay attention to otherwise, it could become a problem similar to what we see in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Kathleen Wells: You are a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Judiciary Committee, where you chair a subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security. How do you reconcile those two? Or, do you need reconciliation between the two?

Senator Cardin: [In the Foreign Relations Committee] we have a committee on Homeland Security, which is chaired by Senator [Joe] Lieberman and Senator [Susan] Collins is the ranking Republican. So, we have a committee [in the Foreign Relations Committee] that is concerned directly with Homeland Security.

In the Judiciary Committee, we are very much concerned on terrorism and the legal tools that are available to fight terrorism. I just had a hearing on cyber security and if you want to be sobered: the vulnerability of America, through attack with literally spies and soldiers invading us through cyberspace is here today.

Our committee [the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security], looks at the legal aspects, of providing the tools necessary to fight terrorism and also protect civil liberties of the people of our country. And we've had real challenges on the use of networks to obtain information - making sure it is done in a legal framework that is effective but also protects the civil liberties of Americans. That's been one of our focal points.

We are interested. We have significant jurisdiction over terrorism issues and homeland security issues, as does, as you pointed out, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that I serve on, as does the Appropriations Committee, which has to make the money available.

Kathleen Wells: Is there anything else you'd like to address?

Senator Cardin: This is an issue that requires significant attention and I can assure you that from the Judiciary's [Committee] point of view, we are going to continue to give it the attention it needs.