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Hillary Clinton Sought Advice on Afghanistan From Former Bill Clinton Advisors

Retired General Wesley Clark and former national security advisor Sandy Berger both consulted with Hillary Clinton before the 2010 Afghanistan troop surge.

by Jason Leopold and Alya Iftikhar
Jul 1 2015, 11:00pm

Photo by Justin Lane/EPA

Weeks before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Pakistan in late October 2009 in an attempt to improve diplomatic relations with the country, she sought outside advice about how to pressure the Pakistanis to do more in fighting al Qaeda, according to emails the State Department released late Tuesday.

The emails also suggest that Clinton was on the fence about whether she should support a proposed troop surge in Afghanistan, which President Barack Obama's military advisers said was crucial in order to address the country's deteriorating security situation that the administration feared would further empower al Qaeda. There was also concern among administration officials at the increasing number of Taliban forces in South Waziristan along the Afghan border.

Related: 3,000 Pages of Hillary Clinton's Emails Were Just Released — Many Heavily Redacted

On October 3, 2009, Clinton met with retired Army General Wesley Clark, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and director for strategic plans and policy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Bill Clinton's presidency, to discuss the issue. About a week later, Clark emailed her with his thoughts on Afghanistan and suggestions for how to approach the Pakistanis about al Qaeda.

Clark referred to an unnamed person with whom he joked about the fact that "someone deep in" Pakistan's intelligence service was likely happy al Qaeda was alive because it meant the US wouldn't "abandon Pakistan again." Clark said he and the unnamed person "recommended" by Clinton discussed "defeat strategy," and the "need for something more than just deploying more forces and hoping the training for the Afghans will work."

"I continue to be struck by the parallels to Vietnam, and especially [President Lyndon B.] Johnson's inability to resist escalation, and his advisor's continued 'incrementalism,'" Clark wrote.

Around this time, Clinton asked her senior staff to find out how some Democratic lawmakers voted on the Bush administration's earlier troop surge in Iraq. For example, in a September 30, 2009 email, she asked one of her advisers, Jake Sullivan, to find out how Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, "supported the surge in Iraq and get a copy of his recent speech about troops to Af [Afghanistan] for me."

"Levin opposed the surge, but voted for funding the troops," Sullivan responded, referring to Iraq. Levin said he could not immediately support an increased presence of US combat troops in Afghanistan, according to a copy of his speech, but he did support providing aid to Afghan security forces. When she was a US senator, Clinton opposed the 2007 Iraq troop surge.

Clark's email to Clinton seemed to address Levin's recommendations about US support to Afghan security forces and why, in addition to that, it was necessary to increase the number of US combat troops in the country.

"I can imagine there are those arguing that we just need to fill the gap while we enlarge the Afghan army," he wrote. "That we help the Pakistanis but not press them to the point of being unpleasant. And that too much focus on Osama [bin Laden] and [al Qaeda deputy Ayman] al-Zawahiri raises the risk of public failure if we don't get them. There is much logic to this, but it has a strong tint of incrementalism.

"Hopefully, we can be more decisive: lean harder on the Pakistanis, provide more troops to [commander of US forces in Afghanistan General Stanley] McChrystal than his 'moderate risk' and raise the heat on al Qaeda — then do all we can to push economic development in Afghanistan, restrain Indian meddling, and prepare to do more against Al Qaeda in Pakistan, directly if necessary. Ultimately, it seems that our best exit strategy would be to take down the top leadership of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and then gradually draw down in Afghanistan."

Clinton also sought advice about Pakistan and Afghanistan from her husband's former national security adviser, Sandy Berger. He emailed her on October 3, 2009 and said he was not satisfied with answers he previously provided to her about how to gain leverage over the Pakistanis to move them to "more aggressively pursue" al Qaeda. He said the Pakistanis seemed "to be more reluctant to target AQ [al Qaeda] where it is nestled with groups they want to cultivate in the event we 'leave' Afghanistan and they need influence there. They have seen that before and will hedge their bets."

"If we can disabuse them of the perception that we are leaving Afghanistan, it will be easier to get the Pakistanis to go after AQ in sanctuaries provided by groups which would be part of a future Afghanistan dominated by the Taliban," Berger said. He also advised Clinton that if the US had solid intelligence, it should seize the assets of individuals Pakistani officials supporting militants.

On October 8, 2009, Mark Penn, Clinton's former chief strategist and pollster during her 2008 presidential campaign, weighed in on the Afghanistan troop surge with a blistering email. He said that "any strategy that says fighting the taliban are not in the strategic interests of the us should be doa."

"I have to say that this argument that the Taliban are ok to ignore is dangerous morally and politically," Penn emailed Clinton under the subject line, "Troops." Referring to President George W. Bush's infamous post-9/11 "you're either with us or with the terrorists" speech, Penn said, "The argument at the time was that harboring terrorism was the same as launching terrorism, and that those who harbored would be held responsible dirty work. To now even consider giving the Taliban a pass after harboring terrorists who committed direct attacks on New York and Washington defies the imagination. This wasn't some embassy bombing but a strike right at our country."

Penn told Clinton that not supporting an increased military presence in Afghanistan is "politically, quite dangerous."

"Obama maintained throughout the campaign and the start of his presidency that this is the one to fight and backing down here makes him and the administration vulnerable to losing moderate support and seeming weak and indecisive," he said. "A single terrorist incident would be blamed on the admin. failing to do the job right."

When Clinton visited Pakistan on October 28, 2009, she accused Pakistan officials of giving safe haven to al Qaeda terrorists. 

"I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are, and couldn't get to them if they really wanted to," Clinton told a a group of Pakistani journalists. "Maybe that's the case; maybe they're not gettable. I don't know."

Related: Why the US Refuses to Release a Draft of a Speech Hillary Clinton Gave 6 Years Ago

An October 29, 2009 report in the New York Times characterized Clinton's remarks as giving "voice to the longtime frustration of American officials with what they see as the Pakistani government's lack of resolve in rooting out not only Al Qaeda, but also the Taliban leadership based in Quetta, and a host of militant groups that use the border region to stage attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan."

Obama administration officials spent the next two months debating whether to send additional troops to Afghanistan. Clinton ultimately supported the idea, siding with Obama's military advisers — perhaps after being nudged by the likes of Penn, Clark, and Berger. In December 2009, weeks before he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama announced that 30,000 additional troops would be deployed to Afghanistan. 

David Ledwith provided additional research for this story.

Follow Jason Leopold (@JasonLeopold) and Alya Iftikhar (@aliyazeba) on Twitter.