AC: "You can't hang everything off having a viable Afghan government."

Length: 7:44

LARGE (89.6 MB) ----- SMALL (9.5 MB)

John King hosts a panel discussion about the upcoming decision on whether to go big in or get out of Afghanistan. The panel is Michael, David Gergen, and former Bushie Dan Senor who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations (and also Campbell Brown's husband, although they don't mention that.)

JOHN KING: President Obama met for 90 minutes today with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was his seventh meeting so far on Afghanistan on what comes next for U.S. troops there -- at least one more meeting set for next week.

Meantime, the political situation in Afghanistan has taken a turn for the worse. A source tells CNN the talks between the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and his presidential opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, have broken down. And Abdullah is threatening to boycott that runoff election scheduled one week from now.

It took massive pressure from the United States to get Karzai to agree to that runoff in the first place. Karzai claimed victory in August but the vote was widely seen as corrupt, leaving the White House in the lurch as it faces a key decision on troop levels.

Here's what the White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, told me recently on "STATE OF THE UNION."


RAHM EMANUEL, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: The question does not come how many troops you send, but do you have a credible Afghan partner for this process that can provide the security and the type of services that the Afghan people need?

It would be reckless to make a decision on U.S. troop level if, in fact, you haven't done a thorough analysis of whether, in fact, there is an Afghan partner ready to fill that space.


KING: Let's dig deeper with our panel.

Joining me, CNN senior political analyst David Gergen, and Michael Ware, and Dan Senor. He's with the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle." He also advised the Bush administration on foreign policy.

David, let's start with the dilemma here. If the White House has said -- and you heard just Rahm Emanuel -- we need to know who our partner is, if these negotiations break down, and there is a boycott of the runoff, what's that mean for the White House and decision?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It is very bad news for the White House and for the NATO alliance.

The whole effort here by the U.S. in Afghanistan has been premised, as Rahm Emanuel said, upon having a partnership with a credible government. If there's no runoff election and Karzai remains in power based on a fraudulent first election, with a brother, we have now learned, a drug lord and on the CIA payroll, the American public is going to turn hugely against this. There will be a huge resistance to sending in more troops at the very moment that the U.S. general on the ground says he needs a lot more troops, at least 40,000.

So I think this is a cruel dilemma for the president. It's been a bad week on foreign policy. The Iranian story has been grim. Other things have not -- Hillary Clinton ran into a lot of resistance in Pakistan. This is getting very tough on the foreign policy front.

KING: And, Michael, based on your experience in Afghanistan -- already, some people were saying the administration was too linking the military decisions to the political situation. What does this do?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, the bottom line is, wars do not wait for elections. And President Obama, as commander in chief, is currently waging war. And if he wants to pin his decision on whether to send more troops or not on the results of an Afghan election which is going to be shaky at best, which is never going to deliver you Rahm Emanuel's, you know, credible partner -- I mean, I can't remember when there was a credible partner in Afghanistan -- then, you know, it smacks of political game-playing and time-wasting, to me, rather than actual effective strategic decision-making.

You can't hang everything off having a viable Afghan government. And whether it's going to be Karzai, whether it's going to be his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, or whether it's going to be a government of national unity, it doesn't really matter, in the broad scheme of the U.S. mission, as long as the Afghan people buy it.

And, essentially, you are going to be trading one bunch of Afghan crooks and warlords for another. So, at the end of the day, you're never going to have a squeaky-clean partner. Let's not hold our breath for this, John.

KING: And so Dan, following on Michael there, this will only complicate a debate we're already having here in the United States, with some saying the president should make his decision, Rahm Emanuel saying we need to wait.

You know the former vice president Dick Cheney quite well, having served in the Bush administration. I want you to -- want to play you something that the current vice president, Joe Biden, told our Ed Henry today when Ed asked about the Cheney criticism.


ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Dick Cheney is saying, your predecessor in this office, is saying the president is failing that test, because he says he's dithering and that you and the president are dragging your feet on this decision.

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I like Dick Cheney personally. But I really don't care what Dick Cheney thinks. And I'm not sure a lot of Americans do. Look at the policy they left us. Look at the policy of neglect they left us in Afghanistan. Look at the policy we inherited in terms of their foreign policy.

Look, I think the president is doing exactly what any president should do. And by the way, the military thinks that, too.


KING: So, Dan Senor, Joe Biden in the White House saying, "Hey, this is smart deliberation." Vice President Cheney says it's dithering.

DAN SENOR, FORMER SPOKESPERSON FOR COALITION PROVISIONAL AUTHORITY: That's right. It's not just Vice President Cheney. It's actually General Anthony Zinni, retired General Zinni, who's no supporter of the last administration, who was very supportive of this administration.

I do think, John, that there is this consensus among the senior officer corps and the joint staff that the president should move forward. The reasons he's coming up for delaying the decision don't seem terribly credible.

When Rahm Emanuel said that we've got to wait on an Afghan government, keep in mind, on August 17, just, you know, seven, eight, ten weeks ago, President Obama in a speech before the VFW said this was a war of necessity. At the time, that was three days before the Afghan election, when we knew -- the NSC knew that the election would be full of corruption.

If this election on November 7, there will also be more corruption. To Michael's point, no matter what the outcome of this election, whether or not Abdullah Abdullah participates, there will be fraud. And if he doesn't participate, it will be a nonevent. It's not going to have a meaningful impact. And I don't think it's something upon which to hang whether or not we should make a troop decision.

KING: So, David, everybody here has been very sober about this. And we already know the most recent CNN poll shows a majority of Americans oppose sending more troops. How much of a consideration should public opinion be for the president right now?

GERGEN: Well, I'm very sympathetic to Michael's point of view about that you've got to fight a war, and you've got to be either in or out, and you can't sort of hinge on elections.

But John, we've learned in Vietnam, we learned in Iraq, you have got to have the country behind you as commander in chief when you put a lot of Americans in harm's way. It's not irrelevant what public opinion says. You have to pay attention to that if you want to be able to sustain it.

The Congress won't provide the funds. They'll pull the rug out from under you right in the middle of this thing unless you get the country committed up front.

So this makes it a lot harder if they don't have an election. Yes, there will be fraud. But I'm just telling you, you -- if John Kerry is -- it's not just Rahm Emanuel. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee and a very powerful voice, has said you can't do it without some sort of credible partner.

The whole -- McChrystal says you have to have a credible partner. So you've got to get this resolved. And it's extremely important to get this resolved in the next few days.

SENOR: John, let me just say one thing. First of all, David is right. You do need a credible partner. But if you don't have security, nothing else matters. We can have all the -- we can have all the credible partners in the world. If we don't provide basic security, we never have a shot an improvement in governance, first of all. Second of all, since President Obama's been president, he's only given two major speeches on Afghanistan. Democrat and Republican, going back 60 years, whenever our country has been in a major conflict abroad, the president is constantly informing the public, educating the public on why this is important.

The president needs to take ownership of this, assuming he goes forward with McChrystal's plan or a fraction of it, and explain constantly to the American public why this is important. It's going to be a distraction from his domestic agenda, which I why I think there's resistance to it. But there's no way public opinion is going to move on this without a constant education by the commander in chief.

KING: Dan Senor, Michael Ware, David Gergen--

GERGEN: I have to agree with that.

KING: Gentlemen, thank you all so much. It's a weighty one for the president and not going to go away any time soon. Thank you all so much.