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U.S. Has Previously Called On Sen. Kerry In Diplomatic Crises


As we mentioned, Senator John Kerry is likely to be confirmed as the next secretary of State, and he is no stranger to diplomacy. As chairman of the Senator Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry focused on two particular issues: Afghanistan and Pakistan. And as NPR's Jackie Northam explains, the White House has enlisted him to help diffuse crises with both countries.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In the autumn of 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was up for re-election. Voters turned out in droves, but the election ended up a messy, contentious affair with allegations of widespread voter fraud. It soon became clear that there would have to be a run-off election, says Daniel Markey with the Council on Foreign Relations.

DANIEL MARKEY: And Karzai was balking at that second round. And so, Washington wanted to put some pressure on him to make sure that he did the right thing.

NORTHAM: Markey says the White House couldn't send in Richard Holbrooke, who was then the special representative to the region, because relations between him and Karzai were at rock bottom. Markey says instead the administration turned to Senator John Kerry.

MARKEY: And Kerry, because of his long experience working personally and meeting with Afghan and Pakistani officials, was seen as a guy who had the gravitas, also had the experience and the connections and could play a helpful role in a way that, frankly, the White House didn't think that Richard Holbrooke could play, and at a level that they probably didn't think the ambassadors in the region could play.

NORTHAM: Kerry flew to Kabul and took a long walk with Karzai in the presidential gardens. Kerry shared his own bruising experience when he ran against President George W. Bush. And he persuaded Karzai to enter a second round of elections and resolve the crisis. Markey says it was seen as a diplomatic success for Kerry.

MARKEY: Not in just a handholding way, but also in kind of a firm way expressing the desire of the U.S. government.

NORTHAM: Kerry was called upon again in early 2011 to help diffuse a crisis with Pakistan. A CIA contractor named Raymond Davis had shot and killed two armed Pakistani men on the streets of Lahore. He was arrested on suspicion of murder. The Obama administration tried to claim diplomatic immunity but Pakistan wasn't buying it. And so, the White House sent in Kerry, says Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation.

STEVE COLL: They sent him out to see if he could cut a deal, basically, to get Raymond Davis out of jail. They equipped Kerry with an idea, which was essentially to pay blood money to the families of the victims of Raymond Davis and to have those families absolve Davis of responsibility as Islamic law as practiced in Pakistan allows and is occasionally practiced.

NORTHAM: Davis was released shortly after Kerry's visit. The senator was sent back to Pakistan a few months later after the covert U.S. operation to kill Osama bin Laden, an operation that enraged the Pakistani government. Kerry went in part to help mend relations, in part to retrieve the tail of a U.S. stealth helicopter used in the bin Laden raid. Coll says it's unusual that the White House would use a senator as an improvised envoy, but that Kerry does provide a bit of political cover.

COLL: If you send a senator out there, you've got a little bit of deniability. If he fails, well, it's not the administration that failed; if he succeeds, he's got a little bit of flexibility to negotiate and to bring the administration along.

NORTHAM: Coll says Kerry knows the nuances of, and the key players in, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was one of the architects of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, which provides $7.5 billion of non-military aid to Pakistan over five years. Shuja Nawaz with the Atlantic Council says it helps that Kerry is a key player in Congress.

SHUJA NAWAZ: I think it helps to be a politician to deal with politicians. You quite often have to deal with heads of government or state who are political. It helps for them to know that they have somebody who is a politician, who understands politics, and who is also listened to by people in the White House.

NORTHAM: And good relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan will be critical to Kerry if he becomes secretary of State. Both countries are expected to go through massive political changes over the next few years.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.