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Hillary Clinton weighs in on key military issues: sex assaults, extending U.S. forces in Afghanistan

Jun. 19, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton greets U.S. airmen in July 2012 during a visit to Kabul.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton greets U.S. airmen in July 2012 during a visit to Kabul. (Staff Sgt. Mark Leahy / ISAF Joint Command)
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Former Secretary of State and possible presidential contender Hillary Clinton is supporting a proposal to have military prosecutors, not commanders, decide whether to prosecute sexual assault and other felony crimes.

Clinton, who has not yet said if she will run for president, also said she believes there is a chance that U.S. troops could stay in Afghanistan beyond 2016.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has called for giving military prosecutors outside the chain of command of both alleged victims and accused service members the authority to pursue sexual assault cases and other crimes that are not “unique to the military.” Although her bill had bipartisan support, it stalled in March when it came five votes short of overcoming a filibuster.

Speaking to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour during a town hall style interview this week, Clinton said Gillibrand’s plan deserves another chance.

“She was a fierce advocate for it,” Clinton said. “It was not successful this time around. Another approach was taken. But I think everybody on both sides of the aisle knows, if there is not evidence that this other approach is working, then we should go back to Kirsten’s proposal.”

A spokesman for Gillibrand said she is “delighted” that Clinton has voiced support for her proposal.

“With her record as a tireless advocate for human rights, and the depth of her experience in public service, her respected opinion will help move the ball forward,” Glen Caplin said in an email Thursday to Military Times.

The ServiceWomen’s Action Network also welcomed Clinton’s endorsement of Gillibrand’s approach to reforming the military justice system, said Anu Bhagwati, the advocacy group’s executive director.

“It’s a huge step in the right direction for the movement,” said Bhagwati, a former Marine captain. “I think the most significant thing about this is right now all of your top presidential contenders for 2016 from both parties have actively spoken out and now favor the Military Justice Improvement Act.”

Under the current system, everyone is in the chain of command, so when Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos or President Obama condemn sexual assault in public, it is seen as command interference, Bhagwati, said.

“It’s absurd that leaders within this military organization can’t actually speak with moral leadership about sexual assault in the military,” she said. “There are accused sexual predators [for whom] defense counsel has basically argued that their clients have been prejudiced by the president speaking out against sexual assault, by leaders of the service branches speaking out against sexual assault, and so on and so forth.”

Bhagwati called on Obama to embrace Gillibrand’s plan.

“Being on the right side of history is a huge opportunity for President Obama and we want him to take that step forward,” she said. “Why leave it to the next administration? It’s completely unfair for our troops who are serving right now.”

Leaving Afghanistan

During her interview on CNN, Clinton also addressed whether U.S. troops could remain in Afghanistan after 2016, by which Obama has called for most troops to leave.

Unless the Afghan government signs a security agreement soon, all U.S. troops will have to leave the country by the end of this year. Afghan president Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the agreement, saying that should be done by his successor. But it is unclear when the next president will take office because the frontrunner has said the recent runoff election was plagued by fraud and has demanded a halt to counting votes.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, told reporters in March that he will need 102 days to withdraw all troops and equipment from Afghanistan. That means if the agreement still has not been signed in September, things will get dicey.

In a series of exchanges with Amanpour, Clinton said that if the Afghan government signs the agreement, it is possible for the U.S. to extend its presence in Afghanistan beyond Obama’s time line.

“If in 2016, you have a president and a government in Afghanistan that appears to be doing everything it can to maintain security and provide services to its people and they were to come, not only the United States, but remember NATO has an enduring presence, and they were to say, ‘We hope you will continue to help us in this way,’ that kind of thoughtful conversation will not be rejected, in my opinion,” she said.

But retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, believes that such a scenario is unlikely.

“I am glad that Secretary Clinton is leaving that door open,” Barno said. “But I think the political support for that possibility now and two years from now are both exceedingly dim. Realistically, I think any future president will be hard-pressed to reverse President Obama’s time line and drawdown plan. The politics and the expectations now set for the U.S. public will make that excruciatingly difficult.”

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