On a background call with senior White House officials which just concluded it was announced the President will announce this evening the withdrawal of 10,000 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year. The remaining 23,000 which constitute the West Point Surge will return to their home bases by September 2012. A continued drawdown will commence then of the remaining 68,000 members of the Armed Forces.
I was in queue to ask what, exactly, constitutes our current mission but wasn’t able to present my question. With Osama Bin Laden dead and the admission on the call that no transnational threats remain in Afghanistan why are we spending $10 billion per month there?
What are our strategic national security interests there? I see none. Our continued presence only serves to strengthen our enemies, destabilize Pakistan and cost us money better used for job creation, deficit reduction and the rebuilding of OUR infrastructure.
BACKGROUND CONFERENCE CALL WITH
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS
TO PREVIEW THE PRESIDENT’S PLAN FOR
IMPLEMENTING HIS STRATEGY TO DRAW DOWN TROOPS IN
Via Conference Call
3:32 P.M. EDT
MR. VIETOR: Thanks, everybody, for getting on. We are going to do this on background from senior administration officials. The goal is to preview the President’s speech with a hard embargo at 8:00 p.m., or when he starts delivery. Our hope here is to give you some context about what he’s going to say and how he arrived at that decision.
And so with that, I’ll turn it over to our first senior administration official.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, everybody, for joining the call. I’ll just say a few things by way of introduction, and then turn it over to my colleagues here.
The first thing I think is important to note is tracing the arc of events that led to this latest decision. The situation when we came into office was that the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating, in part because there had been a shift in focus in the previous several years to Iraq. In particular, the Taliban was — had taken the initiative in Afghanistan and was controlling more territory, and al Qaeda had established a safe haven in Pakistan from which it was plotting attacks against the United States.
So, faced with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the President took the decision to surge our forces there. And at West Point, he announced the deployment of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
When the President made that announcement at West Point in December of 2009, he set three very clear objectives for the United States: First, he set the objective of denying al Qaeda a safe haven. Second, he set the objective of reversing the Taliban’s momentum so they wouldn’t be able to take over the country in Afghanistan and so they would be pushed back from its strongholds, particularly in population centers. And third, he set the objective of training Afghan national security forces so that they would be able to take responsibility for securing the future of Afghanistan.
We make this decision today, over 18 months later, having made substantial progress against those objectives. And my colleague here will speak to the progress we’ve made on both the counterterrorism front in terms of our efforts against al Qaeda, as well as our efforts within Afghanistan. So, therefore, we believe the President is making this decision tonight from a position of success and strength. He, of course, said in December of 2009 that he would begin reductions in U.S. troops in July 2011, and he’s going to keep that commitment.
In particular, the President will announce that we will be bringing 10,000 troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year. We will be bringing the full 33,000 U.S. troops that are associated with the West Point surge out of Afghanistan by next summer — so that will be no later than September; it could be before. There will be flexibility in the precise timing, but by next summer the full 33,000 troops associated with the surge will be out of Afghanistan.
He will make it clear that this is an initial drawdown and that we will be continuing reductions in U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond next summer, as a part of the process of transition to Afghan lead that has already begun and that will be complete by 2014.
Now, within that timeframe we, of course, have the full recovery of the surge next summer. We’ll also be hosting a NATO summit that we announced today — we’ll be hosting the next NATO summit here in Chicago next May, where the allies and the coalition will be able to discuss the next phase of this transition.
Finally, I think it’s just an important point that you’ll see in the President’s speech tonight, this is an opportunity to really reflect on what is approaching a full decade since 9/11, nearly a full decade during which the United States has been at war, at great sacrifice to our troops and great cost to our people. I think it’s an opportunity for all of us to step back and pay tribute to those who served in these wars so heroically.
It’s also a time to mark the fact that we have substantially wound down the war in Iraq, removing 100,000 troops and going forward with our efforts to responsibly end the war there. And now, we are beginning to reduce our troops in Afghanistan and pursue our plan to wind down this war. So I think it’s very important that the American people will be able to understand that the war in Iraq is being wound down and now we are beginning to come down in Afghanistan. And we are doing so in a way that will allow us to achieve our core objective, which is the defeat of al Qaeda, the terrorists who started this war when they came to our shores on 9/11.
So with that, I’ll turn it over to my colleague who will discuss the CT aspects of this in our efforts to degrade al Qaeda.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. Let me address three aspects of this. One — the first one is on the threat side. The second part will be on the counterterrorism capabilities that we have in place. And third is what the impact of this reduction in terms of U.S. forces would be on both the threat and CT capabilities.
On the threat side, we haven’t seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years. There has been clearly fighting and threats inside of Afghanistan, but the assessment of anywhere between 50, 75 or so al Qaeda types that are embedded in Haqqani units, basically, tactical fighting units inside of Afghanistan, they are focused inside Afghanistan with no indication at all that there is any effort within Afghanistan to use Afghanistan as a launching pad to carry out attacks outside of Afghan borders.
The threat has come from Pakistan over the past half-dozen years or so, and longer. And what we’ve been able to do, particularly over the last year, but through the course of the last two and a half years of this administration, is to degrade al Qaeda’s core capabilities significantly. We have taken a significant number of key senior leaders off of the battlefield — in addition to bin Laden, individuals like Saeed al-Masri and others who have been critical to al Qaeda’s operational and organizational capabilities over the last dozen years.
That leadership degradation has had an impact on their operational capabilities. We’ve degraded their ability to conduct training in the FATA and Waziristan area. We’ve taken out of commission a number of operatives that were in the pipeline to carry out attacks outside of Pakistan. We’ve taken off of the battlefield also explosive experts and different commanders who were in charge of different units that are designed to carry out terrorist attacks abroad.
This degradation of al Qaeda’s capabilities has also been accompanied by a very unsafe environment within Waziristan. It’s not been a safe haven for quite a while. This has slowed significantly the flow of recruits into Afghanistan, and a number of al Qaeda types have been looking for other areas, because they have said that they have not been able to carry out their activities in the area and so, therefore, they see, in fact, a reason to continue to sort of hunker down there. So the impact in the safe haven of al Qaeda which formally was a safe haven has been significant.
This is a result of putting in place the architecture that has allowed us to degrade their capabilities. Working with the Pakistanis whenever we can, but also working on our own, we’ve been able to put in place the framework that includes sources from a technical and human standpoint, as well as an architecture that we can prosecute our efforts again with our Pakistani partners when we’re able, but to make sure that we’re able to use the intelligence that we’ve been able to gain in that area and to prosecute the efforts to take off of the battlefield significant numbers of al Qaeda and associated militant types.
One of the reasons why we’ve been able to build this architecture and carry it out effectively and with momentum is because of the exceptional precision and the surgical aspect of this. Although there’s been a lot of media attention put to the Pakistani pushback on certain programs, the truth is that a number of individuals within the Pakistani counterterrorism environment see that our capabilities are not just impressive but also needed as a way to degrade the capabilities there of al Qaeda.
And so, in taking a look at the pullout of — the drawdown of U.S. troops, the 10,000 this year and then the 33,000 by next summer, it is certainly the view of the people who have been prosecuting this effort from the administration that this is not going to increase the threat. Again, we don’t see a transnational threat coming out of Afghanistan in terms of the terrorist threat and it’s not going to affect at all the threat in Pakistan either.
At the same time, this drawdown of forces is not going to affect the architecture — the counterterrorism architecture that we’ve put in place that is a combination of things that we have going on the ground as well as above ground. And so, again, we see that the momentum that we have had over the last two and a half years is, in our view, going to continue as we continue our efforts inside of Pakistan.
And with that I’ll turn it over to my colleague.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: So that was the picture from the counterterrorism/counter al Qaeda perspective. What’s the figure inside Afghanistan and why do we say that the President can make this decision from a position of strength based on the success of the West Point surge over the last 18 months? Let me just cite some data for you.
First of all, the surge was very much focused on particular areas in the Taliban heartland in two key provinces in the south of Afghanistan — Helmand and Kandahar — and it’s there that we’ve actually seen the most progress on the security front on the ground.
These are areas that were longstanding, multiple-year safe havens for the Taliban inside Afghanistan, and today those areas are controlled by either NATO forces under ISAF or, in some cases, already by Afghan security forces. In any event, they’re not controlled by the Taliban. So former safe havens are no longer there in the south.
The second thing that’s happened in the course of the 18 months is that we’ve developed a very sophisticated blend of military and civilian tools that have developed — that have produced this battlefield effect, and this is a combination of classic counterinsurgency tactics, a very aggressive special operations campaign targeting Taliban leadership in the south in particular — increasingly, by the way, the special operations campaign is partnered with and in some instances led by Afghan special operators.
We’ve seen the institution over the last 18 months of what’s called Afghan local police. This is essentially an armed community watch program which enables local Afghans to secure their own villages. We’ve seen the maturing of provincial reconstruction teams. We’ve seen partnering and mentoring of Western forces with Afghan troops. And we’ve seen the emergence of what’s called reintegration, which is a local grassroots political initiative to attract Taliban foot soldiers and lower-level commanders off the battlefield and back into villages and communities.
On the Afghan national security front — on the national security forces front, we’ve seen in the last 18 months over 100,000 Afghan security forces fielded. But beyond just that raw number of troops now on the battlefield that were not there 18 months ago, we’ve also seen the institutions behind those troops mature to a great extent. These are originally institutions, training centers, military academies that have — that were instituted by NATO and by our forces. And today they’re increasingly run by the Afghans themselves.
We see Afghan trainers now training Afghan troops, where two years ago this effort was almost entirely our trainers training Afghan troops. Afghanistan has a military academy. Today, it’s got institutional training schools. It’s got specialty schools. So there’s been a great maturing of the Afghan security force institutions.
With regard to other national troop contributions, we’ve seen the coalition, the Western coalition, largely sustained in a period of tough politics and tough budget crises in many of these domestic situations. And where forces have been reduced and have been removed from the combat role, we’ve seen international partners reinvest those troops into training functions.
And the last point I’d make is that aside from all these military gains, the military campaign has in a very productive way enabled some political initiatives, which should not be missed. Let me just cite three political initiatives.
One is transition. When the President spoke at West Point in December of ’09, we really didn’t have a path forward towards transitioning this whole project back to Afghan lead. Thanks to the Lisbon Summit last November, NATO agreed with President Karzai on a pattern that takes us from where we are today at the very beginning of this transition process all the way through its completion at the end of ’14. And that’s been enabled by the surge.
The second political initiative is reconciliation. Here, in the West Point speech there was a single line having to do with reconciliation. Today, thanks to the pressure delivered by the surge, we’re in active support of Afghan initiatives to reach out to the Taliban and explore what might be possible by way of a political settlement. Our red lines, our conditions for such a political settlement, have been clarified and agreed with the Karzai government and with our allies. And there are openings today that simply didn’t exist 18 months ago.
And then, the third political initiative is an enduring partnership. And we see today that NATO has signed up for an enduring partnership even beyond 2014 with the Afghan government. And, in a similar fashion, we’re working with the Karzai government today to fashion a bilateral partnership, which would, in effect, secure an enduring commitment — U.S. commitment to Afghanistan to protect our long-term interests there.
So I think the surge can arguably be said to have worked on the military front and to have had a very supporting effect on important political initiatives.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. I’ll just say one other thing before we go to questions, just to update you. Earlier today, the President made a number of calls to foreign leaders to inform him of their [sic] decision. He spoke to President Karzai of Afghanistan, President Zardari of Pakistan, Prime Minister Cameron of the United Kingdom, President Sarkozy of France, Chancellor Merkel of Germany, and the Secretary General of NATO, Rasmussen. The President updated them on our efforts.
Our allies, of course, have increased their own commitments in Afghanistan, along with our own commitments. That was part of what the President announced at West Point. And that’s part of what we’ve been able to sustain. They appreciated the calls and all of them agreed that it’s important for the coalition to remain closely coordinated going forward.
The President is also making a number of calls to congressional leaders, as well, to inform them of his decision. We, of course, have had a series of consultations with leaders in Congress over the course of the last number of weeks to seek their input as well.
So with that, I think we’re happy to go to questions.
Q Thanks very much. Thanks for doing the call and thank you for your service. We need to know the names of the briefers for our internal purposes.
My question is what will the President say on Pakistan? The West Point speech had a lot on Pakistan. We haven’t heard much on this call. Will he talk about progress in Pakistan? Will he address the problems in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship? And will he announce any changes whatsoever in the approach to Pakistan as it interacts with our mission in Afghanistan? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: To your question, yes, the President will address Pakistan. I think it’s important to note that from the very beginning of this administration we’ve essentially crafted a strategy that recognized that the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan are interwoven. The goal that is at the heart of everything that we are doing is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to deny them a safe haven from which to launch attacks in those countries. So Pakistan has been a core goal of this administration since the beginning of our efforts.
To that end, in the first instance, I think it’s very important to note — and you heard some of this from my colleague on the terrorism front — it’s very important to note the successes we’ve had in degrading al Qaeda within Pakistan. That includes, of course, the removal of more than half of their senior leadership from the battlefield since the West Point surge, most notably, Osama bin Laden, the only leader that al Qaeda had ever known.
A good degree of those counterterrorism successes can be attributed to cooperation that we get from Pakistan. So it’s important that a lot of the progress against our core goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda includes counterterrorism successes within Pakistan, including successes that are attributable to our cooperation.
That said, this, of course, is a very complicated and at times difficult relationship, and the President will once again underscore the need for Pakistan to participate in both our counterterrorism efforts as well as our efforts to secure a more peaceful future in the region. We believe that Pakistan needs to keep its commitments in this regard. We believe that no country, frankly, would benefit more from rooting out the cancer of violent extremism within Pakistani borders than Pakistan, because thousands of Pakistani civilians and service members have died at the hands of violent extremists, al Qaeda and their affiliates.
So he will address it in the same context that he did at West Point and in his first comments on Afghanistan as President by making clear that this is a part of our effort against al Qaeda. And he will once again underscore that while Pakistan has been a partner, that we will continue to press them to expand their participation in our counterterrorism efforts and our efforts to bring about a more peaceful future in the region.
He, of course, will also underscore that the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for al Qaeda or those who aim to launch attacks against the United States within that context.
Q Hi. Thanks, guys, for doing this. I want to just ask about a statement that a senior administration official just made. He said that we don’t see a transnational threat coming out of Afghanistan, and he mentioned that primarily where there has been one it’s been out of Pakistan for the past six years. I mean, given that, do you fear that, as far as the public goes, that there’s a question about the overall need to have more than 60,000, 70,000, 80,000 troops in Afghanistan if indeed there’s no sign of a transnational threat now and hasn’t been for several years?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, David. I’ll say a few things, and then my colleague may want to add to it.
I think that, again, what’s very clear is that the security situation, including the safe havens that extremist groups have in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are interrelated; that it is — that the 9/11 attacks organized from Afghanistan, that al Qaeda was able to pursue those attacks because they were afforded a safe haven by the Taliban government there. After the United States shifted its focus towards Iraq, we did see al Qaeda senior leadership escape into Pakistan and establish a safe haven there.
We have been very upfront from the beginning of this administration that we felt that the core al Qaeda leadership safe haven was within Pakistani borders, and we’ve had progress against that safe haven thanks to the counterterrorism cooperation with the Pakistanis, as well as the bin Laden operation.
That said, it has also been our assessment — and this is what led the President to make the decision that he made at West Point — that in 2009, the Taliban was steadily increasing the amount of territory that they controlled — that territory of course included regions that went up against the Pakistani border that, given the past relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda, that in Afghanistan it was increasingly falling back into the hands of the Taliban was surely a situation that could lead to the reemergence of an al Qaeda safe haven within Afghanistan; and that any effort to fully eradicate the al Qaeda safe haven and its capability to project power against the United States was going to have to include a degree of stability in Afghanistan, a government that could stand on its own two feet and not be overrun by the Taliban, as well as efforts to destroy those terrorist safe havens.
So, again, we believe that Afghanistan and Pakistan have a future that is interrelated; that the destruction of the safe haven for al Qaeda needs to be accompanied by an assurance that the Afghan government can stand on its own two feet and not fall back into the hands of the Taliban, which had provided that type of safe haven in the past.
So that’s exactly what we’re pursuing. It’s not — we’re not trying to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We’re not trying to pacify the entire country of Afghanistan. We’re not, again, trying to engage in a military campaign that destroys every last vestige of the Taliban. We are simply trying to support a government that can stand on its own and that can defend itself against extremist elements, while also pursuing a political settlement that could potentially split the Taliban from al Qaeda as well. So we do have that al Qaeda focus, but we don’t think it can be fully decoupled from our efforts in Afghanistan.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll just make the point that Afghanistan clearly in the past served as a training ground, as a safe haven, and as a launching pad for terrorist attacks, including against the homeland, and it certainly could serve in the future for those same purposes. And so my point was that right now the al Qaeda threat does come from Pakistan; that is where they are hunkered down.
And also, my point was that the reduction of the forces and a drawdown over the next year is not going to affect either the threat of the capability, because again, it is focused in Pakistan. But as my colleague noted, the potential for Afghanistan to once again serve as that basis for those terrorist attacks is something that is at the heart of what our effort is right now in Afghanistan, trying to prevent that reemergence of al Qaeda.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And just to your numbers, I think one of our core points here is because of the degradation of al Qaeda and also because of the breaking of the Taliban’s momentum and the training of Afghans, we don’t need the numbers that you cited. We are going down from roughly 100 [thousand] to under 70 [thousand] next summer and we’ll continue to come down, precisely because we have confidence both in our ability to continue to degrade al Qaeda and in our ability to train Afghan security forces that are moving into the lead.
So we don’t think that we need to sustain the troop presence that we had in Afghanistan. In fact, we believe we can secure our interests while pursuing a sustained drawdown of our forces.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’d just add that al Qaeda and groups similar to al Qaeda, which today are mainly in Pakistan, will seek a path of least resistance. And our strategic aim in Afghanistan in short is to make Afghanistan resistant to their return so that in fact they choose not to come back. And, ultimately, that resistance is going to be provided by the Afghan national security forces that we’re working hard to train up.
Q Thank you very much. Gentlemen, can you tell me when Chicago came into play for the NATO/G8 meetings? And do you have any more details about who will be in charge of organizing that effort?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Lynn. It’s always good to hear your voice.
Q Well, thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would say a couple of things. And then, I think some of my — we can probably work to get you more information. But the United States determined that we would host the next — and announced that we would host the next NATO summit when we were at Lisbon in December. And the President was able to tell the rest of our NATO allies in Lisbon in December that we would be hosting that summit.
Then, over the course of the next several months, we, I think, had conversations with a range of different cities. And Chicago, as a world-class international city, clearly possesses the ability to host a successful NATO summit. I would also note that they’re going to also host the G8 summit around the same time next May. The mayor of Chicago is of course a well-known figure here, and I’m sure he’ll be able to do a successful job in helping to oversee some of the preparations there.
But really it’s a decision that was made over the course of the last several months. We felt it was important to explore options beyond Washington, because often you have these things in the capital city. I think what we believe is important to do is to highlight other parts of America that represent the character of our people and that can make for interesting venues. So we did know that we wanted to go outside of Washington. And, again, Chicago clearly has a great capacity to host these types of events.
In terms of how specifically those logistics will be handled, I can ask some of my colleagues at the White House who’ve been more engaged in that, and I’m sure that the mayor’s office in Chicago will have additional information.
Q So who’s the lead on it? What agency in the White House takes the lead on organizing this?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: In terms of who’s the lead for preparing for a NATO summit, I believe that would be done out of the State Department, given that the State Department runs our diplomatic relations. So the White House will be working closely with the State Department and the U.S. Mission at NATO, our ambassador there, Ivo Daalder, to coordinate with the city of Chicago. So we have kind of a team of folks at State who are working the summit in Honolulu with APEC and will now be working with the Chicago folks on both the G8 and NATO summit. But we can get back to you on some of this.
Q What other cities were in the competition? I mean, this was an informal conversation? There was never bidding or anything, was it? As far as we know it was not?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: No, it wasn’t really a bidding or a competition. I think — so it wasn’t like a very wide net that was cast. I think that we — there were a number of discussions here about places, and Chicago emerged as a very natural fit, again, given its resources, given its diversity as an international city, and of course there was interest from Chicago and Mayor Emanuel and others in hosting these events. So it just very much solidified as a good fit over the course of the last several weeks, and I think we arrived at that decision within the last month.
And we felt it was a good opportunity to announce it in conjunction with the President’s announcement today because the NATO summit will be one of the next — if we look out into the future in Afghanistan, we have this announcement, we have the Bonn Conference in Germany in December, which will be an important opportunity to assess the political situation in Afghanistan, and then the NATO summit in May will be the next big opportunity for the alliance to come together to assess the progress that’s been made since Lisbon and to discuss the next phase of transition.
Q Okay, thank you. If you have someone get back to me on some other details, I won’t belabor anything. Thank you.
Q I want to walk through the math a little bit and then — you said that by the end — by September of 2012 no more than 33,000 troops will be out. What is the number that you expect that will be in?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: To be precise, what I said was, there were 33,000 troops that were associated with the West Point surge — 30,000 announced by the President at West Point. And then it turned out about 3,000 additional troops come and enable the surge. So there were 33,000 troops associated with the West Point surge.
Ten thousand of those troops will be removed by the end of this year, and those reductions will begin in July and the 10,000 will be fully out of Afghanistan by the end of this year. The full 33,000 of the surge will be out by next summer. So by no later than September, the full 33,000 troops associated with the West Point surge will be out of Afghanistan. That would leave roughly 68,000 troops in Afghanistan next summer.
That said, the President will also make clear that that’s not the end of reductions; that’s the recovery of the surge. And then beyond that point, we will continue to draw down our forces. We can’t say with specificity here today the pace of that, because we have to hit this first milestone of recovering the surge. But it is worth underscoring that that will not be the end of the process of drawdown; that as we are transitioning to the Afghan security forces taking the lead for security, we will continue to reduce a number of our troops over time, as we approach the goal of a full transition to the Afghans by 2014.
Q Quick follow-up. To what extent does public opinion in the U.S. — which seems to be souring on the occupation of Afghanistan — to what extent does that play — did that play a role in your deliberations recently?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It really doesn’t play a role. The President looks at a range of things. He looks at the objectives that we’re trying to meet in Afghanistan and the resources that are necessary to meet those objectives. And again, given the core goal of defeating al Qaeda and the progress we’ve made against that goal, as well as the objectives of breaking the Taliban’s momentum and training Afghan security forces, we believe we can pursue reductions in our troops at this pace.
The President of course also looks at the global picture. That includes what are our other national security priorities around the world. It includes what is the state of our military forces and the burden that our troops have borne for so many years; what is the cost to the American taxpayer of these wars. So those considerations come into play because as Commander-in-Chief he obviously has to look at both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also our broader national considerations. So all of those influence the decision that he made.
I think he is certainly aware that the American public, after nearly a decade of war, is of course focused on making sure that we are pursuing a responsible end to these wars. And I think that it’s an important moment for him to be able to say to the American people, we are winding down the war in Iraq; we’ve removed 100,000 troops there; we’re continuing to remove our troops over the course of this year that remain in Iraq; and now we have peaked in Afghanistan and are beginning to come down there as well through a path towards winding down the war in Afghanistan.
So I think it is important to identify this as a pivot point in some respects as we go over this hump in Afghanistan, and pursue the same type of responsible effort to wind down the war that we’ve undertaken in Iraq the last two years.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And I’d just add — I’m sorry to join late — but this is one of the reasons that the President has put great premium on working very closely with Congress, to keep Congress fully informed of, and well consulted on, the decisions that he and his national security cabinet have taken on Afghanistan since the start of this administration.
And so I know that people heard from Jay over the course of the last several days the full range of consultations that have been undergoing with Congress during the course of this review, actually, and also just most intensively over the course of the last week or so. But we obviously do believe that Congress has a critical role to play here, and that’s why the President has made that such a key priority.
Q Hi, everyone. Thanks for doing the call. I’ve got a couple, but I’ll be quick. Did General Petraeus specifically endorse this plan, or was it one of the options that General Petraeus gave to the President? And as a follow-up, did Gates, Panetta and Clinton all endorse it? Finally, will the President say about how many troops will remain past 2014? And of the 33,000 coming home by next summer, how many are coming home and how many are going to be reassigned somewhere else?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay, I’ll take part of that. In terms of General Petraeus, I think that, consistent with our approach to this, General Petraeus presented the President with a range of options for pursuing this drawdown. There were certainly options that went beyond what the President settled on in terms of the length of time that it would take to recover the surge and the pace that troops would come out — so there were options that would have kept troops in Afghanistan longer at a higher number.
That said, the President’s decision was fully within the range of options that were presented to him and has the full support of his national security team. I think there’s a broad understanding among the national security team that there’s an imperative to both consolidate the gains that have been made and continue our efforts to train Afghan security forces and partner with them in going after the Taliban, while also being very serious about the process of transition and the drawdown of our forces.
So, to your first question, I would certainly — I would characterize it that way. There were a range. Some of those options would not have removed troops as fast as the President chose to do, but the President’s decision was fully in the range of options the President considered.
Just for a process point, over the course of last week the President had three meetings with his national security team to include Secretary Gates, Secretary Clinton, Director Panetta, Director Clapper, but also General Petraeus was in all of those discussions as well — and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, of course, Admiral Mullen.
In terms of the troops, I couldn’t be specific about that. They’re obviously coming out of Afghanistan.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The vast majority will return to their home bases. Now, some of them may be home-based in Europe, but the vast majority are home-based in the States. And given that we’re also drawing down in Iraq, most of those who are coming out of Afghanistan will return to home bases either in Europe or the States.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll just make one point off of that point that my colleague made on Iraq. If you look at the total number of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I don’t have the precise figures in front of me, but it was roughly 180,000 when the President took office. Given the drawdown in Iraq, even with the increase in troops in Afghanistan, it’s at roughly 150,000 now. Given this decision today and our plans in Iraq, by the end of this year that number should be at under 100,000. So there’s a clear trajectory in terms of the number of U.S. troops in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan is already reduced by several tens of thousands and will be even more dramatically reduced by the end of this year.
Q Can I just ask what was the effect, pro and con, that General Petraeus projected would — could emerge with this option if the President chose it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, Margaret. Well, I think you’ll have — everybody will have plenty of opportunity to ask General Petraeus and, frankly, each of the members of the National Security Council, their views of what happened. I think we’ll not get in a position beyond kind of the general parameters that my colleague gave of characterizing people’s positions. That’s just not how we roll.
And I think, frankly, the President was particularly pleased that this review was conducted in the fashion that it was conducted. I think it was a good — a great credit obviously to the leadership, but I’d just give a particular note of appreciation for Doug Lute and Jeff Eggers at the national security staff who worked on this very aggressively and I think in a manner that allowed for the kind of robust debate and consideration that resulted in what is a very good and durable solution.
MR. VIETOR: Let’s do one more question.
Q Thank you so much for doing this. A question about the recent reports from the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations on the civilian efforts and how critical the report was of what’s been achieved. Will the President be dealing with that and with the reported failures of a lot of the civilian reconstruction to achieve the goals, considering the amount of money and time and lives that have been spent, invested in that? And can you respond in advance to the statement that Senator Lugar has just issued, which he is planning to direct to Secretary Clinton in the morning at their hearing — on concerns that we are still, despite the anticipated remarks tonight, still not focused on the real threats in places like Yemen, as much as we are still wed to the efforts in Afghanistan?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’d say one thing and then turn it over to my colleague. To your latter question, I think what you’ve seen in this administration is an extraordinary effort to refocus our resources on the very real threats. What had taken place over the course of the previous several years was essentially taking our eye off of al Qaeda, its core leadership in Pakistan, and the extent to which al Qaeda had metastasized to places like Yemen, precisely because we had decided to invade Iraq and spend a great deal of time and resources and sacrifice there, rather than focusing on al Qaeda.
When we came into office we took a different framework. First of all, we made it clear we are at war with not a tactic, frankly, of terrorism, but against a very specific group — al Qaeda and its affiliates; and that we set a very clear goal, which is disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its affiliates, and denying them the ability to attack the United States. That has involved, above all, the efforts to destroy the safe haven in Pakistan, which, again, we’ve spoke to the progress on. But it’s also involved a significant increase in our efforts to work with partners in places like Yemen and Somalia as well, to take terrorists off the battlefield there.
And I think you’ve seen counterterrorism successes in recent weeks in Somalia for instance, where finally one of the individuals responsible for the bombings of our embassy was brought to justice. And in Yemen, we’ve seen some important members of AQAP taken off the battlefield.
So we have I think refocused our counterterrorism resources on al Qaeda and the most dangerous affiliates that they have, and that’s in contrast to, frankly — to the focus on Iraq that preceded this administration.
But I’ll turn to my colleague to expound on that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Obviously what I commend to your attention in association with the report, the Foreign Relations Committee’s, I think a very robust and detailed letter from Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides, who’s been rigorously reviewing the civilian assistance program across Afghanistan, ensuring that we are getting the — that U.S. taxpayers are getting the value for the resources that they’re putting in, one; two, ensuring that as we wind down this robust presence heading into 2014, that we are not — that we are taking into consideration the economic impact of that on the ground in Afghanistan, so as to ensure that the economic situation on the ground remains similarly stable to allow for Afghans to assume the sovereignty and the control of their country that they so clearly want to do.
And the bottom line, too, on the results here, is that nobody holds a higher standard on this issue than the President, who has demanded weekly updates on progress on the ground on both civilian and military efforts. That includes the assistance that we’re investing and the programs that Chairman Kerry pointed out. So we appreciated his efforts, and we’re continuing to work very aggressively to address those concerns — and the President.
Now, as it relates to the issue of the statement that I don’t think any of us here has seen, but which you’ve just described to us, that sometimes it’s very difficult to follow the arguments in Washington. Not recently — very recently, we were charged with having started an additional war in Yemen, suggesting that, in fact, we’re too aggressive against al Qaeda. Now, apparently, it turns out that we’re not aggressive enough against al Qaeda in Yemen. And I think, astoundingly, there is a move in the House of Representatives to take an effort as it relates to the ongoing effort to stop a tyrant in Libya and to turn it into a political football in such a way here as to give, at a critical time — potentially send a very negative signal to the leadership of that country, which, as we all know, has over the course of time carried out hateful and heinous attacks against U.S. citizens, including terrorist attacks.
So the President’s guidance to us is very clear: Stay on the offense against al Qaeda, wherever they manifest. Make sure that we are investing the resources in a way that is durable, but that addresses the principal threats this country faces. And as my colleague pointed out at the top of the answer to this question, that was true from the beginning — refocusing our attention on the threat by al Qaeda. As we squeeze that threat by al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they’re going to look for other opportunities, be that in Yemen, be that in the Horn of Africa, be that in Southeast Asia. So we’re going to stay on the offense against them there.
And what we’re going to do is take action where we must and strengthen partners where we can, because this is not always going to be an effort that’s going to rely on large armies, but rather on targeted and precise efforts from the U.S. national security efforts.
Q Again, just to follow, what do you anticipate the $19 billion in civilian aid that’s been spent there in the last eight years or so — what do you imagine that would be in out-years as you begin to withdraw the military side?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, well, we’ll obviously be making an effort here to coordinate all these efforts, to leverage investments from the rest of the international community, to ensure that as we take a hard look at our military presence, that we’re right-sizing the civilian presence as well.
So these efforts obviously will be important over the course of time, but we’re not in a position yet to make any of those kinds of estimates.
MR. VIETOR: Thanks, everybody, for getting on. We’ll send you the transcript as soon as it’s available. And again, these are background senior administration officials, embargoed until 8:00 p.m. this evening when the President speaks.
END 4:22 P.M. EDT
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
ON THE WAY FORWARD IN AFGHANISTAN
8:01 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good evening. Nearly 10 years ago, America suffered the worst attack on our shores since Pearl Harbor. This mass murder was planned by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network in Afghanistan, and signaled a new threat to our security — one in which the targets were no longer soldiers on a battlefield, but innocent men, women and children going about their daily lives.
In the days that followed, our nation was united as we struck at al Qaeda and routed the Taliban in Afghanistan. Then, our focus shifted. A second war was launched in Iraq, and we spent enormous blood and treasure to support a new government there. By the time I took office, the war in Afghanistan had entered its seventh year. But al Qaeda’s leaders had escaped into Pakistan and were plotting new attacks, while the Taliban had regrouped and gone on the offensive. Without a new strategy and decisive action, our military commanders warned that we could face a resurgent al Qaeda and a Taliban taking over large parts of Afghanistan.
For this reason, in one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve made as President, I ordered an additional 30,000 American troops into Afghanistan. When I announced this surge at West Point, we set clear objectives: to refocus on al Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country. I also made it clear that our commitment would not be open-ended, and that we would begin to draw down our forces this July.
Tonight, I can tell you that we are fulfilling that commitment. Thanks to our extraordinary men and women in uniform, our civilian personnel, and our many coalition partners, we are meeting our goals. As a result, starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point. After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.
We’re starting this drawdown from a position of strength. Al Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11. Together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of al Qaeda’s leadership. And thanks to our intelligence professionals and Special Forces, we killed Osama bin Laden, the only leader that al Qaeda had ever known. This was a victory for all who have served since 9/11. One soldier summed it up well. “The message,” he said, “is we don’t forget. You will be held accountable, no matter how long it takes.”
The information that we recovered from bin Laden’s compound shows al Qaeda under enormous strain. Bin Laden expressed concern that al Qaeda had been unable to effectively replace senior terrorists that had been killed, and that al Qaeda has failed in its effort to portray America as a nation at war with Islam — thereby draining more widespread support. Al Qaeda remains dangerous, and we must be vigilant against attacks. But we have put al Qaeda on a path to defeat, and we will not relent until the job is done.
In Afghanistan, we’ve inflicted serious losses on the Taliban and taken a number of its strongholds. Along with our surge, our allies also increased their commitments, which helped stabilize more of the country. Afghan security forces have grown by over 100,000 troops, and in some provinces and municipalities we’ve already begun to transition responsibility for security to the Afghan people. In the face of violence and intimidation, Afghans are fighting and dying for their country, establishing local police forces, opening markets and schools, creating new opportunities for women and girls, and trying to turn the page on decades of war.
Of course, huge challenges remain. This is the beginning — but not the end — of our effort to wind down this war. We’ll have to do the hard work of keeping the gains that we’ve made, while we draw down our forces and transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government. And next May, in Chicago, we will host a summit with our NATO allies and partners to shape the next phase of this transition.
We do know that peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement. So as we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban. Our position on these talks is clear: They must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution. But, in part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made.
The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: No safe haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies. We won’t try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people, and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace. What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures — one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.
Of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region. We’ll work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keeps its commitments. For there should be no doubt that so long as I am President, the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us. They cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve.
My fellow Americans, this has been a difficult decade for our country. We’ve learned anew the profound cost of war — a cost that’s been paid by the nearly 4,500 Americans who have given their lives in Iraq, and the over 1,500 who have done so in Afghanistan — men and women who will not live to enjoy the freedom that they defended. Thousands more have been wounded. Some have lost limbs on the battlefield, and others still battle the demons that have followed them home.
Yet tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding. Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way. We’ve ended our combat mission in Iraq, with 100,000 American troops already out of that country. And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end.
As they do, we must learn their lessons. Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world. Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extended, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.
We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. When threatened, we must respond with force — but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas. When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action, which we’re doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their own destiny.
In all that we do, we must remember that what sets America apart is not solely our power — it is the principles upon which our union was founded. We’re a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens. We protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others. We stand not for empire, but for self-determination. That is why we have a stake in the democratic aspirations that are now washing across the Arab world. We will support those revolutions with fidelity to our ideals, with the power of our example, and with an unwavering belief that all human beings deserve to live with freedom and dignity.
Above all, we are a nation whose strength abroad has been anchored in opportunity for our citizens here at home. Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource — our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industries, while living within our means. We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy. And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war. For our nation draws strength from our differences, and when our union is strong no hill is too steep, no horizon is beyond our reach.
America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.
In this effort, we draw inspiration from our fellow Americans who have sacrificed so much on our behalf. To our troops, our veterans and their families, I speak for all Americans when I say that we will keep our sacred trust with you, and provide you with the care and benefits and opportunity that you deserve.
I met some of these patriotic Americans at Fort Campbell. A while back, I spoke to the 101st Airborne that has fought to turn the tide in Afghanistan, and to the team that took out Osama bin Laden. Standing in front of a model of bin Laden’s compound, the Navy SEAL who led that effort paid tribute to those who had been lost — brothers and sisters in arms whose names are now written on bases where our troops stand guard overseas, and on headstones in quiet corners of our country where their memory will never be forgotten. This officer — like so many others I’ve met on bases, in Baghdad and Bagram, and at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital — spoke with humility about how his unit worked together as one, depending on each other, and trusting one another, as a family might do in a time of peril.
That’s a lesson worth remembering — that we are all a part of one American family. Though we have known disagreement and division, we are bound together by the creed that is written into our founding documents, and a conviction that the United States of America is a country that can achieve whatever it sets out to accomplish. Now, let us finish the work at hand. Let us responsibly end these wars, and reclaim the American Dream that is at the center of our story. With confidence in our cause, with faith in our fellow citizens, and with hope in our hearts, let us go about the work of extending the promise of America — for this generation, and the next.
May God bless our troops. And may God bless the United States of America.