Background Conference Call to Preview President S Speech on Afghanistan

Background Conference Call to Preview President S Speech on Afghanistan

Background Conference Call to Preview President’s Speech on Afghanistan

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

3:30pm EDT / 2:30pm CDT

Washington, DC


Ben Rhodes

Important to note: situation when came into office is that the situation in Afg has been deteriorating because of a shift in focus to Iraq. Taliban took initiative in Af, had a stronghold in Pak.

President took decision to surge forces there – West Point, announced speech of 30k troop surge. Set 3 objectives

First, deny aQ a safe haven

Reverse Taliban’s momentum to not let them take control of country

Training Afghan national security forces to take their own responsibility

Made decision today (18 mo later) having made substantial progress towards those objectives in CT front and efforts against aQ

Believe O is making decision from position of strength – keeping commitment

Announce that 10k troops will come out by end of 2011. Full 33k from surge will be brought out by next summer – no later than Sept, but maybe before. Emphasize surge troops.

Initial drawdown – will continue the drawdown beyond next summer. The whole thing will be complete by 2014. NATO summit will be in Chicago in May—coalition will discuss next phase in transition.

Opportunity to reflect on a full decade since 9/11 – at war with sacrifice and great costs. Will focus on tribute of the soldier’s sacrifice. Also going to focus on Iraq drawdown and how it was reduced. We are beginning to reduce our troops in Afghanistan too. American people will understand Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down in a way that achieves core objective – defeat al-Qaida.

CT ASPECTS – John Brennan

Threat side: Haven’t seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afg in the past 7 or 8 years. Terrorists there focus on Afg, no evidence of using Afg as a “launching pad” for elsewhere. Real threat comes from Pakistan. We’ve taken key leaders off of the battlefield—the leadership degradation has an impact on their operational capabilities. Can’t train in Waziristan and Fattah. Disrupted pipeline of future attacks and took offline explosive experts.

Degradation of capabilities has accompanied an unsafe environment for them in Waziristan, slowing the flow of troops into Afghanistan.

Have not been able to carry out their activities within the area

Impact on the old safe havens is significant

CT capabilities in place: Working with the Pakis whenever possible + working on our own, we’ve put in place framework of how we prosecute the efforts. Architecture comes from exceptional precision and surgical aspect of this. Lots of attention on Paki pushback but the truth is that many officials in the Paki CT apparatus see us as necessary to get rid of aQ

What impact of reduction will be on threat and CT capabilities: drawdown will not increase the threat (in our view). Because we don’t see a transnational terror threat from Afghanistan. CT architecture will not be affected either, either on the ground or by air. Advantage of last two and a half years will continue


Surge was focused on particular areas in the Taliban heartland: Helmand & Kandahar. We’ve seen the most progress there on the ground. These are areas that were safe havens for years, but they are now controlled by NATO forces under ISAF or by Afghan forces – not the Taliban.

We’ve developed a “sophisticated blend” of military and civilian tools. Special operations campaign, classical CT strategy. Sometimes these anti-terror Afghan units run ops themselves. Afghan Local Police is like a neighborhood watch that works. We’ve seen the emergence of re-integration – grassroots local initiative to attract Taliban local commanders into communities.

NSF front: last 18 months, over 100k afghan security forces have been fielded. We’ve also seen institutions behind those troops mature to an extent. Training centers, military academies, etc. founded by NATO and US forces are now run by Afghans themselves—doing the training. 2 years ago, it was the US doing all the training. Great maturing of the Afghan security force institutions.

We’ve seen the coalition largely sustained in a period of budget crises and tough politics. Where forces have been reduced/removed, we’ve seen intl partners invest those troops into training functions.

Military campaign has enabled political initiatives:

(1)transition – at West Point, we didn’t have a path to Afghan Lead. At Lisbon, Karzai and NATO figured out a framework to get everyone done by 2014

(2)reconciliation – more than just the one line at West Point. Now we have an active program to re-integrate old Taliban fighters into Afghan community. Karzai has signed off on this

(3)enduring partnership – NATO has already signed up beyond 2014, US is also working on forging a bilateral partnership to secure an enduring commitment with Afghanistan beyond 2014


President made calls to foreign leaders about the decision: Cameron, Sarkozy, Merkel, Rasmussen, Karzai, Zardari – about our efforts. Pakistan has upped their commitments as well as our. They all agreed that the coalition remain closely allied for the future.

Making calls to Congressional leaders as well. Series of consultations with leaders of Congress over the past couple of weeks, as well.


What will the President say on Pakistan? Haven’t heard much about progress there? Any changes?

President will address Pakistan. From 2009, we’ve crafted a strategy that shows these two are interwoven. We want to defeat aQ wherever they are in those two countries, so it has been a core goal from the beginning of our efforts.

Removal of more than half of aQ’s senior leadership since West Point speech, including OBL, can be attributed to help from Pakistan. Despite this, it’s been a difficult relationship, so we understand the need to secure a more peaceful future in the region. Believe that Pak needs to keep its commitments, and that no country needs to get rid of extremists than Pak.

Will underscore that we’ll never allow a safe-haven

David Corn, Mother Jones: is there a need to have 60-80k troops in Afghanistan if there’s no transnational threat?

What’s clear is that the security situation in AfPak are interrelated. 9/11 originated in Af, aQ was able to pursue those because of the safe-haven. After Iraq War, we saw shift of aQ leaders moving to Pakistan. We’ve been clear that safe-haven has been in Pak since then. In 2009, Taliban was increasing territory they controlled (including regions near Pak border); we decided that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was a bad idea because it could re-create safe-havens. Would have to have a degree of stability in any government in Afghanistan.

Not trying to pacify entire country of Afghanistan or Pakistan. This is not trying to destroy any last vestige of Taliban. We just want to support a government that can hold its own. Also, need to go for political settlement where Taliban is split from aQ.

Brennan: obviously it served as haven in the past. Could serve again in the future. aQ threat comes from Pak. Drawdown will not affect our ability to go after aQ in Pak, but we need to try to prevent reemergence of aQ in Afgh.

We don’t need 60-80k … we are going from over 100k to around 70k by next summer because we are confident to train security forces, etc. We believe we can secure our interests while pursuing our drawdown.

aQ and other groups will seek a path of least resistance. Our interest in Afgh is to make Afgh resistant to their efforts, so they won’t go back there.

Lynn Sweets, Chicago Sun-Times: when did Chicago come into play for the NATO/G8 meetings? Who will be in charge of organizing those efforts?

US announced we’d host next NATO summit at Lisbon in December. Over course of next several months, we had conversations with a range of different cities and settled on Chicago. Chicago will also host G8 summit around the same time. Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emmanuel will do a great job on making it work. We wanted to highlight other parts of America besides just the capital.

Logistics will forthcoming. Agency in lead on it—done out of State, given that State runs diplomatic relations. Wasn’t bidding by other cities … not a wide net that was cast looking for new cities. Decision was made in the last month.

Bonn conference in Germany in December will be a good opportunity to reassess Afpak amongst the allies.

You say that by Sept 2012, no more than 33k troops will be out? What will be in?

There are 33k troops with West Point surge. 10k of them will be removed by the end of this year. Reductions will begin by July. Full 33k of the surge will be out by next summer, no later than September. That would leave roughly 68k troops in Afghanistan. The president will make clear that that’s not the end. We’ll continue to draw down past that, but don’t have specifics on that just yet.

To what extent does US public opinion play a role in these decisions?

O looks at objectives we’re trying to meet + resources needed to meet those objectives. We figured we could pursue reductions at this pace. O also looks at the global picture – what are our other commitments and where? What is the cost to the taxpayers of these wars? These are what we look at.

Aware that public after a decade is focused on a responsible end. Important to say that we’re winding this down, like we did in Iraq. Make it clear that we’ve peaked our commitment to Afghanistan—this is a pivot point.

This is a reason why O has put a premium on keeping Congress well-consulted with Afghanistan since the beginning of his term. Full range of consultations have been undergoing over the entire course of this review, most intensively over the course of the past week. We believe that Congress has a good role to play here.

Margaret Teleb, Bloomberg: did Petraeus specifically endorse this plan? Do Gates, Panetta, and Clinton all endorse? How many are coming home and how many are being reassigned elsewhere?

Petraeus presented O with a range of options. Certainly there were options that went beyond this plan in length of time and pace, and some kept troops there longer at a higher number. This decision was fully within the range of options. Has full support of his national security team.

Some options wouldn’t have removed troops as fast, but O was within the range of options that he considered. Over the course of the past week, he had 3 meetings with national security team (Panetta, Petraeus, Clapper, Clinton, Gates, Mullen) and that’s where they all came home.

Vast majority will return to their home bases, even if those bases are in Europe.

Total # of US troops on ground in Iraq + Afghanistan was roughly 180k at inaugurations. Given drawdown in Iraq, its about 150k now (even with surge in Afgh). That number should be at under 100k with both withdrawals by the end of the year.

Andrea Mitchell, NBC: recent reports from Senate on civilian efforts—will O be dealing with the civilian efforts that have failed? Can you respond in advance to Lugar’s attack?

What you’ve seen is an extraordinary effort to redirect our efforts back to a-Q and Afghanistan. We’d taken the eye off the ball and so they grew in places like Yemen. We made it clear that we were at war with a specific group, not a tactic. This has involved the efforts to destroy the safe-haven in Afghanistan. We’re also working with partners in Yemen and Somalia to take terrorists off the battlefield in those places too. We’ve focused our CT resources on aQ and their affiliates – a contrast from the focus on Iraq the previous administration had.

Tom Nides has been reviewing civilian assistance program to ensure taxpayers get a benefit from the resources being put forward. Have to make sure that going forward to 2014, the economic situation on the ground remains stable to allow for afghans to take sovereignty of their country.

Bottom line on results is that nobody holds us to higher standards than O. He demands weekly progress reports on both civilian and military efforts on the ground.

It’s difficult to follow arguments in Washington. We were charged with starting an additional war in Yemen, and we were too aggressive. Now we’re being attacked by the House for Yemen not going far enough and being too aggressive in Libya. We’re trying to take out a “tyrant” who has had attacks against US citizens.

Our focus is clear: attack aQ wherever they are. Engage our resources in a durable way, but one that is effective. This refocus to aQ has always been our goal from the beginning in AfPak, and to stay on the offense when they migrate to Horn of Africa and Yemen. This won’t always rely on large armies, but it will be done.

What about the $19 billion in civilian aid? What will happen to that when you withdraw?

We are coordinating the efforts to leverage investments from intl community to this region. We aren’t able to make these estimates at the time.