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The 2012 NATO Chicago Summit brings world leaders to Chicago May 20-21

Obama wanted U.S-Afghan deal signed before Chicago NATO Summit. Briefing transcript

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THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
For Immediate Release May 1, 2012


BACKGROUND BRIEFING
BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Afghanistan


8:15 P.M. AFT


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I'll just make a few comments and then turn it over to my colleague here. President Obama is traveling to Afghanistan today to sign an historic strategic partnership agreement between the United States and Afghanistan. And my colleague will describe that in a few moments.

What we'll do after we land, as you understand, is we'll go the Kabul to meet with President Karzai and then to sign the strategic partnership agreement. The SPA recently concluded after 20 months of negotiations and President Obama and President Karzai had a shared goal of signing this agreement before the Chicago summit, and doing so on Afghan soil.

The SPA provides a long-term framework for the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan after the process of transition and the drawdown of U.S. forces. It details how the partnership between our countries will be normalized as the war comes to an end. And so I'll leave it to my colleague here to talk further about the SPA.

I'll also just say that this agreement comes at a time when we have made substantial progress towards achieving our goal in Afghanistan, which the President has always said is defeating al Qaeda and denying it the ability to rebuild a safe haven. And we believe, of course, that we have put al Qaeda on a path to defeat and are within reach of achieving our goals here.

So later this evening American time, the President will address the nation and he'll talk about how the SPA is one component of our broader plan to responsibly end the war in Afghanistan. And the strategy that we're pursuing to achieve our objectives and end the war here has five elements: transitioning to Afghan lead for security; training Afghan security forces; building enduring partnership with Afghanistan; reconciliation within the country; and promoting regional stability.

So first, as you know, we have begun a transition to Afghan responsibility. Nearly half the Afghan people live in areas where the ANSF are moving into the lead. In Chicago at the NATO summit, we will be announcing a milestone in which Afghan forces will move into the lead for combat operations across the country next year. International troops will continue to train, advise and assist, and fight alongside the Afghans when needed. But we will be shifting into a support role.

Then, moving forward, we will complete the process of transition, as we agreed in Lisbon, in 2014. And at that point, the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country.

Second, we're training Afghan security forces. That is actually proceeding ahead of schedule. And because of that, those forces are going to reach their surge peak this year at 352,000. And in Chicago, we expect to be able to endorse an Afghan proposal to have a sustainable force in the out-years, which we can discuss, of 230,000 Afghan soldiers and police.

Third, we are building an enduring partnership with Afghanistan and the SPA is, of course, a centerpiece of that. And again, I'll leave it here to my colleague to get into those details.

Fourth, we're pursuing Afghan-led reconciliation. And as you know, the United States, in coordination with the Afghan government, has made it clear directly to the Taliban that they can be a part of Afghanistan's future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence, and abide by Afghan laws. And frankly, this SPA I think sends a further message that those who do not reconcile will be faced with strong security forces that are backed by the United States and our allies.

And finally, we're building an international consensus around peace and stability in South Asia. As a part of that, we believe that Pakistan can and should be an equal partner in a way that respects Pakistani sovereignty interests and democratic institutions. We have made clear and will continue to do so that we have significant interest in an end to al Qaeda safe havens and, of course, respect for Afghan sovereignty.

But really, the anchor event before the President's speech is, of course, his signing of the SPA. So I'll turn it over to my colleague on that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much. And I'll just reiterate my thanks to you all for coming on the trip.

My colleague has laid out the five lines of effort in our strategy. I want to go into depth on one line of that strategy -- namely, partnership. And news of today will be President Karzai and President Obama signing the strategic partnership agreement that back in May 2010, the two of them committed their countries to negotiating and concluding, which would provide a framework for our future relations not just on security issues, but on a wide range of regional, economic, governance and development issues. So they'll sign that agreement today.

Let me just go into why we think it's important and what we think it will do. The agreement will detail how the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan, two sovereign powers, will be normalized as the war comes to an end. Similar to what we did in Iraq, we are seeking an enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability and prosperity, and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating al Qaeda and its extremist affiliates.

We've learned, importantly, the rule of 1989, and that's obviously clear in this document. In that year, the international community abandoned Afghanistan to years of civil war, which was followed obviously by Taliban rule. That is a mistake that we will not repeat. This agreement will make clear to the Taliban, to al Qaeda, and to other international terrorist groups that they cannot wait us out.

The agreement is not only a signal of long-term commitment by the United States, but a document that enshrines commitments by both countries to each other with a common purpose. Our commitments to support Afghanistan's social and economic development, security, institutions and regional cooperation is matched by Afghan commitments to strengthen accountability, transparency, oversight, and to protect the human rights of all Afghans, men and women.

But I want to make one thing additionally clear -- the strategic partnership is a crucial component to bring the war to an end responsibly. It does not do this on its own, however. There are still challenges ahead. And we must continue pursuing each of the other four pillars of our strategy that my colleague has laid out. This agreement complements and strengthens each of the additional efforts.

A framework for long-term partnership is necessary to make credible the sufficiency and sustainability of the Afghan National Security Forces. It's essential to our plans to transition to Afghan security lead. It bolsters our efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table where they can talk about the future of Afghanistan with the Afghan government. And publicly outlining our plans for future presence should help reduce anxiety in the neighborhood about our intentions and provide Afghanistan's neighbors with the assurances they need to take their own critical steps to support long-term Afghan peace and stability.

When it comes to an enduring U.S. presence, President Obama has been very clear: We do not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Instead, this agreement commits Afghanistan to provide U.S. personnel access to, and use of, Afghan facilities through 2014 and beyond.

The agreement also provides for the possibility of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014 for two specific purposes -- training Afghan forces and targeting the remnants of al Qaeda. The agreement commits the United States and Afghanistan to initiate negotiations on a bilateral security agreement to supercede our current status of forces agreement. The U.S. will also designate Afghanistan what we call a major non-NATO ally to provide a long-term framework for security and defense cooperation.

Incidentally, this will be the first major non-NATO ally that President Obama has designated during his time as President. To be clear, this agreement does not, itself, commit the United States to any specific troop level or levels of funding in the future, as those are decisions that must be made in consultation with U.S. Congress. It does, however, commit the United States to seek funding from Congress on an annual basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces, as well as for social and economic assistance.

President Obama intends to maintain the downward trajectory of our troop numbers as he has announced. He will not make specific decisions of further drawdowns before the current drawdown is complete in September 2012. But you all heard him say that reductions will continue at a steady pace. When he makes these decisions, he will do so based on our national interest, taking into account the advice of our military and in consultation with Afghan and ISAF partners.

While the following is not exhaustive, here are some highlights of each of the areas of the SPA that I want to bring to your attention.

One, the area of protecting and promoting democratic values. We and the Afghans agree that a strong commitment to protecting and promoting democratic values and human rights provides a foundation for our long-term cooperation. In this document, Afghanistan makes significant commitments to strengthen its electoral processes and to conduct free, fair and transparent elections, which will obviously be critical in 2014.

Afghanistan also makes robust commitments to ensure the essential role and rights of women, and to forbid discrimination and distinction between citizens.

Second, on advancing long-term security. In addition to the security arrangements described above, the U.S. and Afghanistan underscore our strong support for Afghan peace and reconciliation efforts. This includes a reiteration of the outcomes we've long agreed to that anybody involved in reconciliation must break ties with al Qaeda, renounce violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution, including its protections for all Afghans. We also agree to enhance information and intelligence sharing to counter common foes and threats to include terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime and money laundering.

And finally, in this section we made clear that were Afghanistan to be threatened by an external actor, we would consult on an urgent basis the develop an appropriate response. This is not a mutual defense treaty with any kind of security commitment to act in the common defense of Afghanistan.

Third, reinforcing regional and security cooperation. In this section of the agreement, Afghanistan has agreed to provisions reinforcing the core principles of the Istanbul Process, launched with our support in November 2011, all of these around the fundamental concept of Afghanistan and its full sovereignty. It also is committed to pursue regional trade, transit, and energy initiatives, and to help mobilize international support for regional investments in its economic development.

Fourth, social and economic development. Here Afghanistan is committed to enhance "decisively" -- and that's a quote -- enhanced efforts to "decisively" -- that's a quote -- fight all forms of corruption, including strengthening its anti-corruption institutions and fulfilling its international obligations. In the economic sphere, we will work together to strengthen Afghanistan's economic foundation and support sustainable development, particularly in the areas of licit agriculture, transportation, trade, transit, water and energy.

Afghanistan committed to fostering responsible management of its natural resources and to building a strong financial system -- obviously two issues we spent a lot of time on. We agreed to help Afghanistan develop its human capacity through improved access to education and health care. Lastly in this section, we seek to commit -- recommit to seek funding on a yearly basis for social and economic assistance at the same time that Afghanistan acknowledges that increased levels of U.S. on-budget assistance are dependent on Afghanistan establishing clear and transparent mechanisms to spend that money.

Fifth, strengthening Afghan institutions and governance. In this document, Afghanistan makes a binding commitment to promote efficiency and accountability at all levels of government to ensure the fair and objective provision of services.

Lastly, on the implementing arrangements of the agreement. The partnership document that will be signed today establishes implementing arrangements and mechanisms to ensure that we are effectively carrying out the commitments that we've made to one another. To ensure that is effectively implemented, the agreement today will establish the Afghanistan-United States Bilateral Commission, which will be chaired by the foreign ministers or their designees, and will meet on a semi-annual basis to oversee implementation of each of the commitments of the document.

So that's a general overlay of an agreement that we believe fulfills not only the commitment of May 2010, when the two Presidents set about to agree -- to negotiate this agreement, which I might add the President has communicated directly to Ambassador Crocker his appreciation of Ambassador Crocker's excellent negotiating work on this document. Building on the concrete progress of the memorandum of understanding as it relates to detention and special operations that were agreed to over the course of the last several months, it allows us to continue this process of respecting Afghan sovereignty and finishing the transition to their security lead so that we can end our role in this war.

So now we'll open to your questions.

Q Two topics. Just to make sure I understand, on the troop component, the Afghans are agreeing to allow U.S. forces after 2014 for training and for counterterrorism on al Qaeda. But the specifics, how many -- that's to be determined in a new status of forces and that process is just starting? Is that right?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's right, Ben. Two things. One is, as it relates to what those -- how many forces will be there, that will be a decision that we make obviously as we -- as I said, in consultation with ISAF and in consultation with the Afghans. But it will be driven by those two missions, which are very clear and (inaudible) missions. So the numbers will be determined by us in consultation with our allies.

Second -- and I'll go to bat on that -- on the rules of engagement, those will be determined, and what we can do there -- what access to kinds of facilities we'll have, that will be negotiated in a bilateral security arrangement which we -- which is noted in the agreement that will be signed today. We'll use -- we've set as a goal the next year to complete the negotiation of that, which incidentally coincides with the mission shift in mid-2013.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And just to take you through the progression, Ben, because it's important -- there is a clear, phased process for drawing down our troops and ending the war. We are in a phase where Afghan security forces are moving into the lead for combat operations in different parts of the country. In 2013, Afghan forces will be in the lead for combat operations across the country and our troops will be in a support role. That will obviously demand fewer troops than we have in Afghanistan today, and the President has made clear that after we get down to 68,000 at the end of the summer, we're going to continue to come down.

Then we'll continue to be in a support role but capable of partnering with them as needed going forward. But in 2014, transition will be complete, so they will be fully responsible for the security of their country. So that after that we would only look at carrying out two narrow and discreet missions -- countering al Qaeda, which of course is our vital national interest in this region, and whatever continued training that we would have to continue to do on Afghan facilities. So you're obviously talking about a significantly smaller number of forces at significantly reduced risk over time and then, of course, after the conclusion of our timeline and the end, frankly, of the war as we have been fighting it in Afghanistan since 2002.

Q Okay. Just to quickly follow -- is it a given that there will be residual U.S. forces for those purposes, or are you saying this agreement allows that but it's up to this President or the next President to decide whether there will be troops there after 2014?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Lisbon process, Ben, envisioned an enduring presence. And obviously we're continuing to work that through with our allies and with President Karzai. But this agreement itself does not commit us to anything but does allow for it -- one. Two, it shares access to Afghan facilities, which is obviously important because we don't have any designs on a permanent military presence or permanent military bases. And then, three, the exact details of what we can do and the roles that will be carried out will obviously be negotiated in this agreement with the Afghans over the next year.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Keep in mind, they share the goal -- the Afghans -- of moving in this direction. The MOUs that my colleague talked about are moving responsibility for detention to the Afghans, moving responsibility for special operations to the Afghans. They want to step forward and assert their sovereignty, just as, frankly, the Iraqis did when we had a similar process for training and transitioning. And so we fully expect that we'll only be focused on very specific, narrow missions that if we did commit any forces to would be, again, nowhere near the level of service that we've seen over the course of the last several years.

Q This agreement obviously doesn't have precise dollar commitments, and I understand the need to get congressional authorization for that. Nevertheless, there are people that say because it doesn't it could be dismissed as more of a symbolic document than a concrete document, and maybe more to the point, I understand the U.S. wants to use this to encourage other countries to pony up. Without having real numbers in it, would that make that a more difficult argument to make to other NATO countries?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Fair question, Mark. Remember that this -- my colleague talked about the phased effort here. That applies as much to our security presence as it does to the policy itself. As you've seen, based on the lead of our -- the President and our principals -- obviously Tom, Secretary Panetta, Secretary Clinton -- we have a series of engagements -- have had a series of engagements with our Afghan and ISAF partners. Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta just came back from the ministerial in Brussels, where they teed up these questions to be resolved in Chicago.

So Chicago is our next major engagement with our allies, where we'll talk about 2013 and mission shift, as well as ANSF and other issues that my colleague laid out. Right after that, in July, member countries will get together in Tokyo and will talk about what are the commitments that we expect from our friends for Afghan development and economic assistance over the long haul. That, too, will not be a specific pointed conference, Mark, but it will be another opportunity for us as partners to sit down with our Afghan friends and say, okay, here is our assessment of what we think you need; let's hear from you what you think you need, and then let's hear from you of how we would together set up the appropriate processes to invest this money.

So we don't want to put the cart in front of the horse on the numbers. We want to make sure that we're doing this on a needs-based requirement, consistent with all the other challenges and investments that we face as a country, and commensurate with the security interests we have in the country.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just on the symbolic nature -- point two -- remember, we had a similar agreement with Iraq. If you back and look at the strategic framework agreement with the Iraqis, again, it envisioned a broad-based partnership. And frankly, that's the agreement we have with the Iraqis and that's the basis of our relationship with Iraq today, as we've ended the war.

So we drew somewhat from that experience to say that, as you end a war in a country, what comes next? And what comes next is a broader, more mature partnership between sovereign states where we're cooperating in a range of areas that extend beyond security. And insofar as we're cooperating on security, we are training and supporting security forces, like we do all over the world, in countries where we're not necessarily at war.

Q You guys both referred to ending the war. Obviously been a series of security incidents in the last few months, including this one two weeks ago involving a shootout which, if my geography is correct, was not that far from where we're supposed to be going today. When you say "ending the war," are you really talking about ending the U.S. role in the war? Are you talking about there not being a civil war or some kind of sustained fighting in Afghanistan after the U.S. troops leave there? It's not clear when you guys talk about ending the war -- are you talking solely about the U.S. role, or are you really thinking about bringing the entire conflict to a conclusion?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we're talking about how do you responsibly end the war that the United States and our allies have been fighting in Afghanistan. And what we mean by that is how do we get to a point where Afghanistan is responsible for its own security. That doesn't mean we're going to eliminate all violence in Afghanistan. This has been a very violent country for a very long time. Even in Iraq, where I think anybody would say the United States is no longer at war, there are occasional acts of violence. But again, we, by any metric, have ended our participation in our war in Iraq, and I think the Iraqis would say that they have moved into a different type of security environment where they don't consider themselves at war either.

So just to get to your specific question about acts of violence -- first of all, just to take an example, the levels of violence that we've seen in Kabul and in Afghanistan recently pale in comparison to the levels of violence, for instance, that we saw in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. It is still a very dangerous place in certain parts of the country. The Taliban, the Haqqani network and their extremist allies have a capability of carrying out acts of terrorism. But what we're saying here today is that's not going to deter us from achieving the end state that we and the Afghans both want, which is Afghan security forces that are capable of dealing with that threat, capable of mitigating that threat without U.S. and other international troops, again, being responsible for patrolling Afghanistan's cities and mountains.

So what we're going to do is have a phased approach to draw down our forces, transition to Afghan security forces, have them stand up and, frankly, as they get stronger they're going to be able to deal with the security situation within Afghanistan even as on occasion there are certainly going to be incidents of terrorism given the neighborhood we're in, given some of the groups that are here.

But we want to make sure that those groups can't, one, launch attacks against the United States or, two, threaten the fundamental stability of Afghanistan and its central government.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Josh, just on your question about the recent attacks, I think -- in fact, we were just talking to the President about this, and I think what he -- his observation was an observation we continue to hear from General Allen, Ambassador Crocker and their teams -- is that the Afghan -- notwithstanding the fact that there have been come challenges in the last couple of months in terms of these specific attacks that you're referring to, Afghan National Security Forces have performed very well. In fact, all the reporting back, as I suggested, from the field has the same conclusion. And we think that that's a very positive development inasmuch as this force, which as my colleague said will later this year reach its full capacity ahead of schedule at 352,000 -- about 195,000 Afghan national army, about 157,000 Afghan national police.

They're in a position now where they're taking on more and more of the responsibility, but also doing it very, very effectively. So we consider that a very positive development. That's why it's important to see these five lines of effort that we've talked about, that my colleague teed up in the overview, and that we've talked about now over the course of the last little bit, as bringing the situation -- bringing this war, as my colleague said, to a close. If you have a credible reconciliation and political process, the Taliban are going to have to make a choice -- are they going to continue to fight and be insurgents for the rest of their lives, or is there something that they want to -- are they going to be part of the political process? That's going to require them to make some choices about their priorities, too, and that's exactly what the Karzai government, the Afghan National Security Forces and our forces on the ground part of the political process. That's going to require them to make some choices about their priorities, too, and that's exactly what the Karzai government, the Afghan National Security Forces and our forces on the ground, our diplomats on the ground, have made possible to force on that now.

Q Could I just ask about the events that have angered Afghans in recent months -- the Koran burnings and the shootings -- and how that affected the talks as the two sides were working out the final details?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think actually what we've demonstrated is that those events, as difficult and tragic as they were, did not at all derail the progress we're making with the Afghans. You had a string of very difficult events in February and March, and yet, during that period of time we reached memorandums of understanding on the two most sensitive issues between the United States and Afghanistan, which was transition of our detention facilities to the Afghans and transition of special operations to the Afghans. And we then closed out a strategic partnership agreement that took 20 months for us to accomplish.

So I think it's a testament to the fact that, yes, these tragic instances happen in a time of war, but they in no way impeded the progress that we and the Afghans were making together because we, frankly, share an interest in ending the war.

And let me put it this way: The Afghans want to end the war too. They want to have their full sovereignty asserted. That's embedded in this agreement for them. That was embedded in those memorandums of understanding. So we share the goal here with them. And that's what allows us to work through our differences.

And again, our objectives, our core interests that the President has identified are clear, which is defeating al Qaeda and denying the safe haven. We believe that we've been able to work out an understanding with the Afghans where we can clearly accomplish that objective, again, while providing them with the support they need going forward to stabilize their country.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would just say one thing on this and we'll come back to you, Caren. As our job -- I've been struck by the fact that even in light of these incidents over the last couple months, the President's relationship -- working relationship with President Karzai has deepened, has improved, and has allowed us to obviously really empower our negotiators to close this important business out -- the two MOUs on two of the most controversial issues, on detention and special operations, and then this question of the SPA itself.

So you see that as a result of recognizing the stakes involved here, the great progress that's been made over the last 10 years, and making sure that we want to build on that process, the two Presidents, in pushing these agreements over the line, notwithstanding these incidents, have allowed that to happen.

Q Can I just also ask about the timing? I think when Americans see this address, in everybody's mind is the anniversary of the killing of bin Laden. Is there no -- was there no interest in doing this, in timing this to coincide with that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We had several interests here. We recently completed these negotiations. The strategic partnership then had to be finalized, reviewed by the President. We had an interest in signing this agreement, and we had an interest in signing this agreement before the Chicago summit and in doing so in Afghanistan. So that created a window for us to sign this agreement here in Afghanistan of no more than a couple of weeks, essentially.

Clearly, this is a resonant day for both the Afghan people and the American people. Osama bin Laden came to Afghanistan and set up a safe haven and established a terrorist organization that caused great suffering for the Afghan people. Of course, he also used that safe haven to launch attacks against the United States, killing nearly 3,000 people on 9/11. So the reason this war began is because Osama bin Laden established an al Qaeda safe haven from which the 9/11 attacks took place. From within Afghanistan one year ago, American troops launched an operation to kill Osama bin Laden -- again, someone who had been an enemy of both the Afghan people and the American people.

So it's a resonant day for us to mark the future that we are trying to build together, one that moves beyond our shared security interests of combating terrorism, and also looks to a lasting peace that we're trying to build.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would just add one thing to that, Caren, which is that the President wanted to spend today with the troops. And what more -- what better place to spend it with the troops than in Afghanistan.

Q But he's not going to mention -- definitely not going to mention in his address the resonance that you just talked about?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, I don't think -- he'll certainly mention the fact that -- the history of this war and the fact that it was al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks that brought us to Afghanistan. And he'll certainly mention the fact that it was from within Afghanistan a year ago that we launched an operation to kill Osama bin Laden. But his speech is about the future of our policy in Afghanistan. His speech is about how we're going to responsibly end the war in Afghanistan. And it's going to address in far greater length and detail the five lines of effort I discussed. And again, the core purpose of his visit here is to sign the strategic partnership agreement and, of course, to thank our troops, as my colleague said.

Q Can you clarify the timing tonight? It's a little unusual to have a meeting between two foreign leaders at midnight and then a signing of an important treaty or an international agreement at two o'clock in the morning. What's the reason?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think, first of all, it's not unusual for the Afghans to get business done late at night. I think you'll find that when you speak to your colleagues who work here. Second of all, we obviously are here for a window of time that is going to conclude with the President's address to the nation, which we have timed, again, to be able to reach the American people.

So we appreciate President Karzai accommodating a late arrival and it's gracious of him to extend that hospitality. Again, it's not -- it's certainly not unusual that the Afghans would have meetings late at night either. But again, we're grateful that he accommodated the window of time that we're able to be here in Kabul.

Q Is security a factor in that also?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'd just say that, Josh, actually, I think the signing is not at two in the morning. It's at midnight.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We obviously have security concerns in mind when we plan the President's trips to places like Afghanistan, so that factors into a variety of decisions that we make about all aspects of the trip. But again, we believe that this is an appropriate way for him to be able to both meet with President Karzai, but also be able to address the American people.

Q Quick logistical question -- they have a bilat and then they come out and each make statements and sign it? Or sign it, no statements? What happens?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They're going to have a bilat, make some statements and sign it.

And I should just add, just to the previous question, this is completely the same model we've used for all of our trips to Afghanistan. So we've been here twice before. Once, we were able to get to Kabul. The second time, weather didn't permit us to, and it was roughly in this similar window.

Q To be naïve about it all, is it going to work?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we believe that, one, our troops and our diplomats have gotten us into a place where it can work. We have seen the experience of the Iraq strategic partnership or strategic framework agreement, which gives us the framework within which to plug the various pieces of our bilateral relationship. So all the pieces are there. We're going to continue to, obviously, push this issue.

Q The last question was the most pertinent one: Is this going to work?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The strategic partnership agreement?

Q Yes, basically.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is hard. And I think whatever we do, Afghanistan is still going to be the third poorest country in the world with a 70 percent illiteracy rate and some huge sectarian schisms in it, and so they are operating at a great disadvantage.

Pakistan is not going to have completely changed the strategic orientation, which means that they are not going to be comfortable with a Kabul government that is too closely aligned with India, which means that they're going to be nervous about the Northern Alliance, which means that they're going to be continuing to seek hedges.

So if you combine all those factors, this is still going to be tough. But having said all that, I am absolutely convinced that we can execute a strategic partnership agreement and a transition, have an Afghan security force that's effective, that is able to maintain basic stability in Afghanistan; that we, through this partnership, will still have the capacity to carry out the counterterrorism operations that are necessary for al Qaeda not to resettle, and that we can get a regional equilibrium that serves our national security interests.

And that's ultimately what our job is. And that's ultimately why we went in there in the first place, and that's ultimately what it is that we've got to accomplish.

Q Are you confident the Taliban won't come back to power?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Am I confident that the Taliban won't come back to power? I'm confident that, based on how we have been building up the Afghan security forces and the capacity that they've shown over the last several months, which has actually exceeded where we thought they might be, that the Taliban can't return to the kind of takeover of the whole country that they -- that existed back in the '90s.

Do I think there will still be Taliban influence in villages and remote mountain regions of the country? Probably there will be. That would be true, by the way, if we were still there for another 10 years because that's where they live. But can we have a stable Afghan government that controls the major cities, the major roads, the major thoroughfares, and that the Taliban elements had to accommodate, too? I think that could be accomplished.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think just to close -- the critical point is, again, we set a core goal from when we came into office to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and prevent them from having a safe haven here in Afghanistan. We believe we're going to accomplish that objective. We believe al Qaeda is on a path to defeat.

In order to sustain that objective, we believe that Afghanistan needs to be sufficiently stabled. It is not going to be a perfect place. It is not going to be rebuilt in America's image. You are not going to eliminate every vestige of the Taliban. But you can build strong Afghan security forces that can manage the situation. You can build a partnership with the Afghan government such that you do not have a reemergence of al Qaeda, and you have, again, a stable region that serves U.S. interests.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And just one last thing on this is, as I said in my opening remarks, we're a learning organization. We learned the lesson of 1989. There was no partnership agreement then. There was no -- there was a common sense of abandonment throughout the region. And as a result, we had years of civil war, which gave birth obviously to the Taliban and ultimately to the safe haven that my colleague has referred to. So we think the pieces are there to protect our interests and that's exactly what the President will be talking about on this trip.

Q How long is the agreement? Is it going to be released or is it classified?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Ten years.

Q No, I mean the actual text of the agreement.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: How long is it? It's about -- I think it's about 10 pages. And it will be released upon signing. As is traditional, we don't release these until we sign them.

I will say that we briefed it extensively to Congress throughout the last week. My colleague talked about, in terms of timing, one of the things we wanted to get done is our internal coordination within the government of all the pieces of the agreement. But a big piece of that -- and the President ordered us to do this -- was to make sure that we consulted with Congress. We did that obviously last week while Congress was still in session. And we were then obviously in a position then to get this done before Chicago.

Thank you.

END 8:58 P.M. AFT

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