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"Afghanistan is not going to be a perfect place" Briefing transcript

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Office of the Press Secretary


For Immediate Release May 20, 2012








White House Press Filing Center

McCormick Place

Chicago, Illinois

3:00 P.M. EDT

MR. RHODES: Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for joining us. We're very pleased today to be joined by two guests here -- General John Allen, who's the Commanding General of ISAF; and Doug Lute, who leads our Afghanistan-Pakistan policy at the White House.

General Allen is here for a limited amount of time, so I think we'll begin by having the General walk you through his view of the situation in Afghanistan and the summit here. And he can take questions on the security aspects of our efforts in Afghanistan.

Then later on, Doug and I can give you a readout of the President's meeting with President Karzai and answer whatever other questions you have about Afghanistan and about the summit or other issues. But with that, I'll turn it over to General Allen. Thanks.

GENERAL ALLEN: Thank you, Ben.

Well, it's good to see you all. I wanted to spend just a couple of moments this afternoon just summarizing my key priorities with respect to the campaign, where we find ourselves now. Those priorities generally revolve around three key points. One is to continue the momentum of the campaign itself, continue to pressure the Taliban. The second priority is to move with all dispatch to accelerate the capacity and the role of the ANSF moving forward in assuming their role in security lead across the country. And a third is to set the conditions for, and to support the process of transition as it was envisioned as a road map in the Lisbon Summit in November of 2010.

All of those are complementary. The actions that we are undertaking with respect to the campaign in this coming campaign season are supported by the continued build of the Afghan National Security forces. We anticipate completing the recruitment of the ANSF, which will be 352,000 troops upon completion, and we expect to do that several months ahead of schedule. That date was originally 1 October; we would anticipate within the next couple of months.

We will continue to train and equip and ultimately to field the entire ANSF by the end of 2013. So we'll be approaching a key crossover point in the campaign in 2013 -- what's known as the Milestone 2013 where the ANSF will move into security lead in the context of the counterinsurgency campaign and where ISAF forces will be supporting that move into the lead, recognizing and noting, however, that combat will continue -- combat operations will continue in the country throughout the period of the remainder of the ISAF mission, which will conclude on the 31st of December 2014.

We've had a number of key developments in the last several months. The first was the successful signing of two memoranda of understanding with the Afghan government -- one on the shift of detention operations from the U.S. government to the Afghan government under Additional Protocol 2 of the Geneva Convention. The second was the memorandum of understanding which moved special operations under the Afghan constitution and in compliance with Afghan law. Those culminated later with the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement by President Obama and President Karzai in Kabul in Afghanistan recently.

That has set the conditions for negotiations to begin in the relatively near future on a bilateral security agreement. That bilateral security agreement -- you'll see it called sometimes the BSA -- will ultimately define the size and the contribution of the United States over time to Afghan security.

Additionally, during the summer, I think many of you are aware, we will begin the process of recovering the phase two of the President's surge forces -- 23,000 troops -- which will redeploy from Afghanistan back to the United States by the end of September.

So there's been a lot of positive moves in the last several months. The ANSF continues on a positive trajectory both in terms of the recruiting but also in its operational commitment in the field and its accomplishments in the field as well.

And so with that, let me take your questions.

Q Thanks very much. What do you think about the French insistence to stick to their guns on pulling out combat troops by the end of this year? Are you concerned that other countries might view that as an opportunity to leave early as well? How do you see that impacting troop conditions on the ground?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, ultimately, we will need to understand exactly what the French decision will mean. At this juncture -- and ultimately those decisions will be finally taken by the new French administration and the new President. At this juncture, we will seek to provide France opportunity, should they desire to continue to contribute to the ISAF mission. We have the capacity, using our current force structure to ensure that there is no degradation in security with respect to any decisions that might be made.

But those are sovereign French decisions and we'll support those decisions. But we're also prepared to provide options, viable options for contributions to the ISAF mission over time. And many of those contributions often take the form and the shape of training, mentoring, instructing. And all of those are important to the mission overall.

Q General, do you run the risk of gradually having nations take decisions like France's and being allowed to do so, where they leave some forces in place in a different role but the fighting ends up being done by the United States? And what would that say about the overall health of the mission if that's the case?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, again, all of those decisions ultimately are sovereign decisions by the states themselves. The nature of the mission as it is evolving now is, as our numbers get smaller, is evolving into an advisory mission. And that's a very important mission in terms of being able to accelerate the ANSF to the lead. But as I think you've heard, Anne, many times, the mantra of this particular coalition has been "in together, out together," and I'm not seeing, frankly, many voices being raised that would oppose that mantra.

All of the states are going to ultimately make their own decisions with respect to how and when they draw their forces down. And many of the states today have made those decisions, and there are numbers coming down for many of those countries across the battle space.

Q Do you feel that you're being given adequate military input as to the effect of those decisions?

GENERAL ALLEN: We do the planning. I don't input directly into capitals, but senior national representatives, chiefs of defense, leadership that works through SACEUR and SHAPE -- we're in constant conversation about the needs of forces, expressed through something called the Combined Joint Statement of Requirements, which is a document that my headquarters publishes and SACEUR ultimately presents to the leadership of all 50 countries, which details my force generation priorities in order to accomplish this campaign.

And those CJSORs, they're called, help the countries to understand the countries to understand the kinds of forces that we need and the numbers of forces that we need. And as the mission continues to evolve from a mission that has relied so heavily to this point on maneuver forces and general purpose combat forces to specialized forces for the purposes of instructing or for advising, it's important that we all be in a constant conversation. And we are.

Again, I don't input directly into capitals on this, but I'm comfortable that the conversation is sufficiently strategic and expansive that we're accounting for the countries' input and the countries' opinions.

Q General, thank you. To what extent do the so-called inside killings, the attacks by people wearing Afghan uniforms on our and other ally troops that have occurred -- and the corruption that's been reported in the Afghan government -- affect your goals of this mission and your confidence in their government's ability to stand up a military that can defend their own turf?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, that's several questions. Let me go first to what you articulated as the insider threat. Every one of those attacks we take very seriously. Every one of those attacks that has produced a death we offer our sincere condolences to those families. We pray for those who were wounded.

It's important to note that in the analysis that we have done, less than 50 percent of the ones that have perpetrated these attacks were in fact Taliban infiltraters. Many of these folks are self-radicalized. So it's important to understand and be able to recognize the nature of that self-radicalization in the ranks.

To that extent, we have partnered very, very closely with the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior, the National Director of Security to undertake measures bilaterally to protect each other. It's not well-known that the Afghans suffer nearly as many casualties from insider threats as we do. And so it's important that we protect ourselves. And that begins with a more comprehensive screening process at induction. There's an eight-step vetting process that is now underway. There is also strong cooperation between the Ministry of Defense and the National Director of Security to ensure that there are counterintelligence elements that are placed in key locations, such as recruiting centers, training centers in the ranks of operational formations.

And so that's a -- those are measures -- we would call it unprecedented cooperation, actually, between the Afghans themselves and with us to reduce the potential threat of these insider attacks.

As well, we have revamped our own training standards to ensure that our troops are, not only as they enter the theater as well trained as possible, but we've pushed those standards back up through NATO and through the U.S. chain to ensure that that training occurs.

Now, there's a good-news story here, and that is that the Afghans have arrested more than 160 individuals in the last several months that they believe could have been in the throes of planning for an attack on ISAF forces. So the process is working. It's not perfect. Any time we have one of these it's a tragedy, but I also make sure everyone understands that every case where one of these occurs, that same day there are tens of thousands -- tens of thousands of interactions between the Afghans and ISAF forces that don't go that way, and in fact, strengthen the relationships and deepen our partnership.

As to the issue of corruption, I'm very conscious of that. It's, in fact, a line of operation within the campaign plan to do all that we can to reduce the influence of corruption with respect to the ISAF mission. To that extent, the President -- President Karzai has designated a presidential executive commission to work with us in a number of areas -- and they're very important areas with respect to reducing criminal capture of certain capabilities. But we're also partnering closely with the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior in something called Transparency and Awareness Accountability Working Groups

TAAWGs. And the Ministry of Defense has mapped the entire function of the Ministry of Defense from the accession of recruits to the acquisition of weapons. And we're looking at every aspect of Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of Interior is engaged in it now, to be able to reduce the influence of corruption and potential criminal capture within those ministries. And we're focused on that and we're in close partnership with that.

Q So, cumulatively, these issues, how do they affect your confidence in the ability to fulfill the mission?

GENERAL ALLEN: I think we'll fulfill the mission, but I don't want to understate the complexity of the mission and the challenges that we will have. This country hasn't suffered from corruption that started last week and it's not going to be able to solve all of those issues in the near term. But I believe that senior leaders among the Afghans are, in fact, committed ultimately to solving this. They understand that corruption is corrosive to a democratic process. And ultimately to have the confidence of the international community and to be good partners with us in the business of the security and development of the Afghan national security forces, they recognize they've got to deal with this issue. I believe they are earnest in it and I think they're putting some real energy into it.

Q Let me ask about the security plan and the whole -- and the President's decision. Do you think that decision was made by the President really based on the conditions on the ground, which way they were heading, or was this more of a politically based decision? And do you think your input into the planning here was heard inside the White House?

GENERAL ALLEN: Which plan is that, sir?

Q Sorry -- the withdrawal plan, the 2014 --

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, I didn't participate in that, but I'll simply tell you that -- I wasn't the commander at the time. I'll simply tell you that I believe we have a very strong national security team now and the dialogue is wide open. And I'm very clear in saying -- and it's not intended to be a bumper sticker, but I mean it sincerely -- there's no daylight between the commander on the ground in Afghanistan and the Commander-in-Chief. And I think we're in an excellent strategic conversation right now about the way ahead. I'm frequently asked for my opinion and my views and I am grateful to be engaged in that kind of a strategic conversation.

They have played out to the advantage of the campaign because we have been strong consultation throughout the chain of command on the defense side up through NATO as well to the Secretary General, but also into the White House. So I'm comfortable with the state of the conversation right now, which is the strategic conversation, and the way ahead with respect to consultation between the commander, his chain of command, and the defense chain of command with the White House.

Q I'm sorry, I should have made it a little more clear on your part there, but in terms of your discussions with the President -- I understand that you weren't there before -- but do you really think that the level of troop withdrawal was to your liking?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, I was asked whether I could execute that plan, and I told them that I can. And I'm executing the plan. And it's not just a pure factor of reducing 23,000 troops. There are a lot of other things that are occurring simultaneously with that.

Part of the importance of the surge was to create conditions under which we could withdraw those troops -- and I think those conditions are now underway -- and that was to move the Afghan National Security forces to a level and to a confidence where they could begin to assume the role of some of those surge forces in the field. And in fact, that's what's going to happen this coming summer. As those 23,000 troops come out, there will be Afghan National Security forces that will flow into those areas where there had been surge forces and they will take over the functions that those surge forces ultimately had performed. The difference is that now, as I explained a moment ago to Anne, as this mission begins to see more and more the introduction of advisory forces into the field, those Afghan forces which will flow in behind the surge forces will have advisors in them.

So I said I supported the drawdown plan; I'm executing that plan now and I believe it can be executed.

MR. RHODES: The General has to leave at 3:30 p.m., so we time for a couple more here.

Q Just following up on that question, do you -- is part of the planning that as the surge forces are replaced with the ANSF, for example, in Helmand, if there is some reinsurgence of the Taliban, do you have a plan to send troops back in, or once they're out, they're out?

GENERAL ALLEN: We have short-term capabilities to shift forces. We're going to watch very closely the Taliban. The Taliban have been unambiguous in that they intend to take advantage of the removal of the surge forces, and so we have planned for that. We're going to watch very, very closely their activities, and of course their -- what they say versus what they do. And if we detect that there is, in fact, a Taliban presence beginning to surge in behind our forces, we have forces that are available that we intend to put against that to prevent that from happening.

Q Thank you. General, could you put into perspective for the American people how the shift out of the combat lead role next year affects the risks for U.S. troops? And is there any concern that perhaps the diminishment of that risk would be overstated, that these troops will still be in serious harm's way?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, I don't want to, again, understate the challenge that we have ahead of us. The Taliban is still a resilient and capable opponent in the battle space. And it's also important to understand while the Afghan National Security Forces will move in the lead in the context of this counterinsurgency campaign, we fully expect that combat is going to continue. And I anticipate having conventional maneuver forces as well as special operations forces that we will apply against those areas, where, in partnership with the ANSF, they are going to need our assistance in order to deal with the challenges that the Taliban are going to present to them.

We're three tranches into this process of transition, and the final two tranches -- one will occur towards the end of this year and one will occur roughly in the middle of next year -- some of the areas that will be transitioning will be up along the Pakistani border. We can anticipate that the Taliban there, recognizing that that's some of the last areas in which they can operate with freedom in Afghanistan, they're going to oppose that. And so I anticipate that during that period of time we're going to see some combat. The ANSF will be in the lead in that period and they'll be in the lead for the purposes of prosecuting the operations there. But we're going to see U.S. forces and ISAF forces engaged in supporting them.

So there is no end of combat before the end of 2014. And in fact, the Taliban will oppose the ANSF after 2014. But the difference -- and I think it needs to be clearly explained -- that we envisage that the ANSF will move into the lead -- this Milestone 2013 -- for the prosecution of counterinsurgency, and we'll largely be in support of that. But it doesn't mean that we won't be fighting and it doesn't mean there won't be combat. And that's important, because there is a narrative out there that combat operations for the U.S. stops at Milestone 2013. That is not in fact correct. It acknowledges that the ANSF have moved firmly and completely into the lead for the purposes of the counterinsurgency campaign, and we are largely in support of them.

Q General, can you explain how serious the Pakistan's closure of the crossings -- how that's impacting your ability to supply troops now that the fighting season has resumed? And also, what's holding up the deal, and when do you expect this is going to get settled?

GENERAL ALLEN: With regard to the ground line of communication, it has not, in fact, negatively affected my -- our prosecution of the campaign. Indeed, in some manner, some ways in which we measure our stockage, if you will, of certain capabilities in the battle space, they're higher today than they were when the ground line of communications were closed.

But there have been some very positive indications of late with the government in Islamabad about an interest in entering into negotiations, which I think you're all aware of, to open the ground line of communications. I can't tell you when that will occur -- obviously sooner is better than later -- but I can't tell you when that will occur.

But I think one of the important realizations of that is that, in fact, we are now talking about it. That, we view as being positive. We think it's a good indication -- a good indicator of an improvement in the relationship. We hope to see that improve even more. I recently had the opportunity to meet with General Kayani and his leadership in Islamabad for two days to talk about the future relationship of the trilateral military commands -- the Pakistani military, the Afghan National Security Forces and ISAF. It was a very positive conversation; the first time we'd met in about a year.

So I think that the trending right now is in a positive direction with respect to a variety of the conversations between Islamabad and ISAF, and Islamabad and Kabul, and Islamabad and the United States.

MR. RHODES: Thanks very much, General.


MR. RHODES: So now that we've focused on the security side -- and we can continue to take questions on some of these issues -- Doug can give you a readout of the Karzai meeting. Just from the perspective of the White House and the President on a couple of these issues that came up, on the French question, given the fact that President Obama has just spent a lot of time with President Hollande, we are confident that we can work with the French to ensure that even as they make their own national decisions about their combat forces, that there are, as the General said, additional ways for them to remain a part of the ISAF mission and for them to make contributions to the ISAF mission. And again, you heard the General speak to some of the different options for that around training.

But I think there is a broader story, frankly, of alliance unity and sticking with this mission, given the fact that it has been over a decade now and it's been a very difficult challenge; the fact that we still see so many countries engage in Afghanistan, and we see countries like Germany and the United Kingdom and Australia and others committing to the long-term sustainment of the Afghan National Security Forces I think speaks to how seriously NATO takes this.

And then to the question of what guides the President's decision-making on troops, I think the single-most important question that the President looks at and looked at when he called for the recovery of the surge is how -- are we going against our core objective in Afghanistan, which is to defeat al Qaeda and to deny it a safe haven in that country.

And again, the President has acknowledged that Afghanistan is not going to be a perfect place when we complete our NATO-ISAF combat mission in 2014. But we do think that we made good process against that core objective. He, of course, made the decisions to recover the surge in the context of the most devastating blows against al Qaeda's leadership that we'd seen over the course of the previous two years or so.

And again, we believe that we can continue to draw down our forces while making progress against that objective of denying a safe haven to al Qaeda and training up Afghan National Security Forces that can ensure that that threat pictures doesn't emerge once more from within Afghanistan.

With that, Doug will give you a brief readout of the Karzai meeting, and then we can take your questions on this and other topics.

GENERAL LUTE: Before talking about the bilat, which was a sort of 75-minute session earlier this morning, let me just add to Ben's last point and to John's earlier comments with regard to the recovery of the surge.

A lot of times we miss that the U.S. surge was intended to buy the time and space to fill up the Afghan capacity. And so when the President last year, at about this time, was considering options for recovering the U.S. surge, he judged that against progress on building up the Afghans. And that was a central factor, and in fact, the U.S. surge has enabled now the fielding of about 350,000 Afghans. So in a sense, the U.S. surge of 30,000 enabled the buildup of the Afghans to its current surge straight to 350,000.

And really the theme of Lisbon and now Chicago is very much the handoff from the U.S. and the NATO surge to the Afghan surge. So in a sense, you're exchanging the baton here between the U.S. surge and the Afghan surge.

The bilat -- so obviously, the President has just met about just short of three weeks ago in Kabul, where President Karzai welcomed President Obama to sign the Strategic Partnership Agreement -- and maybe some of you were there. That historic agreement was obviously founded on two key principles. One was a highlighting or an underlining of Afghan sovereignty. And if you read the document itself, it's very much a reflection of an appreciation for Afghan sovereignty. And then, the other key theme in the document, it is a theme of mutual commitments -- security commitments on both sides, but also beyond that, our political and economic commitments.

So they began the bilat by sort of just reminiscing only a couple weeks ago when they were in Kabul, so the President was able President Karzai to his hometown here in Chicago. And they agreed that already the Strategic Partnership Agreement has had a significant political impact from President Karzai's perspective -- political impact inside of Afghanistan by way of a reassurance to the Afghan people that they won't be abandoned in 2014. And President Karzai reflected that he views it as also having had a positive effect in the region.

President Obama then went on to outline three parallel transitions, which will all culminate in 2014. Obviously, the transition that gets the most attention is the security transition. That, as John mentioned, was kicked off at Lisbon about 18 months ago. And here in Chicago, we're about at the halfway point in the Lisbon vision, which began in November of '10 and which culminates with the full security responsibility in the hands of the Afghans four years later in December of '14. So here in Chicago, we're as close as we're going to get to a midway point assessment of that four-year at Lisbon process.

And they talked about how the security transition is underway. And they also talked about the three key decisions that will be undertaken tomorrow by the ISAF coalition of 50 national leaders. You undoubtedly know about these already, but this is the 2013 milestone. This is progress with the Afghan National Security Forces. And this is detailing the role that NATO will take in a successor mission post-2014.

President Obama reported to President Karzai the discussion he had had among his G8 colleagues at Camp David just yesterday, and how at the G8, they talked about the upcoming Tokyo conference in early July, and how the economic dimension of transition will need to work in close parallel and reinforce the security transition.

And then, finally, they talked and spent most of the time, actually, on the political transition, which will obviously have a major milestone with the 2014 presidential elections in Afghanistan, but actually a political transition that will take

-- and a political development process that will take years beyond 2014.

They spent about 45 minutes in this sort of delegation-on-delegation session, and then met privately for a few minutes as they to do, just so they can be completely candid in a personal exchange. And they concluded and look forward to the upcoming events over the next day or so here at Chicago.

So in a nutshell, that's the bilat readout, and I'm happy to take questions or comment.

Q I want to follow up on Carol's question on Pakistan that was given to General Allen. But first of all, can you confirm that Secretary Clinton is going to be meeting President Zardari? And second, you seem to say that progress was being made. So can you give us some update on what progress has been made?

MR. RHODES: I'll just make a couple comments and then, Doug, you may want to add something.

Secretary Clinton did meet with President Zardari today, so I'd expect there to be some form of readout of that meeting.

Q Do you not have one?

MR. RHODES: How it went or how long it went?

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on May 21, 2012 9:18 AM.

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