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Barack Obama: Press Briefing on the President's West Point Speech by Senior Administration Officials
Barack
Barack Obama
Press Briefing on the President's West Point Speech by Senior Administration Officials
December 1, 2009
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Via Teleconference

3:04 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody, and thanks for your patience today; we've been waiting for the traveling press corps, who's in West Point today to cover the speech in person -- for them to be screened and for them to be available to jump on this call. So I think many of them have now had the chance to do that.

For those that haven't, we will be circulating a transcript of this as soon as we can turn it around, just so we can keep everybody in the loop here.

Just as a reminder, this call is going to be conducted on background, but it is not embargoed, so you can report as you find appropriate.

We'll have opening comments from senior administration officials and then we will take your questions. Administration official number one, would you like to begin?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Senior administration official number one, I'm just going to give briefly the fact that the President talked this morning with Chancellor Merkel of Germany; Prime Minister Tusk of Poland. As many of you know, the President spoke last night over secure video teleconference at 10:00 p.m. eastern time with President Karzai of Afghanistan. That took place over the course of about an hour. And at 10:35 a.m., this morning, again over secure video teleconference -- I'm sorry, telephone, excuse me -- the President briefed Pakistani President Zardari on our way forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

To save time on this call we will momentarily be sending out some readouts on those two calls. And I'm going to turn it over to senior administration official number two.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In his speech tonight at West Point the President will begin by reaffirming the core goal of the United States in the region, which comes -- draws from the March 2009 strategic review. And just to be clear, that goal is to disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat al Qaeda and to prevent their return to either Afghanistan or Pakistan.

In order to achieve that goal we have subordinate goals for first Pakistan and then Afghanistan, which I'll outline briefly before getting to your questions.

In Pakistan we need to sustain our focus on al Qaeda and we need to help the Pakistanis stabilize their state. That second part, stabilizing Pakistan, really has three dimensions: a political dimension, an economic dimension and a security dimension. The Pakistanis require help across all three of these aspects, in particular on the security front where they face internal extremists, the Pakistani Taliban, if you will, who actually threaten their state. But also on the political and economic front, the Pakistanis require our assistance, and our long-term aim with Pakistan is to establish and then sustain a strategic partnership, which helps them bring stability to their state; in turn, to the region.

Let's shift to Afghanistan. There, our goal is to prevent the return of the Taliban -- I'm sorry, of al Qaeda -- and to prevent the Taliban from overthrowing the Afghan government. The President tonight will announce a new approach as to how we will accomplish those goals in Afghanistan. The concept that he'll describe is to surge American forces to do several things: first, to reverse the Taliban's momentum, which has been building steadily over the last three or four years; to secure key population centers, especially in the south and the east; to train Afghan forces, and then as quickly as possible transfer responsibility to a capable Afghan partner.

Just to review the bidding, in terms of what that means for troops, today there are just at 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan; 33,000 of those were committed this year, in 2009. The President will announce tonight that those 68,000 will be joined by an additional 30,000 Americans by next summer, by the summer of 2010. He will also announce that this surge, if you will, will be for a defined period of time. For more details on the timelines and so forth, you should tune in to the speech tonight.

Now, what will these troops be doing? They'll have the following military mission. First of all, they aim to degrade the Taliban in order to provide time and space to develop Afghan capacity. Most directly, the Afghan capacity we're developing are the Afghan security forces, so the army and the police. They also want to degrade the Taliban for a second purpose, and that is so that as we begin to hand off responsibility to the Afghan army and police, those emerging security forces are able to handle the Taliban because it's at a diminished strength.

The other key task for the military, this additional 30,000 over the coming months, is to train and partner with the Afghan security forces to accelerate their development. The broad aim here is to open a new window of opportunity for Afghanistan and to create conditions to begin to transfer to Afghan responsibility by a date which the President will specify in his speech.

So let me just cover that again, because this is a point -- this is a point which can easily be confused. What the President will talk about tonight is a date by which he has given the mission that we will begin to transfer our lead responsibility -- that is, the U.S. and NATO lead responsibilities from that operation -- to Afghan counterparts. He will not, however, tonight specify the end of that transition process, nor will he specify the pace at which it will proceed. Those variables -- pace and end -- will be dictated by conditions on the ground.

The President will make a strong point tonight that this is not an open-ended commitment. And the idea here is that all of us are -- have to have a sense of urgency about this opportunity in the coming months to shift the momentum in Afghanistan. That sense of urgency has to be imparted first to our own government, both on the military side and the civilian side, but equally important to our NATO counterparts, and perhaps more important of all to our Afghan partners and our Pakistani partners.

While we do not intend -- and the President will make this very clear tonight -- to commit American combat forces indefinitely to Afghanistan, we do reaffirm our long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan, but not at anything like 100,000 U.S. troops in their country.

Let me just quickly remind that this is not a U.S. mission alone. There are about 40,000 other ISAF or NATO forces in Afghanistan, above and beyond the 68,000 Americans who are there today. Those come from 44 other countries, so it's a pretty broad-based coalition. And we believe that by the time NATO holds its ministerial meetings at the end of this week, that the NATO Secretary General will have positive indicators that those 44 additional countries will also step forth with more contributions of troops.

Before we go to your questions, let me just remind that the military side of this equation is only one side of the coin. The civilian side is equally important. The President will announce some refinements in our approach on the military side. He will talk about how we're sending additional civilian experts to Afghanistan to team up, to partner with our military units. He'll emphasize that our approach has to be well beyond the Afghan capital of Kabul and the central government ministries, and has to reach out, in a bottom's up approach, out into the provinces and districts so that we generate a bottom-up dynamic in terms of meeting the sharp timelines that he has put us on.

And finally I'd just mention that we have established -- and the President will announce tonight -- that our top development priority in Afghanistan will from here forward be agriculture, which is very much sort of swimming with the stream and with the traditions of the agriculturally-based Afghan economy, and also offers the best promise for quickest results in terms of our economic assistance.

Let me stop there and turn to my counterpart, official number one, to handle questions.

Q: Thank you. First of all, can I ask that you identify yourselves -- not for the transcript, just for our background information? Also I wanted to drill down on your statement that the President will talk about a date to begin the transfer of power. It's been reported widely that three years is that date. Is that correct or not? And what does that mean, the beginning -- what is he going to announce? What exactly does that date signify, how should we understand it? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, let's let -- let me -- the three-year figure, in all honesty, is not in the speech. Let me give you a sense of what my colleague just said and what the President will reiterate tonight, that the strategy that he outlined to accelerate -- will accelerate handing over security responsibilities to the Afghan forces and thus allow the United States to begin to transfer our forces out of Afghanistan beginning in July of 2011.

As my colleague mentioned previously, the slope thereafter is something that will be determined by the Commander-in-Chief, but the date that he will use tonight to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan would begin in July of 2011.

SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Just to clarify, this will probably be the most misunderstood and misreported point out of this whole saga, as is already the case, I think. This is the beginning of a process which is not yet defined in terms of the length of the process or the end point. And that's because the pace of transition from our lead to the Afghan lead, and how long it will take, will be dominated by conditions on the ground, which, because they're at least 18 months from now, are not possible to foresee with accuracy.

Q: Hi, thank you very much, indeed, for taking the question and for doing this. What has happened to the goal of 400,000-strong Afghan national security forces, and what is the role of local militias in that? Is it the central army and police? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me take those in reverse sequence. We believe that all our efforts -- our security efforts, our governance efforts, and our development efforts -- have to generate this sort of bottom-up dynamic. On the security front, that means that we are experimenting now, the ISAF forces are experimenting now with a number of approaches or models to how we can link the traditional security structures of Afghan culture into the security structure of the Afghan state. None of these has proved definitive yet, but bottoms up security arrangements -- community arrangements, tribal arrangements -- are absolutely supported by this concept and are an important way to potentially accelerate security progress.

As for 400,000, we know that that number is out there. We're actually taking this in smaller increments because we think that a goal that large and that far out -- roughly four to five years in the future -- is more than we can accurately program for and predict the requirement for at this stage. We see the Afghan security forces developed based on repetitive assessments on the ground more effectively in probably annual increments, rather than projecting three or four years out.

So 400,000 doesn't have much weight with us. We're going to aim to do what we've set ourselves out to do in 2010; and then based on that experience, adapt our milestones for 2011 and beyond.

Q: I wanted also to ask you about the training of the Afghan army. The figure I have is from 97 [thousand] to 134,000. Some say that the army is ethnically unbalanced and that could be a potential problem for the administration. Are you aware of this, and how are you going to involve the Pashtun, mainly, into the army and security forces?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, today the army is at about 90,000 and its goal for 2010 is 134,000. So those are two good data points. As for the ethnic makeup of the Afghan national army, nationwide it is widely representative, roughly proportionate to the population base, to the demographics of Afghan population.

However, in the most contested areas -- especially in the south -- there is an under-representation in some of those units. And General McChrystal's command has identified this as a challenge and understands that they must adequately retain the proportional balance, ethnic balance in the Afghan national army. Though to be fair, in the places that are most contested by the Taliban, recruiting and retention obviously struggle or is hindered. So that's one reason that securing the population actually is a core principle of our approach here.

With additional security in those population centers in the south and the east, in the Pashtun belt, we think we'll do better with recruiting and retention.

Q: Thank you very much. Two quick questions, related. One, on the issue of the timetable, I know you want to make sure this is not misinterpreted, but even the July 2011 timeframe there have been arguments that setting up any date just encourages the Taliban, the insurgents to lay low and to wait people out. Can you address that criticism? And point two, the ability to get to 30,000 into theater by the summer -- there's been some noise already out of the Pentagon this morning that that may be logistically impossible. Can you address that? Is it actually doable to get that many troops into an infrastructure-free country that quickly?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me, again, take them in reverse sequence. As for the deployment timeline, first of all, this is, as you know, an imprecise science in terms of exactly which units flow when based on the infrastructure available and so forth. So I think the best -- as precise as we wish to get here, and we refer you to the Pentagon for greater precision, is that the 30,000 troop surge is due to arrive in Afghanistan in the summer of 2010. For additional precision you'll have to go to the experts in the Pentagon.

I'm sorry, the first point had to do with?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Taliban --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, yes. Well, remember what July 2011 represents. It represents the beginning of a process which will be conditions-based. So if the Taliban thinks they can wait us out, I think that they're misjudging the President's approach. On the other hand there's a value in setting a date like this as a sort of strategic inflection point because it does put everyone on pressure -- under pressure to do more sooner. And that pressure of the timeline begins with the U.S. government itself, but also extends to our allies and our Afghan and Pakistani partners.

So, you know, it may be misinterpreted, but the Taliban will do that at its own risk.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me add to each of those just real quickly, again in reverse order. Let me simply say what I think you've seen administration officials say today. The force option that the President has chosen gets more troops into Afghanistan faster than any option that was previously presented to him. That's point number one. By the way, that's more U.S. troops faster and more NATO troops faster than any other option presented.

Secondly, the logic of the Taliban waiting anybody out would subscribe to the logic that we will all be there forever. And the President's viewpoint on that is, as you've heard my colleague say, this is not an open-ended commitment on behalf of the President.

Q: One quick question about the composition of the force, of the 30,000. Can you give a rough breakdown of how many of those will be trainers versus combat personnel? And then I have a quick follow-up.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Of the 30,000, there's still some assessment going on at the Pentagon as to how many combat brigades that 30,000 will include, but it will be several -- two or three probably. We anticipate that in the 30,000 will be another brigade-sized element that will be completely committed to embedded training, not unlike the brigade that was committed just a couple months ago.

But on the training front, should make clear that the President has directed that all U.S. combat forces will pick up full-time partnering with the Afghan national security forces. So therefore, in a way, virtually all the U.S. forces who are there conducting combat operations also have a training or a developing role.

Q: Thanks for taking our questions. Could you give us a little more granularity about the NATO commitment here? The number of 5,000 troops has been thrown out there, but can you talk for a second about what those troops -- how many troops and what they will be doing?

SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, Secretary General Rasmussen of NATO and the Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis has been hard at work generating additional allied support; that is, new troop commitments based on the President's decision to surge U.S. troops. I don't want to preempt their work. They are -- that is, NATO is conducting a foreign ministerial meeting on Thursday and Friday of this week. So I suspect by the end of that conference in Brussels -- that is, by Friday -- that Secretary General Rasmussen will have an announcement of a significant number of fresh NATO troops to be committed. And I think we should leave that announcement to NATO.

Q: Thank you for taking our questions. On the strategic partnership with Pakistan, could you elaborate some? You mentioned the internal security threat posed to Pakistan by the Pakistan Taliban. What does the President intend to say about the threat posed by the Afghan Taliban? And what help, in specific terms, does the U.S. anticipate giving to the Pakistan military?

SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, you'll appreciate that -- first of all, our assistance to the Pakistani military extends back years, so there's a whole series of programs that are underway to try assist them with materiel support; with financial support, to help them with the costs that they've incurred because of ongoing operations having to do with internal security; and with training support.

We should, I think from the outset, underscore that the Pakistani military is a developed, fully functional military with a standing chain of command and a full -- pretty much a full capacity military. However, it's adjusting from largely conventional tactics to what's required to fight its internal extremists.

So we're very much partnered with the Pakistani military to make them as capable as possible, to shift from their conventional standards to what you might call counterinsurgency or internal security.

I don't want to go into individual programs, some of which are sensitive, but the bottom line is that we have, by way of this strategic review just conducted, reaffirmed our aim for a long-term enduring strategic partnership not only with the Pakistani military, but also with the Pakistani civilian government to meet their political and economic needs.

Q: Iran's foreign ministry spokesperson Mehmanparast already responded today to President Obama's coming announcement and he said that Iran regards the U.S. government's policy of surging forces as following Bush policy and that they see no change in U.S. policy, and the solution to security is actually the pullout of foreign forces and the cooperation of regional countries to provide security. So my question is that, would you please respond to this statement by defining Iran's role so far in Afghanistan?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, Afghanistan lives in a tough neighborhood, and also in that neighborhood is Iran to the west. Iran has traditionally played a very important role in the stability of Afghanistan. And we expect that that's the kind of role we'll see Iran play in the future.

One reason that this policy may seem to Iran as consistent with previous policies is that it's founded on the same national interest, and that is that fundamentally, at the very core of this, is the U.S. national interest to protect America and America's allies. And the threat that emanates from this region, centered on al Qaeda, persists.

So that's why there -- it's easy to understand Iran's perspective perhaps that there is some continuity here in the U.S. policy. That's because the interest is consistent.

MR. EARNEST: Once again, I just want to thank everybody for participating in the call and for your patience today. We will be circulating a transcript. One final reminder that this call was conducted on background, so any comments that you use in your reporting should be attributed to senior administration official.

Thanks, everybody.

END 3:30 P.M. EST



Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing on the President's West Point Speech by Senior Administration Officials," December 1, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86970.
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