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Conference Call by Deputy National Security Advisor For Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes and Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for South Asia Doug Lute on President Karzai's Visit to the White House

January 08, 2013

Via Telephone

2:35 P.M. EST

MR. VIETOR: Hey, guys, thanks for getting on. We're doing a call today to preview President Karzai's visit to the United States, specifically his visit to the White House on Friday. Today we have Ben Rhodes with us and Doug Lute from our Afghanistan-Pakistan team. Their full titles are on the advisory that was sent to you.

The call is on the record. We'll do a quick intro and then go to the Q&A. So first, let's start with Ben Rhodes.

MR. RHODES: Great. Thanks, everybody. I'll just say a few opening comments. First of all, logistically, just so you know, we're focused here on the White House meeting on Friday. Obviously, there's a longer program that President Karzai will be engaged in over the course of the week after he and the Afghan delegation arrive here today. And that will include meetings at the Department of Defense, State Department, other meetings in town, but we'll focus on Friday's meetings, which will involve a bilateral meeting between the two Presidents with their delegations, a working lunch here at the White House, and then a joint press conference with the two Presidents.

Just to step back and put the visit in context, we are at a place where the President's strategy in Afghanistan -- he's focused on how do we most successfully achieve our core objectives while bringing the war to an end by the end of 2014, as the President and his allies and the Afghans have committed to do.

The core goal, of course, that the President has set, is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda, and to ensure that they can never return to Afghanistan and use it as a safe haven from which they could launch attacks against the United States or our allies. And that's of course been a top priority for our administration.

And related to that, we want to have an Afghan partner that is capable of standing on its own with our support in denying safe haven and having the capability to take the lead for its own security and for the future of the Afghan people. And that goal of restoring Afghan sovereignty and denying a safe haven to al Qaeda is one that we share with our NATO and ISAF allies and with the government of Afghanistan.

Last year, in Bagram, when President Obama and President Karzai signed the Strategic Framework Agreement, President Obama outlined five pillars that are the core of our strategy to responsibly end the war in Afghanistan while achieving that core objective. And those five pillars are transitioning to Afghan lead in the country; training Afghan security forces so they're capable of taking full responsibility for the security of Afghanistan; building an enduring partnership with Afghanistan so that they know they have the support of the United States and NATO beyond 2014; supporting reconciliation within Afghanistan so that there is a place for those who renounce violence and break from al Qaeda to come back in line with the state of Afghanistan; and promoting regional stability more broadly. And Doug will speak to where we are in those various lines of effort.

But this week's visit comes at a critical moment for the two Presidents to take stock on where we are in the transition and then to provide guidance going forward on a host of issues. In 2013, we will be continuing our transition to Afghan security lead. And we, of course, have said, in Chicago, the objective of having a milestone in 2013 where the Afghans are fully in the lead for security responsibility in the country on the way to the Afghans having full responsibility by the end of 2014. So they'll be discussing the 2013 transition.

And, of course, as it relates to U.S. troops, we completed the full drawdown of our surge in September, bringing us back down to 68,000 -- the pre-West Point troop levels for the United States. As we look to 2013, reductions in U.S. troops will continue, but they will be guided by the transition that the two leaders agree upon.

Similarly, just as we'll be discussing the 2013 transition, the two leaders will be discussing any potential support for Afghanistan from the United States beyond 2014. And we are currently in discussions about a bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan. The nature of U.S. support for Afghanistan beyond 2014 will be focused on two precise missions: training and equipping of Afghan security forces and continued efforts on the counterterrorism front against al Qaeda and their affiliates. And Doug can speak more to our discussions on those matters.

But this is not a visit during which President Obama will be making decisions about U.S. troop levels in the immediate future or beyond 2014. It's a visit where the two leaders will be able to consult about those issues, and then in the coming months, President Obama will be able to make those decisions in consultation with his national security team.

So on the security side, they'll be discussing the 2013 transition and the BSA. They'll also be discussing the political and economic transition that's underway as well as reconciliation and regional stability.

And that's a good place for me to hand it over to Doug, who can drill down on a number of these issues before we take your questions.

GENERAL LUTE: I'll just add a bit more context on top of Ben's comments.

I think the way to think about transition is that this is a process that began almost two years ago at the Lisbon Summit in November of 2010. So the visit this week falls almost exactly halfway between what was envisioned at Lisbon in late '10 and what should come fully into effect by the end of '14. So it really does represent a good time for the two Presidents to sit down and consult.

In terms of where we're going, that is what's the vision beyond 2014, and then, as Ben has already outlined, what are the main means by which we're going to attain that vision -- so how is it we're going to get to that vision. Ben has already outlined the five pillars that came out of the speech at Bagram. I'm sure you've got that.

Let me just highlight transition, which comes across rather simple and easy, but actually it's extraordinarily complex. There are actually three transitions ongoing simultaneously and they're all interconnected. There's the security transition which gets most of the attention. As Ben mentioned, there's a political transition leading up to the Afghan elections. We now have a date for those elections; it's April 2014. And then there's the economic transition, which was very much discussed as a main topic in the Tokyo conference last summer. These three transitions really are the main vehicles by which we get to the post-2014 vision.

Ben mentioned, beyond transition, that the two Presidents will be talking about post-2014 planning which is ongoing in both capitals. Obviously, a lot of this planning centers on the ongoing negotiations for a bilateral security agreement, as we call it, the BSA. I think they'll have very candid discussions about the sorts of authorities, privileges and immunities that the BSA might feature. And they hope to move the process forward by way of their discussions.

The other thing Ben mentioned briefly was the potential for trying to accelerate an Afghan-led peace process. Since the two Presidents last met, the Afghans have produced a roadmap, which is a very detailed five-phase approach to reconciliation. They've shared this roadmap with the Pakistanis. They've shared it with us. They've gotten feedback. So we really have, in a way, a clear path towards Afghan-led peace talks than we've had in the past. And I think this will be a topic that they discuss.

And then, finally, just to tap again Ben's fifth point, all these discussions, all these include regional dynamics. And obviously, Afghanistan lives in a tough region, and its relationships and our relationships with Afghanistan's neighbors are always prime topics when the two Presidents get together.

So I think we'll stop there and I'll turn it back over to Tommy.

MR. VIETOR: Great. Thanks. Now we're going to take some of your questions, so if, Operator, you wouldn't mind moving the queue.

Q: Thank you so much for taking the time to do the call, and thank you for your service. I have two quick questions about the issues you just mentioned. Regarding the negotiations over the bilateral security agreement, which would include the extension of U.S. forces in Afghanistan past 2014, you mentioned the immunities issue. Is it the administration's analysis, as it was in Iraq, that immunities for U.S. troops should and must go through the Afghan parliament, or can they just be given or directed from the executive? Fox News reported that the three options being considered by the administration, none of them go above the range of 10,000 U.S. troops remaining after 2014. Is that true?

And finally, part of the Afghan-led peace process involved for many months the negotiations over the release of U.S. Private Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban commanders being released from Guantanamo Bay as a confidence-building measure. Is that plan still on the table or is that over? Thank you.

MR. RHODES: Thanks, Josh. This is Ben. I'll just say a few words about troops and then hand it over to Doug. First of all, as it relates to troop levels, I know there's a lot of focus on potential numbers. The fact is, what we are most interested in is having an enduring partnership with Afghanistan. We are not going to be partnering with Afghan security forces in securing Afghanistan after 2014. Our combat mission will be over.

We do, however, want to continue to ensure that Afghan National Security Forces are trained and equipped appropriately. And there is significant resources that have been committed to that goal, not just in the United States, but from NATO as well. And we do want to make sure that we can continue to deny al Qaeda a safe haven within Afghanistan after 2014.

And so the way the President approaches this is not aiming to keep a certain number of troops within Afghanistan. The objective of the bilateral security agreement negotiations is not to accomplish a number of U.S. troops in a country, it is to accomplish the two goals of denying a safe haven to al Qaeda and training and equipping Afghan National Security Forces. And there are of course many different ways of accomplishing those objectives, some of which might involve U.S. troops, some of which might not.

So that's how I would approach this issue. I understand of course there are -- interest in any potential number of U.S. troops. And it is true that it would certainly be significantly lower than anywhere that we are today in terms of the numbers of U.S. troops, and in a range that is consistent with the President's commitment to end the war and to end U.S. responsibility for the security of Afghanistan.

But that's the context I would give to the question of a number, that it's not so much a question of how many troops we have, it's a question of how do we accomplish those two objectives.

And with that, I'll hand it over to Doug to discuss -- oh, wait, and the only other point I'd make on this is, as I said in the intro, the President is not going to -- in this discussion, they're not going to finalize that decision. I think they want to reach a common understanding of how we can achieve those objectives and achieve President's Karzai's objective that we share of making sure that Afghans have full sovereignty within their country.

And then, after the two Presidents have had a meeting of the minds on those issues here in Washington, negotiators will be able to take that guidance and try to finalize an agreement. So I would not expect an announcement of any sort about a number of U.S. troops beyond 2014, but rather this is an opportunity for the two Presidents to meet at a critical time in the negotiation and then to provide that critical guidance to negotiators.

But with that, I'll give it to Doug.

GENERAL LUTE: So Ben is exactly right. The bilateral security agreement that's under negotiation now does several things. One is it grants the authorities that the United States would require, granted by the sovereign state of Afghanistan, for any military missions that might extend beyond post-2014. So it's only reasonable that the two Presidents talk about those missions that might be assigned post-2014. And that's why we listed them among the highest priorities for the discussions this week. But they're going to be talking about missions and authorities, not numbers.

The other thing the bilateral security agreement will do is, as status of forces agreements do around the world where we have U.S. forces stationed on foreign soil, is establish jurisdictional arrangements to include prosecutorial immunities and so forth. So that's a topic for the BSA talks.

Obviously, we don't have any to announce right now in terms of where those negotiations are ongoing. But the BSA will establish appropriate, mutually agreed arrangements for jurisdictional issues.

You mentioned Sergeant Bergdahl. Sergeant Bergdahl's release and safe return to his family is one of the objectives of our approach to try to get into peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. And these are talks that we imagine to be led by the Afghan government. So yes, his safe return is one objective. But there are a whole list of other objectives as well that have to do with the logic of getting Afghans to talk to Afghans about the future of the country.

MR. RHODES: And just on that, we of course would always be seeking in its own right the release of Sergeant Bergdahl so he can be reunited with his family. Any time an American is taken abroad, that's going to continue to be an objective of our government.

With that, we're happy to take the next question.

Q: Yes, thanks for doing this. Can you gentlemen talk a little bit about the timing for a decision by the President on the number of residual troops after 2014? I think it was Ben who said it would be decided in coming months. How many months are we talking about for a decision? Are we talking about by mid-year for example?

MR. RHODES: Sure, well, the -- I'd say a couple of things. We, with the Afghans, have aimed to negotiate a bilateral security agreement this year by November. So the timeline set by the U.S. and Afghan governments to reach an agreement for a post-2014 bilateral security agreement would be November at the latest. I think as a general matter, as those negotiations proceed, we'll have a better idea about the type of post-2014 presence that we may or may not have in Afghanistan. It can therefore influence our planning as to how we get from where we are today in Afghanistan at this midpoint in the transition to the end of the transition by the end of 2014.

There are separate decisions, though, that the President will have to make about U.S. troop levels in 2013. The President is committed to continuing steady reductions of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. So there are 68,000, roughly, troops serving in Afghanistan right now. We are not going to plateau at that level until 2014 and then remove our troops from Afghanistan; we are going to continue a gradual-phased reduction of U.S. forces. However, those reductions are going to be guided by the transition process. So as Afghans are moving into the lead, that enables us to reduce U.S. force levels in the country.

In the milestone that was agreed to in Chicago for 2013, we'll establish a point on the calendar in 2013 when the last tranche of transition begins in Afghanistan and the Afghans are in the lead for security around the country. That decision about how that last piece of transition begins, and how we reach that 2013 milestone, will then help guide the President's decision-making about the next phase of reductions. And that is a decision he'll be making in the coming months. And I'd say certainly in the early part of the year of 2013, the next couple of months, the President will be making a decision about the next phase of the drawdown as tied to our 2013 transition plan.

So again, the way to think about it is there will be additional reductions in 2013 associated with transition, and then there will be the separate question of what is the final target for any potential U.S. troop presence, or not, within Afghanistan after 2014.

Doug, anything you'd want to add to this?

GENERAL LUTE: No, I think that covers it.

Q: Thank you for doing this. And my question is about the U.N. The presence, international presence in Afghanistan was authorized by the Security Council. Do you think the agreement from the Security Council is needed to complete the mission? Do you intend to provide a report to the Security Council, sort of mission accomplished thing? And what is -- if so, then when? And if not, then why not?

GENERAL LUTE: Well, you're right, the current NATO-led ISAF mission is authorized by way of a Security Council resolution that has been repeatedly, year after year, assessed based on on-the-ground reports and year after year renewed. And we expect that process to continue through December 2014. What follows December 2014, by way of the potential for a new U.N. mandate, will be a topic for the Security Council to take up.

Q: Thanks, gentlemen, for doing this. I would like to know how you conduct the discussions with President Karzai in light of the peace agreement he is pursuing with the Pakistanis that replaces the United States as the broker of direct, face-to-face talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban; effectively reduces the American role in this process.

And secondly, everybody agrees that there can only be a political solution to the war, and yet the history of Afghanistan shows that every agreement that's been made has broken down and for one major reason: There has been no enforcement and monitoring mechanism. It's very likely that the Afghans and the Pakistanis will want American military personnel on the ground after 2014 to maintain a monitoring and enforcement mechanism that's been lacking in the past, particularly after the Soviets left Afghanistan. How does the administration view the possibility that American troops will have to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 to ensure that any peace agreement actually works?

MR. RHODES: I'll just make a quick comment and hand it over to Doug. Again, we are not going to be responsible for the security of Afghanistan beyond 2014 in terms of securing villages and securing the countryside. Afghans will be doing that.

We have two missions that we'd be focused on: training and equipping those security forces of Afghanistan, and we'll be carrying out that mission in counterterrorism, particularly focused on al Qaeda and their affiliates. So it's not our aim to control Afghanistan or to determine its politics after 2014. In fact, that is why we support an Afghan-led political process and we very much support a Pakistani role, because there has to be a regional buy into the future of stability in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and South Asia.

But I'll hand it over to Doug to take the first question.

GENERAL LUTE: So we agreed that an Afghan-led political process, a political settlement of some sort is absolutely essential to bringing the war to a responsible close. So we agree on that point. I don't agree, however, that an Afghan-led process means that somehow the U.S. or Pakistan are going to play sort of dominant proxy roles. This legitimately has to be an Afghan-owned and led process, which is why we welcomed very much several months ago the Afghan production of the five-phase roadmap, which we think is very reasonable, obtainable, realistic approach to the peace process.

Now, as Ben suggested, while we don't imagine that either the United States or Pakistan are going to control this peace process, we both have important supporting roles to play as do other neighboring states and other international leaders to include international organizations. So this has got to be a bit of a team effort in terms of supporting the Afghan process, but the process itself has got to be owned by them.

Q: A question with regard to the issue of what U.S. troops might remain in Afghanistan after 2014, there's been some talk in recent days in some circles about a so-called "zero option" -- that is no U.S. troops to remain on the ground based in Afghanistan after 2014. Is that an option you're considering? And could you also walk us through some of the other options you're considering?

MR. RHODES: I'd just say a version of what I said before, which is that would be an option that we would consider, because the President does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He views these negotiations as in service of the two missions, security missions identified post-2014 -- again, counterterrorism particularly focused on al Qaeda and its affiliates, and training and equipping of ANSF.

So that's the objective. The U.S. does not have an inherent objective of X number of troops in Afghanistan. We have an objective of making sure there's no safe haven for al Qaeda within Afghanistan and making sure that the Afghan government has a security force that is sufficient to ensure the stability of the Afghan government and the denial of that safe haven. So that's what guides us and that's what causes us to look for different potential troop numbers or not having potential troops in the country.

Now, with the Afghans we'll be discussing how to best achieve those missions consistent with I think Afghanistan's shared interest in a partnership with the United States. I think we both agree, both our countries agree that there is an interest in an enduring partnership between the United States and Afghanistan. Afghans need to know that as they stand up for their security, they won't stand alone. And so, therefore, they know, for instance, that there is going to be sufficient resources from the U.S. and international community for their security forces after 2014. They need to know that there's going to be continued equipping of their security forces, because there's simply no way that they could do that, for instance, on their own as soon as 2015.

So we know that we have an interest in an enduring partnership. We also know we have an interest in Afghans having full sovereignty and full ownership over the affairs of their country. And so, how we balance and achieve those objectives -- Afghan sovereignty, Afghanistan is fully responsible for its security, denial of a safe haven to al Qaeda -- those are the guiding factors for the BSA negotiations. And, again, we'll look at a range of options for how we might achieve that. Some of those options would include different levels of U.S. troops.

But, again, it is not an objective in and of itself to have a certain number of troops.

GENERAL LUTE: The only thing I would add is that the key variables here in terms of where we will end up in post-2014 are the strength and resilience of al Qaeda, the development of Afghan capacity, and the authorities we were granted. So we're working on all of those.

The campaign against al Qaeda continues. We have two years between now and the end of 2014. We've made a lot of progress against al Qaeda, but the job is not done. So that remains a variable.

The Afghan National Security Forces are a work in progress. Again, we've made a lot of progress over the last three or four years, but they're not -- that's not a completed task. So how much more progress do we make in the next two years -- that will be a key variable in terms of where we end up in 2015.

And then, finally, the authorities granted. As we know from our Iraq experience, if there are no authorities granted by the sovereign state, then there is not room for a follow on a U.S. military mission.

So there are a lot of variables in play. We're working on all of them. And one of the key things we want to do is consult with our Afghan partners this week.

MR. RHODES: Great. We'll take a couple more questions.

Q: Yes, hi. Just to quickly follow up on that, Ben. So it's fair to say that the White House doesn't rule out keeping zero troops, even on a tactful -- I mean, even if you had the authority or if there were an agreement, you might decide that it isn't necessary to keep troops to equip the Afghan forces and attack al Qaeda by use of unmanned aerial aircraft or some other measure, correct?

MR. RHODES: Yes. We wouldn't rule out any option. So, as I said, we're not guided by the goal of a certain number of U.S. troops in the country; we're guided by the objectives that the President set -- disrupt, dismantle, defeat al Qaeda. And we're guided by the shared missions that we've agreed to with the Afghans -- the training and equipping of their forces and counterterrorism.

And, again, those objectives can be met in a range of ways and have a range of variables associated with them, as Doug said. And the purpose of our BSA discussions is to figure out what the best relationship after 2014 is that will accomplish those objectives, consistent with the interests of both the United States and Afghanistan.

We will take another question.

Q: Yes. Gentlemen, thanks for taking the time. I wanted to kind of go back to the numbers issue. Now, I think it was Doug, you mentioned that this discussion of this upcoming meeting with President Karzai isn't going to focus on numbers, but earlier you also mentioned that the two main missions for a post-2014 Afghanistan would be training, advising ANSF, and counterterrorism operations.

Now, recent reports on the assessment that has been completed by General John Allen associate a particular number with those missions. Now, with the emphasis on counterterrorism and training, is it fair to say that numbers that have been in the public now related to those two missions is that a number that the White House is drilling down on? And second, on General Allen's recommendations for post-2014, was it a conscious decision by the White House to split that process from the drawdown -- the troop drawdown process that could take place in 2013?

MR. RHODES: First comment -- this is Ben. They're related processes. So the drawdown in 2013 is related to transition, to the 2013 milestone, and whatever we agree upon with our allies and the Afghans about that fifth and last tranche of transition getting underway. But, of course, it's also guided by internally how we're looking at where the United States is going to land by the end of 2014. So the President's objective is to look at all these pieces as connected. And General Allen's input as the commander is critical to shaping the President's views and driving discussion at the White House and with the rest of the interagency.

GENERAL LUTE: Any numbers that might be discussed -- and I don't want to lend any credibility to the wide range of numbers that have been available publicly -- feature different assumptions about the variables I mentioned. So if you assume that we make more progress against al Qaeda, then potentially the CT mission two years from now is less than it might otherwise be. If you assume that the Afghan capacity continues on a positive glide path and that we reach our goals in terms of the development of the army and the police, then you can imagine that they require less support.

So the ranges are completely derivative from different assumptions about the variables. And that process with John Allen continues even as recently as today. So that's an ongoing dialogue.

MR. VIETOR: Okay, guys, I think we have time for one more. I think we may have exhausted our answers on numbers. So if there are any other policy questions on the visit with President Karzai, we'd love to take at least one more question.

Q: Hi, I just wanted to check with you, will there be any joint statement or declaration at the end of the meeting?

GENERAL LUTE: Yes, we're managing a joint U.S.-Afghan statement issued just before the press conference on Friday.

Q: On Pakistan, can you give a sense of to what extent can the U.S. strategy at all succeed the gradual reduction if the safe havens are not reduced more in Pakistan? What is the state of those safe havens at this point? And what progress do you need to see over the next two years?

GENERAL LUTE: Well, we're in very close and continuous contact with our Pakistani partners as well. And one of the topics that is always on the agenda for those senior sessions is the safe havens. And these, of course, are safe havens from which not only the Afghan Taliban operate, but safe havens from which Pakistani Taliban and other international groups operate -- some against the Pakistani state itself.

And the conversations we have and we continue to have with Pakistan feature how, together, we can get at these safe havens by some combination of military means, on behalf of the Pakistanis, but probably more promising, political means, which have us, the Afghans, and the Pakistanis working together to try to craft a political process that defeats these safe havens and brings the Afghan Taliban back into the political fold in Afghanistan. That's what the Afghan-led peace process is all about. It's about making irrelevant the safe havens in Pakistan.

MR. VIETOR: Thanks, everyone, for joining us today. If you have any questions, feel free to email us to follow up. Thanks.

END 3:00 P.M. EST

Barack Obama, Conference Call by Deputy National Security Advisor For Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes and Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for South Asia Doug Lute on President Karzai's Visit to the White House Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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