WATCH: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with Voice of America's Andre De Nesnera
U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that one-third of U.S. forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan over the next 18 months, and declared that Washington and its NATO allies have largely met their goals of defeating Al-Qaeda and stopping the Taliban's momentum. On the day of his announcement, Obama talked to Voice of America's Andre De Nesnera at the White House about the issues surrounding Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the troop pullout plan, reconciliation talks in Afghanistan, and Pakistan's role regarding its neighbor.
VOA: You have just announced a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. How should the Afghan people perceive this withdrawal?
Well, I think it signals the success of the surge that we put in a year and a half ago, and it also signals the seriousness with which we take the transition. In 2009, I announced that we would send an additional 30,000 troops in, and our goal was very specific: We were going to blunt the momentum of the Taliban that were taking on more and more control of the country, and we were going to use that time to make sure we were training Afghan security forces so that Afghans would have the capacity to secure their own country. We’ve made enormous progress during that time, and so what we’ve seen is an additional 100,000 Afghan forces trained, we’ve seen areas like Kandahar and Helmand wrested away from the Taliban, so that communities can feel more secure and more safe.
And what we now are doing is going to remove 10,000 troops by the end of this year, an additional 23,000 by the end of next summer. We’ll get back down to the levels that we were before the surge, and then we’ll continue to transition as Afghan forces stand up, with the goal of completing this transition by 2014. Beyond 2014, though, we want to make sure that we maintain the strong relationship with the Afghan people and the Afghan government. We won’t have the same military presence, but what we hope on economic and development agendas [is] that we’re going to continue to work with Afghans as we have.
VOA: What kind of impact do you think this will have on the NATO allies? For example, how will you ensure that the NATO allies themselves don’t rush for the exits and in a sense get out of the country before we do?
Well, we actually made sure we consulted closely with our NATO allies before making the decision. I’ve subsequently discussed this with the secretary-general of NATO, as well as some of the key contributing countries. And they all recognize that what we did is put in a surge, we are now going to be removing that surge, but our baseline levels of 68,000 troops will remain, even by the end of next year, and we will be able to pace the transition in a way that makes sure that Afghan security forces are able to handle the security needs of their country.
VOA: So right now you made your decision based on the situation on the ground. How did you go through that whole thought process?
Well, you know it’s a combination of discussions with General [David] Petraeus [the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan] and the commanders on the ground. It’s also taking into consideration consultation with the Afghan government. One of the key issues here is making sure that we strike the right balance, letting the Afghan people know that we want a sovereign Afghanistan that is secure -- and we recognize that the more Afghan responsibility exists, the better off everybody is going to be -- but also making sure that we don’t rush it so quickly that Afghans find themselves overrun once again.
And I think that the numbers we arrived at strike the right balance. It’s consistent with a phased transition process which allows us to still partner with Afghans. But keep in mind that already there are Afghans out there every day who are fighting the fight, Afghans who are dying on behalf of their country and their freedom and their dignity. And what we want to make sure of is that we continue to be a good partner with that process, but we also want to send a signal to the Afghan people: "This is your country, ultimately, and you’re going to have responsibilities."
VOA: You mention the Afghan government, and President Hamid Karzai has been quite critical of the United States and NATO. Are you frustrated by such statements, and what kind of ally has he been?
Well, over all, President Karzai, I think, has the same strategic interest as we have, which is a sovereign and secure Afghan government that is able to determine its own destiny and sees the international community in general -- and the United States in particular -- as a strong partner that can support Afghan aspirations. Obviously, there are going to be tensions in a difficult environment where we have a large number of foreign troops inside a country. It is true that, you know, there have been times where the tactics on the ground day to day result in tensions, but overall his interest is making sure that Afghanistan is not a safe haven for terrorists, that there is an adherence to the Afghan Constitution. Those commitments that he’s made are ones that are entirely consistent with what I see as U.S. interests.
VOA: We’ve talked about the European allies and NATO, and as you know, there’s a weariness with war, a fatigue in Europe. Do you sense the same war fatigue here, and what do you do to take care of such weariness?
There’s no doubt that after almost 10 years of war in Afghanistan, that the toll in terms of lives lost and money spent is going to wear on people. The good news is that we are transitioning from a position of strength, because of the surge, because of the fact that we were able to blunt the momentum of the Taliban, because of the security gains we’ve made and the advances we’ve seen with Afghan security forces. I think that both the American people and all the allies that I talk to want to make sure that we are finishing the job, that we are turning over to the Afghans a secure country that they can sustain. We want to do so in a cooperative manner that is respectful of Afghan law and Afghan security, but we also want to make sure that we don’t abandon a cause that we invested very heavily in.
VOA: You don’t think that some segments of the Afghan people will see it as abandonment?
I don’t think so. I mean, keep in mind that we’re talking about 10,000 troops by the end of this year, an additional 23,000 by the end of next summer, and we’ll still have 68,000 U.S. troops there, in addition to all the coalition partner troops. So there is still going to be a substantial presence, but what it does signal is that Afghans are slowly taking more and more responsibility.
VOA: As you know, reconciliation is a word used in Afghanistan. How do you define reconciliation, and what is the U.S. role in that process and does it support negotiations with at least some elements of the Taliban?
What we’ve said consistently is that there has to be a political settlement to bring about genuine peace in the region. But the terms of that political settlement are important, and we’ve been very clear in our criteria. We will encourage the Afghans, and we ourselves will talk to anybody, but they are going to have to break ties with Al-Qaeda, they are going to have to pledge to abide by the Afghan Constitution, and they’ll have to cease violence as a means of bringing about political power. If they take those steps, then I think there is a strong possibility of creating the kind of political settlement that would finally give Afghans relief from 30 years of war.
But it’s important that our military efforts continue to support these political efforts, and that means that the Taliban and others understand that they’re simply not going to be able to outlast us, that we’re going to be in a position to continue to put pressure on them to make sure they come to the negotiating table with a spirit of observing Afghan constitutional law.
VOA: Inevitably, when one talks about Afghanistan, one talks about Pakistan. Now that we’re beginning the withdrawal from Afghanistan, has the focus now shifted towards Pakistan?
I think the focus shifted to Pakistan, in my view, two years ago. You had to look at Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of a similar problem. That border region, in which extremist elements had taken control, and were providing Al-Qaeda safe haven from which to launch attacks into Afghanistan, into Pakistan and around the world. So we’ve sought to strengthen cooperation with Pakistan. Obviously, that has created tensions as well, but overall Pakistan has cooperated with us in our intelligence-collection efforts, in striking at high-value targets within Pakistan. We think that no country has suffered more from terrorist attacks than Pakistan. So this is entirely in their self-interest.
We think that Pakistan has a legitimate role to play as part of the reconciliation process. I know that President Karzai in his travels to Islamabad agreed that Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with the United States, should create a core group that can discuss how we can proceed in this process. Pakistan not only has a responsibility but also -- I think -- a deep interest in dealing with the terrorist elements that are still in their territory.
VOA: But it’s quite clear that relationship between the United States and Pakistan has cooled. How do you plan to repair that deteriorating relationship between Islamabad and Washington?
I think what happened is that the relationship has become more honest over time. That raises some differences that are real. Obviously, the operation to take out Osama bin Laden created additional tensions, but I had always been very clear to Pakistan that if we ever found him and had a shot, that we would take it. We think that if Pakistan recognizes the threat to its sovereignty that comes out of the extremists in its midst, that there’s no reason why we can’t work cooperatively to make sure that both U.S. security interests, Pakistani security interests, and Afghan security interests converge.
VOA: Do you think that Pakistan has to play a greater role against terrorism?
I think that Pakistan has always seen terrorism as either a problem for somebody else, or has seen elements of the Taliban as a hedge in terms of their influence within Afghanistan. What we’ve suggested to Pakistan is that not only does terrorism threaten Pakistan more than just about any other country, not only does it strain its relations with its neighbors and with friends like the United States, but that if it is having a direct relationship with the Afghan government that is constructive, that there’s no reason for them to see the Taliban as a hedge against Afghanistan. Instead, they should see the Afghan government as a partner they can work with.
VOA: Coming back to Afghanistan, do you think that the European allies should do more, because that has been, as you know, a leitmotif of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, especially in the last couple of weeks, very critical of what the Europeans and NATO have been doing. Can they do or should they do more?
I think the sacrifices that our European allies have made in Afghanistan have been extraordinary. If you look at the number of British troops who’ve suffered extraordinary casualties; if you look at the French, the Italians, the Dutch, all of whom have lost significant numbers of lives; if you look at many of the Central and Eastern European states who have substantial numbers -- in some ways they are punching above their weight compared to their overall military strength -- we’ve been very impressed with what they’ve been able to do.
Now, what I think is true is that there are larger questions about where we go as the NATO role evolves, and as all of us feel significant pressures on our military budgets. I think Secretary Gates was speaking less about European participation in Afghanistan, which has been actually quite robust and sustained but rather as we think about future operations and future capacity, is Europe going to recognize it has to be a full partner with us in NATO operations?
VOA: You mentioned military budgets, and I’m sure that one of your considerations for the withdrawal is the cost of the war. A broader question is to what extent does the current budget crisis drive your foreign policy in terms of what the United States can and can’t do?
The truth is that these considerations were not based on budgetary calculations. They were based on a strategy that I had laid out 18 months ago, and I wanted to make sure that we abided by because I made a commitment to the American people that the surge would only last for 18 to 24 months. First and foremost, it was driven by the strategic recognition, that the only way for us to have a secure Afghanistan over the long term is to make sure that Afghans have capacity and that we can’t patrol villages and police their streets. Ultimately, Afghans have to do that.
What is no doubt true is that the United States has carried an enormous burden financially, from not only the Afghan war but the Iraq war. One of the arguments that I made in talking to the American people about this drawdown is that our strength, our power, has always been based first and foremost on our own economic strength and prosperity. We have to be more judicious in how we project power. That’s good strategy. It’s good for our national security. It happens to also be good for our budget.