The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials via Conference Call on Afghanistan

Via Conference Call

1:51 P.M. EDT

MS. LUCAS MAGNUSON:  Good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you for joining the call.  This is to describe the President’s announcement at 2:45 p.m. about Afghanistan.  As a reminder, this call is on background and information will be attributed to senior administration officials. 

So with that, we'll get started, and then we'll take your questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great.  Thanks, everybody, for joining the call.  We just wanted to give you some background on the announcement that the President will make at 2:45 p.m. about his decision on Afghanistan.

First, let me just give some context.  As you know, we have been undertaking a transition since the Lisbon Summit -- the NATO Lisbon summit -- towards Afghan responsibility for security by the end of this year.  That's a transition that was reaffirmed at the NATO Summit in Chicago.  It also involved the Afghan Security Forces moving into the lead for operations in Afghanistan last spring.

What we've seen over the course of the last year is the Afghan National Security Forces step up, make extraordinary sacrifices for their country, and continue to grow in terms of not just their size but also their capability.  And I think that was on display as they secured the election earlier this spring.

On the political side, we've seen also a year of transition here in 2014, with Afghans voting in the millions in the first round of their presidential election and coming out in defiance of threats to choose their next leader.  In just over a couple of weeks the second round of that election will take place.  And so this year, not only will Afghan Security Forces take responsibility for their security but Afghans will have their first democratic transition of power in their history.

In the context of that progress, the President has been reviewing what we might provide in terms of support for Afghanistan beyond 2014.  As you know, he’s always said that we are open to pursuing two narrow missions after 2014 in terms of our security commitment, and that is training Afghan forces and counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda. 

We also, of course, have a broader relationship with Afghanistan in development and diplomatic support, but we're focused here on the security support after 2014.  And I'll just say a few things about what the President is going to announce and how he arrived at the decision.

First, consistent with our transition plan, our combat mission in Afghanistan will conclude by the end of the year so Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their country.  Any U.S. personnel in the country will shift fully to an advisory role in support of those two missions.

In terms of what that commitment would be, the President has decided that he’s prepared to have 9,800 U.S. servicemembers in different parts of Afghanistan at the beginning of 2015, together with other NATO allies and partners.  That presence of 9,800 would allow us to provide regional support for those two missions of training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations.

By the end of 2015, we will reduce that presence by consolidating our troops in Kabul and at Bagram Airfield.  And consistent with that consolidated approach, we would expect the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to be reduced by roughly half, although we will determine that exactly as we meet that milestone.

Then, by the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with the security assistance component, as we've done in Iraq, where we can continue, for instance, to work through military sales and advice. 

So to summarize, 9,800 U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan regionally at the beginning of 2015; drawing down by the end of 2015 to a Kabul/Bagram presence that we would anticipate as roughly half of that 9,800; and then concluding with an embassy presence with the security assistance office at the end of 2016.

Of course, more broadly, we will continue our commitment to Afghanistan in other areas -- diplomacy, financial support, development assistance, as an international effort as agreed to, for instance, in Tokyo.

I would note that we will only sustain this presence after 2014 if a bilateral security agreement is signed.  We've already negotiated that agreement with the Afghan government, but we've yet to sign it.  However, both the leading candidates for president have indicated that they would sign that agreement in the first days of their time in office.  That gave the President the confidence to make this announcement and provide this clarity. 

In terms of how we got to where we are, again, I'd just note that we believe it's important, as we said to you over the last several months, that we can provide clear guidance for not just the United States government and military, but also for our NATO allies and partners, who we'll be consulting with at the NATO defense ministry on June 4th.  The President has spoken to, yesterday, Prime Minister Cameron, Prime Minister Renzi, and Chancellor Merkel, who, of course, have been key nations in contemplating a post-2014 presence.  This morning, he spoke with President Karzai to update him on his decision.

So this provides the clarity of planning.  Secondly, as I said, our calculus evolved with respect to announcing this publicly in part because of the constructive statements from the two leading candidates and from how the elections have proceeded thus far. 

And lastly, I'd say we see a moment here of some momentum in Afghanistan.  That was certainly the tenor of the briefing the President received when he was at Bagram.  We see security forces stepping forward.  We see the Afghan people stepping forward through the election process.  We see credible candidates for president.  And we believe that with this announcement we can encourage that continued positive trajectory.  Even as we know there will be violence in Afghanistan, there will continue to be challenges in Afghanistan, our core principle is this is shifting to an Afghan-led effort to guard that security, to have their sovereignty, and to know, however, that they have the support of the international community.

I'd just say one final thing.  The President also looked at this in a broader context of how we view counterterrorism generally.  He will be speaking to that tomorrow at West Point.  But I think an important point for him in this review process was that we're not looking at Afghanistan in isolation; we are looking at this challenge as it extends from Afghanistan and Pakistan all the way to [the] Sahel, and how do we build a strategy that is matched to the threat of today, which is a threat that is less rooted principally in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is more prevalent in some of the other affiliates and extremist groups who have merged or sought to take advantage of instability in other parts of the region.

So we believe that this gives us the framework to provide that support for Afghanistan, but also, frankly, to assure that we have resources to allocate in terms of counterterrorism across the region.

With that, we're happy to move to questions.

Q    Since U.S. forces remaining in Afghanistan will have this counterterror mission, can you elaborate more on your assessment of the Taliban and al Qaeda remnant threat there?  And are there any concerns about a message that might be sent to them by setting this firm timetable?  One other question -- you touched on this, but to what extent will this overall issue figure in tomorrow’s West Point speech? 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  On your first question, just to make a couple of comments.  As I’ve said, the threat from al Qaeda’s core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been significantly addressed through the efforts to dismantle the al Qaeda leadership in that part of the world.  That does not mean that there are no traces of al Qaeda.  Of course, there continues to be threats emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan.  But we do believe that we have struck significant blows against al Qaeda’s leadership. 

However, we do want to maintain a counterterrorism capability precisely because we don’t want al Qaeda to regenerate.  We don’t want there to be significantly enhanced space for them to operate.  That means we’re going to continue our counterterrorism operations in the region.  And it also means that we’re going to train Afghan National Security Forces to help us in mitigating that threat.  So I think people should know, of course that in working with Afghanistan and working with Pakistan, we are going to continue to be vigilant and we’re going to continue to carry out, as necessary, counterterrorism operations if al Qaeda seeks to reemerge or pose threats to the United States. 

However -- you mentioned the Taliban -- on the broader security environment in Afghanistan, we believe that the long-term solution towards Afghan security is not U.S. forces, it’s Afghan forces; and that we’ve trained and equipped an Afghan National Security Force that needs to be responsible for securing their country; that this has never been a situation where the United States was signing on to provide security in Afghanistan indefinitely.  We have always been very clear that this was a year of transition that our combat mission would come to an end.

And, ultimately, we believe and have confidence that the Afghan National Security Forces can be in the lead and can mitigate that violence and can provide for that security.  It doesn’t mean it will be perfect security, but it does mean that the Afghan National Security Forces, after years of training and assistance, are prepared to step forward.

So we will continue to address that al Qaeda threat through our counterterrorism efforts and through our partnership with the Afghans.  With respect to the Taliban, I think that is a challenge that the Afghan National Security Forces will continue to take on.  And I’d note that they already have done so over the course of the last year when they’ve been in the lead for combat operations. 

On your second question, I’d say that this will factor into the President’s speech.  I think what he will be doing tomorrow is putting this in a broader context.  So, today, he is announcing how we are bringing our war in Afghanistan to a responsible end and continuing to support the Afghan National Security Forces.  Tomorrow, he will speak to the much broader question both of how we’re dealing with the counterterrorism challenge across this entire region, and also how are we using U.S. leadership to advance our interests around the world. 

And, again, we believe that ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan both provides for a broader distribution of counterterrorism resources even as it also brings our troops home, but it also allows us to focus on a broader set of priorities around the world. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I would just add, as we alluded to in the opening comments, that we received a number of reports when we were in Bagram this weekend.  And one of the things that was really emphasized is the performance of the Afghan Security Forces against the Taliban during the first round of the elections. 

And while the Taliban remains a resilient and -- a fairly resilient insurgent force, what matters more is the relative balance and military strength between the Taliban and the Afghan Security Forces.  And what those first round of elections demonstrated was that despite a pretty deliberate attempt by the insurgency to come out and threaten the first round of elections, that the Afghan Security Forces were able to mobilize and perform relatively independently in a fairly effective way. 

Q    My question regards the NATO allies.  You mentioned some of the phone calls that the President made to Chancellor Merkel and others.  Could you elaborate a little bit on what the expectations are of the American side as to troop levels?  There used to be sort of the formula of NATO allies adding maybe a 50 percent of whatever the Americans were ready to deploy.  And also, concerning regional distribution all over Afghanistan, is there an anticipation on the American side that NATO allies might maintain bases outside of Kabul and Bagram when the Americans are not doing that at the end of next year?  And also, if I may add, what can be done in those few months in certainly the different regional bases that hasn’t been able to be achieved in the past many years since you will be winding -- is that anything other than allowing commanders enough time to really wind down their presence there for the few months until this will be stepped down?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Let me just address some of that, and then my colleague will also address some of your other questions. 

On your last question, I think a key piece of this is helping the Afghan National Security Forces as they become a more sustainable entity.  They developed significant capabilities through training and equipping, and through being in the lead for combat operations.  At the same time, there are a lot of other elements that go into being a self-sustaining military.

Now, they’re going to have enduring support, as we agreed to at Chicago, in terms of resources.  But having an advisory capacity in the country next year we believe will help the Afghan National Security Forces become more sustainable in fulfilling the different elements of the professional military in terms of how they plan, how they equip their forces, how they carry out different functions.  And, again, those will often be advisory and not at all focused, for instance, on a combat operation, but simply on how they are structuring themselves as a security force.

So we believe that there is a benefit to having an advisory capacity like that on bases with Afghans where we can work through those types of issues.  But I’ll turn it over to my colleague on the other subject.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  In terms of the coalition dimension of this, the President’s decision will enable what NATO had already anticipated and begun to plan for, which was a regional approach and a NATO-trained advise-and-assist mission that would continue to keep coalition advisors embedded down to a corps level within the Afghan army and police forces in kind of the four corners, so to speak, of the country. 

This decision is consistent with that plan.  And what we imagine would come out of this decision would be a formalization within NATO of their basic operational concept for the post-2014 mission, and that could occur next week when Defense Ministers convene in Brussels for their next meeting.  The details will be worked out in that meeting.  And, subsequently, there’s a NATO force generation conference in mid-June that will start to get into those operational details. 

But the short answer is, yes, we believe that this will maintain a coalition and regional framework consistent with those expectations and the planning to date.

Q    So how does this work with -- just quickly, I might have missed precisely what you said in terms of the signing of the security agreement.  You have -- both of the runoff candidates have said they would and do it quickly.  But what happens if there is a problem with the June 14th election?  Is there a contingency plan?  I mean, if something, if some event there prevents either the transition from happening -- as you said, this will be the first one in Afghanistan’s history, so a lot is riding on that.  What’s the contingency if there’s no security agreement signed?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, it’s a simple answer. If there’s not a bilateral security agreement signed, we will not maintain these forces in Afghanistan after 2014.  And you heard us say earlier in the year that we were planning for different contingencies, including the so-called “zero option,” the drawdown of all of our forces by the end of this year.  So we have contingencies planned across the board.  And without a bilateral security agreement, we would not keep U.S. forces in the country.

I will say, again, that both candidates have said that they would sign this agreement within their first days in office.  The election is scheduled for the middle of June.  The inauguration is scheduled for later in the summer.  So if that goes according to plan, we believe that this will be completed and we will move forward with the decision the President is articulating today.  If for whatever reason there is not a bilateral security agreement, again, we have a contingency plan to not sustain this level of commitment militarily in Afghanistan after 2014.

Q    You mentioned NATO.  What’s the expectation of how many troops NATO is going to keep in there?  Because the 9,800 is just American, right?  And also, again, why do we have to say what the number is or what the deadline would be?  Some people argue that the deadline gives the enemy heart and hope that they can just wait it out.  You’re talking 2016 having no troops there, so conducting a counterterror mission, could you do that with an embassy security group that’s there?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  On your second question, in terms of why announce both the troop levels at the beginning of 2015 and then the step-down, we believe it’s necessary for planning purposes to be clear to our own government and to our allies and partners about the commitments that the United States is prepared to make in 2015, and then through 2016.  That’s prudent planning that allows for everybody to have predictability.

I would say, for instance, that setting dates has been helpful over the course of the last several years in having predictability.  So we were very clear at NATO how we were going to transition to Afghan National Security Forces being in the lead.  And we did that on a schedule that concluded with the Afghans being fully in the lead by last spring.  And that helped prepare them, and that helped provide certainty as they plan their own operations.  And they performed well, and they have been in the lead.  And you have not seen U.S. and international forces in the lead for combat since that transition took place.

So, again, there’s great utility in people knowing how the plan is going to go and knowing what they’re going to be responsible for and when.  And we’ve already seen that over the course of the last two or three years since Lisbon. 

With respect to 2016, we never signed up to be a permanent security force in Afghanistan to fight against the Taliban.  And in fact, we were very clear after the review in 2009 that we were not going to set as a U.S. objective eradicating Taliban presence or influence in Afghanistan.  The objective, again, is to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, disrupt al Qaeda activity that threatens us, and then, train the Afghan National Security Force that can provide for security.

And again, ultimately, it’s that Afghan National Security Force that has to tip the balance towards stability in Afghanistan.  That is not a space that it makes sense for the United States to fill indefinitely.  So we’re not concerned about setting that clear direction that at the end of this process in 2016, we will be at an embassy presence with the security assistance office.  We believe that it’s necessary to have that clarity for the Afghans.  We believe, again, that they are the long-term solution in securing their own country.  We believe that they want to reclaim their full sovereignty in this area of security, and that we can build a more normal, long-term relationship with them in which we are providing assistance, but they’re in the lead.

And I’d just add that this makes sense from our national security interest precisely because of the way in which the counterterrorism mission and threat has changed.  Again, as we’ve seen al Qaeda core push back and we’ve seen regional affiliates seek to gain a foothold in different parts of the Middle East and North Africa, what makes sense is a strategy that is not designed for the threat as it exists in 2001 or 2004.  We need the strategy for how it exists in 2014 and 2016.  And that is going to involve far more partnership and support across this entire region and less of the type of presence that the United States had in Afghanistan over the last 13 years.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  On your first question about the troop numbers in NATO, the 9,800 figure represents the total U.S. contribution.  That is essentially assessed as being sufficient for both missions that we’ve committed to, the NATO regional advisory mission and also the counterterrorism mission. So that includes both missions.

The exact and specific breakdown of how many within that 9,800 would be dedicated or committed to the NATO mission, that’s something that will be worked out and determined at the mid-June force generation conference we mentioned earlier.

Q    Can you talk a little bit about the timing of this announcement and how it fits with tomorrow’s speech?  Is the idea to sort of get this out there so that tomorrow’s speech can be more big-picture focused?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  They are related in the sense that today the President wants to be able to discuss in some level of detail his decision on Afghanistan, and focus on that specifically, given its importance to the United States and given the amount of commitment we’ve made in Afghanistan over the last decade. 

Then, tomorrow, I think he wants to put this in the broader context of our foreign and national security policy, both as it relates to the counterterrorism efforts that extends from South Asia to the Sahel, and then, also how it pertains to our broader foreign policy and leadership in the world.

I think a key point here is that you have heard us say often over the last five years that we are winding down a decade of war, that we’ve ended the war in Iraq, that we are winding down the war in Afghanistan, that we’ve been focused on al Qaeda’s core leadership and Osama bin Laden.  Now, I think what the President wants to do tomorrow is be very clear about what the next chapter of American leadership in the world is as it relates to counterterrorism and as it relates to our broader priorities in leading the international community.  So, again, doing this today allows for him to focus on Afghanistan and then put that in a broader context tomorrow. 

The only other thing I’d say in terms of timing is we also have a NATO defense ministerial coming up on June 4th, so that’s a good opportunity for NATO to finalize its plan in this regard, and so we are mindful of providing this clarity for allies and partners.  And, like I said, we’ve seen positive developments over the last couple of months that made the President comfortable with this decision as it relates to the ANSF and their capacity to secure the elections and as it relates to the emergence of two candidates who are supportive of the BSA.

Q    I guess the last question I have is, to what degree have you guys assessed what Pakistan and India’s interactions with each other are going to be after this, just in the sense that anyone that’s looked at Afghan security has had to look at the kind of broad proxy battles between these two neighboring countries inside Afghanistan?  Is it your assessment that their proxy war is slowing, which will give Afghanistan more of a chance, or do your concerns about India and Pakistan’s meddling in Afghanistan continue?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  That’s an excellent question.  If you look back at the President’s speech at Bagram in 2012, when we kind of laid out this transition up to now, one of the pillars of our strategy was regional stability.  And we’ve always believed that you cannot have true security in South Asia without the investment not just of Afghanistan, but also Pakistan. 

I think we’ve been very focused in the last several months at improving the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and putting it on a firmer footing as it relates to counterterrorism, but also as it relates to our broader relationship.  And with a new leader in Pakistan, we believe we make good progress in that regard.

You’ve seen the Pakistanis, for instance, go on the offensive in certain areas against the extremist groups within their borders.  So part of this long-term solution, again, is going to be a situation where the United States does not assume the burden of going after all of these terrorist groups, but rather we’re working with partners like both Afghanistan and Pakistan, that they’re working on both sides of that border to root out extremist elements.  And, again, I think we’ve seen a composite of trends from Pakistan in that regard.

With respect to India, I think we’ve seen a constructive tone set from the very beginning by Prime Minister Modi and by Prime Minister Sharif, who was one of the first leaders to speak to Prime Minister Modi after his victory in the elections.  He traveled to India for the inauguration, was able to see Prime Minister Modi there.  We always encourage India and Pakistan to pursue dialogue that can reduce tension.  We believe that that is in the interest of the entire region.  And so we’ll continue to encourage that.

So with that new leadership in India, the new leadership in Pakistan, and the new president coming to office in Afghanistan this year, I think we have an opportunity to have that discussion about how all the countries in the region can provide for a greater stability and security.  And that’s certainly something we’re going to pursue.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I would just add that there were a lot of people asking that same question, particularly in the macro sense that the region is going to respond in kind as the international community draws down in Afghanistan, and that those regional dynamics, particularly with regards to their proxies, matters considerably to future stability in Afghanistan. But in recent and operational terms, the attack against the Indian consulate in Herat raised that very question.

But as my colleague points out, we’re hopeful that the initial indication between both Islamabad and New Delhi is a positive one.  And Prime Minister Sharif responded to the invite in attending the inauguration, the first such visit in many years, and as well, reminiscent of the last time there was significant progress between the two countries when the BJP came to power during Prime Minister Sharif’s previous term as Prime Minister in the late ‘90s, and they made progress along lines that looked very much like what we have now.

So we’re cautiously hopeful that that could be a positive indicator, but we’re also mindful that this will be very important to the dynamic going forward.

MS. LUCAS MAGNUSON:  Thanks, everyone, for joining us.  This is just a reminder this call was on background, attributable to senior administration officials.  Have a good day.  Thank you. 

2:23 P.M. EDT

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