Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes en route Bagram Air Base
En Route Bagram Air Base
9:27 A.M. EST
MR. GIBBS: So let me just give you -- I’m going to walk through the schedule. Ben is going to walk through a couple of different aspects of the visit. General Lute and Tom Donilon are getting ready to brief the President, so we’ll talk to them after the bilateral meeting at the embassy. We’ll do a readout of that.
So just as a scheduling update, we are scheduled to land around 8:25 p.m. at Bagram. So we’re about 35 minutes pushed back from where we were, just as a point of reference. So let me just quickly go through the schedule. Most of it is what we went through, but I’ll just take you through it again.
Once we land we will go to the helos. We will pick up at Bagram General Petraeus and Ambassador Eikenberry. We will then lift in the helicopters to ISAF and the embassy, to a landing zone there, and then we will board into the motorcade for about an approximately 10-minute motorcade to the palace. There will be a brief arrival at the palace.
We will start the bilat with a quick pool spray with President Karzai and some brief statements from the two. Then for about 45 minutes they will -- the two of them in addition to General Petraeus, General Lute, Ambassador Eikenberry, Tom Donilon, will meet with President Karzai and his delegation in what’s listed as a working dinner.
We will then motorcade back to the embassy. I think as I told most of you guys in our pre-meetings on this that the President will then spend about half an hour with embassy staff. We do these on all of our foreign trips, akin to an embassy meet-and-greet to thank them for their service.
We will at that point get back into the helos and go to -- go back to Bagram. The President will be greeted by commanders at the base before heading off to the main troop event with a couple thousand from the 101st Airborne. And General Petraeus will introduce the President.
The President will then likely go visit wounded soldiers. We’ll have a little bit more information on that likely at the back end. As I said, we’ll get a readout on the bilateral once we’re back at the embassy and holding. So after he does the hospital greet we will load up and head back to the United States. We’ll do a refueling stop at Ramstein.
Q At what point is the embargo lifted -- is it after the spray?
MR. GIBBS: Katie Lillie or I -- once we land and we’re sort of set and the President is on the ground, Katie Lillie or I will give you guys that this trip is reportable and you can go. So --
Q That will be in Kabul, not Bagram?
MR. GIBBS: That will be in Kabul. So, again, you guys will all be in a group. When you hear from either myself or Katie Lillie, it’s good to go. But not until.
Q Then the whole schedule is reportable?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, the whole schedule is reportable.
Q It will be before the bilat?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, it will be before the spray. For those who went last time, we did -- there was an arrival ceremony. I don’t anticipate something like that this time because it will be much colder outside. But basically right as that started we gave a go.
Q -- is he going to take any questions?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know the answer to that.
Q Is he going to meet privately with Petraeus and Eikenberry while he’s on the ground?
MR. GIBBS: They’ll be in the helo with him on the way from Bagram. But I do anticipate that he will spend some time with them.
Q Just to clarify, is the bilat with Karzai, then the working dinner, or they’re the same thing?
MR. GIBBS: They’re largely the same thing. The pool spray you’ll see will be the two of them. They may do a few minutes of one-on-one time but then they’ll go into a larger -- I think it’s four or five people total on each side.
But, again, I would stress that the focus of our trip is really to see the troops and to see those who work at the embassy.
MR. RHODES: It looks like we’re going to have a bad weather call. So we might have to move the whole program out to Bagram.
MS. MASTROMONACO: We’re below weather minimums for the lift right now, so they’re making a weather call and it looks like we’re going to try and move everything to Bagram.
Q So that’s heavy -- is that why the weather call is below the minimum
MS. MASTROMONACO: It’s dust and everything.
MR. GIBBS: So just forget everything I said and pay absolutely no attention to that. (Laughter.)
MR. RHODES: It was all set -- we’ve known about the bad weather.
Q Take two.
Q Start all over.
MR. RHODES: Let me just give a few points for introduction. And we’ll get you -- what they’re working now is to see how much we can move to Bagram. So we’ll keep you updated on that, obviously.
MR. GIBBS: Including me. (Laughter.)
MR. RHODES: The principal reason for the trip -- we started planning this over a month ago, I’d say, with Alyssa. And the reason was to go during the holiday season. The President wanted to find the time in between Thanksgiving and Christmas when he could go out to spend some time with the troops in particular, and our civilians in Afghanistan, basically to wish them happy holidays.
It’s a particularly tough time of year for -- it’s always tough to serve in harm’s way, but when you’re away from loved ones in the holiday season, it’s particularly hard. And the President wanted the ability to come out and have some time with them during the holidays.
Just to give you a sense, just a quick sense of the kinds of sacrifices that Americans are making in Afghanistan -- we were going to go to the embassy, which we weren’t able to do last time, but we wanted to do that to underscore the civilian service because there are over 1,000 American civilians serving -- American government civilians -- that doesn’t include contractors, obviously -- serving in Afghanistan from the State Department, USAID, and some -- about nine other agencies. And that’s a number that has tripled since President Obama ordered a surge in our presence in Afghanistan.
Most of these civilians, of course, have families back home that they’re separated from as well. Most of them will serve upwards of a year during their time in Afghanistan. Some of them, about a quarter, serve 18 to 24 months, so there’s an extraordinary sacrifice that our civilians make as well as our military. And many of them are at the embassy, but many of them are also out in the field with our military or with PRTs serving in very difficult circumstances.
At Bagram, just to give you a sense of the sacrifice of the troops there and our broader military in this holiday season, the principal component will be the 101st -- as Robert said -- the 101st Airborne Division, parts of that division, although we do expect there to be components of all the services. When the President visits like this they tend to try to bring in components of the different services. But the bulk of the troops he’ll speak to are from the 101st.
The 101st Division Headquarters is on its fourth combat deployment in this time of war. That included the first invasion and occupation of Iraq, included a second tour in Iraq, then a 15-month deployment in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, and now again in Afghanistan.
Obviously not all the troops who he’ll be speaking to have been part of the 101st the entire time. Presumably some have. But this will be the fourth holiday season in which the 101st Division Headquarters has been in combat, so it speaks to, during this period of almost 10 years of war, how much these men and women have sacrificed.
Of course, a lot of our military, roughly half of them, in the Army, for instance, have families back home that include kids. So we know this is a sacrifice not just for them but for their families back home, and the President will be speaking to that as well.
So, above all, we wanted to underscore their sacrifice at a time of year when Americans are coming together as families to mark the holiday.
The visit also comes at a time in which there have been a number of milestones around Afghanistan. Some of you were with us in Lisbon just a couple weeks ago, where the President had the ability to meet with President Karzai, so he’s just recently met with him. So this continues their consultations. But at Lisbon, we felt we had a very successful outcome that achieved really three principal goals.
First, all of ISAF’s requirements for trainers were met by new commitments, so we filled what had been a trainer gap in terms of the capability necessary to support the Afghan security forces.
Second, we agreed on a framework for a transition that identifies early 2011 as the beginning of a transition to lead for security in Afghanistan to Afghan forces. As you heard us say in Lisbon, that transition will begin in early 2011 and it will conclude in 2014.
MR. RHODES: No, NATO-ISAF transition begins earlier in the year. So we expect that there will be certain parts of Afghanistan that will begin to transition earlier in the year. The American transition begins in July of 2011. So in July of 2011, the United States, as you’ve heard the President say, will begin a conditions-based transition and removal of troops from Afghanistan from our surge levels.
The ISAF transition, generally speaking, including the United States, will be complete in 2014. So that process of transition that was outlined in Lisbon was a key business that was done in advance of this trip.
And then lastly, in Lisbon the NATO-Afghanistan Partnership Declaration also underscored that even as we were undertaking this transition, we’re going to build a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, to its security and stability, both through our continued and enduring support for their security forces and also through the long-term bilateral partnership that the United States will build with Afghanistan and that the coalition will.
And then the last thing I’d highlight is that we are also approaching or in the process of conducting a national security staff-led review. This is the December review that you all are familiar with. The President, when he rolled out his strategy just one year ago the other day, called for monthly check-ins and assessments with his national security team, in addition to the weekly written reports he receives from the field. So each month, as you know, he meets with his national security team to get an update on the strategy. As a part of that process of assessment, he asked for a comprehensive assessment of the strategy in December, and so we’ve been tracking up towards that assessment.
As we’ve said in recent weeks, this is a process that is diagnostic in nature. This is not a policy review similar to the one that was undertaken last year. We have a strategy in place; this is a process that will assess that strategy and review the need for any adjustments. But these adjustments, again, won’t be of the nature of a policy overhaul, but rather to make sure that we’re taking a hard look at everything that we’re doing, assessing what’s working well, assessing where we could do better.
So we’re in the process of that review. The review, frankly, does build upon the foundation of what was done in Lisbon since there was a lot of inputs that came into Lisbon from both our team in the field -- General Petraeus, Ambassador Eikenberry, as well as our ISAF partners. So we’re in the middle of that review. We expect a series of meetings that are ongoing right now in the interagency process. The President will have meetings with his national security team in the upcoming weeks, and then we expect a completion of that review before we leave for the holidays later this month. So we expect the results of that review to be announced by the President in the week before we leave for Christmas.
Q What week --
MR. RHODES: Well, I would anticipate that it’s the week of December 13th, whatever the beginning -- I think it’s the 13th to the 18th or something like that is the work week. So I would expect it to be that week.
Q Presidential speech?
MR. RHODES: I wouldn’t anticipate a major speech. Again, this is not analogous to the policy review that we undertook last year. It’s more of an assessment process. So I would expect it would be a lower-key rollout with a statement and then some briefings by the President’s national security team on top of that to update the American people on the progress that’s being made, what we see as the areas where we’re moving forward well and areas where we’re going to be putting additional focus.
Again, it comes at a time where we have seen some progress, particularly on the security side. In and around Kandahar, for instance, we’ve had some success in challenging some Taliban strongholds and clearing out some areas that were traditionally held by the Taliban, just as we’ve had some success in targeting Taliban leadership through our operations in Afghanistan. Obviously that has to be complemented by the work that we’re doing to train Afghan security forces. And there we’ve had some success in meeting -- improving targets. But it’s an ongoing challenge. I’m sure that we can build up the Afghan capacity on the military and governance side that can sustain these security gains.
So those are the kinds of issue we’ll be focused on.
Q As the President prepares for that -- how important is this for him to see firsthand -- (inaudible.)
MR. RHODES: I don’t think that this is really about that. This is about thanking the troops and the civilians. So his ability to -- again, he was able to meet at length with President Karzai in Lisbon. He was able to speak the General Petraeus at some length in Lisbon. He meets with his national security team regularly. He’ll do so as well during the process review. So obviously his ability to have ongoing conversations with General Petraeus, Ambassador Eikenberry while he’s here, and President Karzai, are part of the process of keeping updated on what’s taking place in Afghanistan, but this is -- I wouldn’t characterize this as a trip associated with this review.
This trip was designed, again, just to thank the troops and our civilians. And there’s kind of a separate process to provide inference to the review.
Q -- who is heading up this review process and when did they start?
MR. RHODES: What we’ve done is -- first of all, it’s not just tracking, it’s inputting to the review. So Doug Lute -- and this is a national security staff-led review, so Tom Donilon, the National Security Advisor, has the lead, with Doug Lute as our principal staff person on Afghanistan has been coordinating this effort.
What Doug has done is pursued the inputs -- his team has received inputs from across the government, from the Pentagon, from the State Department, from the intelligence community. So those inputs have fed into this process and now there’s an interagency period of discussion. That’s been ongoing for several weeks now as part of an information-gathering process.
Again, it’s helped by the fact that we already have a feedback in these monthly meetings and weekly reports.
So the Pentagon’s assessments feed directly into this process and inform again what is really an assessment review. And we’ll certainly be drawing from that.
Q When did this start?
MR. RHODES: I think that process started in kind of mid-October and --
Q The assessment started in October?
MR. RHODES: Well, the kinds of taskings that went out and the kind of identification of what inputs would be useful. And a lot of those, of course, have now come in and we believe that -- we’re now in a period of an interagency process and meetings that will guide the outcome.
Q Except for generally wanting to thank the troops and express his appreciation for them, was there anything the President said he specifically wanted to get out of this trip, either with interactions with the troops in particular or more broadly?
MR. RHODES: That was really it. We’ve had the ability to do -- again, focus a large portion of time in Lisbon on Afghanistan, to consult with allies, consult with President Karzai, consult with our team. He has his monthly meetings on Afghanistan. So this trip is really just about thanking the troops and our civilians during the holiday season.
Q Before we were leaving there were more disclosures from WikiLeaks about President Karzai, about the strains in the relationship there. Do you think that that comes at an awkward time? Do you think that that may add to some of the tensions in the relationship as the two leaders talk?
MR. RHODES: I think -- I don’t think so. I think we’ve had -- we’ve dealt with a series of public discussion around some of the challenges in Afghanistan. There have been books, there have been previous WikiLeaks revelations related to Afghanistan. So we’ve weathered those kinds of revelations before as it relates to our relationship with President Karzai and the Afghan government.
I think we’re all well aware that there are serious challenges in Afghanistan. It’s a tough fight. It’s a country that is trying to recover from many, many years of war, predating even 9/11. So we’ve had ups and downs in terms of the kind of public revelation of information associated with the challenge of Afghanistan. But I think precisely the fact that we’ve dealt with some of the very specific stories associated with the latest WikiLeaks disclosure -- and through these WikiLeaks disclosures and through these books and articles -- I think it allows us to be able to weather this and continue to move forward.
What we’re focused on is making sure that our two governments are aligned behind the strategic objective, which, again, is breaking the Taliban’s momentum, building up Afghan capacity, and undertaking a transition that both ensures that there’s never a safe haven for terrorism in Afghanistan as it was before 9/11 and that the Afghan people can control their own future.
MR. GIBBS: Let me add, as Ben said, the challenges on either the security side or the governing side are not new and they’re certainly not unknown. What unites both sides is, what Ben just alluded to, which is our goal of providing safety and security, our goal of ridding the Taliban, al Qaeda and its extremist affiliates from the ability to use Afghanistan as a safe haven to plan attacks on our country.
So the challenges are known; the goals are known. And we are pleased to be making progress.
Q You’re billing this trip mainly as a trip to talk to the troops. But what is going to be his message to Karzai when he meets with him?
MR. RHODES: I think that it’s important to note that he met with President Karzai for an hour or more less than two weeks ago. So their discussions there, they are focused on this framework for transition, for -- and on the kind of long-term partnership that was advanced by ISAF in Lisbon.
I think these discussions will build on that. Again, President Karzai is aware that the reason for the President’s visit, President Obama’s visit, is to, again, be with our troops and civilians. But I think it’s an opportunity for them to continue their discussions. I think they’ve been able, when they do meet and when they do talk by SVTC, to make sure that our approaches are aligned. That’s I think been the focus of the President’s interactions with President Karzai -- to make sure that even as we have inevitable challenges that come up in a war, that we understand that we’re moving towards the same target and our approach to issues like transition and security and governance are aligned.
And Doug will give you a readout of the meeting, but it wasn’t -- there’s not a major -- precisely because they met so recently, I don’t think we come with kind of a major new piece of business we’re trying to get done. Because a lot of the agreements that we wanted, again, on transition and on the long-term partnership were just recently reached in Lisbon.
Q (Inaudible) -- President Karzai?
MR. RHODES: I’d have to check on that. What we do is we plan this pretty far in advance internally, but we, as you know, have to keep a very close hold on it for security reasons. We inform the embassy a period of days out and then the embassy informs President Karzai. I will check on that.
Q Did Karzai mention anything in Lisbon about inviting him back or --
MR. RHODES: No. He would have definitely been informed after Lisbon.
Q He didn’t say come and visit --
MR. RHODES: That didn’t come up in Lisbon.
MR. GIBBS: A scheduling update. We are still going but the program is going to look a lot different. We will land at Bagram as planned, motorcade to the 101st Airborne Headquarters. At the 101st Headquarters, the bilat will be by secure video teleconference. So right now the ceiling and the wind make travel very difficult.
So we’ll do a pool spray of the SVTC. (Laughter.) You’ll be able to see the video image of -- after that, again, we’ll have Eikenberry and Petraeus with us. The President will then go to the hospital and see eight patients -- five soldiers, three civilian contractors -- award four Purple Hearts. He will then move over to -- and we’ll get you the updated timing on this -- the troop event.
We will work on making sure that all this stuff is -- there’s time on the end to feed video --
Q How long will we be on the ground?
MS. MASTROMONACO: Three hours.
Q Can we report what the schedule had been, that he was going to go to the embassy, he was going to go to the palace?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q When are we actually going to be able to say that were at Bagram?
MR. GIBBS: Let me talk with these guys. We may be able to give more of a -- let me double-check, and we’ll keep the same protocol, either from me or Lillie, it’s a go. We’ll find that out.
The schedule -- God only knows what the schedule is now -- but we’re supposed to land in approximately one hour. So we will update you as things might happen. And we’ll see you later.
Q -- does the weather, not meeting in person makes a difference, whether there’s something lost, whether --
MR. RHODES: Again, I don’t think so, again, just because they were able to meet recently. Obviously it would be nice to be able to share a meal together. But at the same time, they were able to meet face to face less than two weeks ago. They speak by VTC fairly regularly, kind of on a quarterly basis at least, so they’re certainly accustomed to doing that. So while it would have been nice to share a meal, I think President Karzai understood that -- I think that was on the schedule for about an hour, which is about what their VTCs usually run. So I think President Karzai understood the purpose of this was really for the President to spend with the troops.
They’ll be able to have a discussion, but they were able to see each other face to face a couple weeks ago, within that time. So I think it’s fine.
MR. GIBBS: The whole thing at the palace was only scheduled for -- the meeting itself was 45. So my guess is we’re somewhere between 30 and 45.
9:57 A.M. EST