Press Gaggle By Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, 5/25/2014
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan
9:00 A.M. EDT
MR. RHODES: So we’re on this trip to Afghanistan principally as an opportunity for the President to thank American troops and civilians for their service. It’s been two years since he’s been able to get to Afghanistan, and he felt that it was very important for him to express directly to the troops his gratitude.
In terms of his schedule and some of what we’ll be focused on -- when we get there, the President will get a briefing from Ambassador Cunningham and General Dunford about the status of the campaign in Afghanistan. He’ll have a chance to tour the operations center at Bagram. And then he’ll get a briefing from ISAF, including General Dunford, Ambassador Cunningham, but also a number of the senior enlisted officers in Afghanistan.
After that, he will make remarks to troops and civilians at Bagram. Then, he’ll have a hospital visit, as he’s done in the past on these trips. And that’s the current schedule. We’ll keep you updated if we add any additional elements.
This is the President’s fourth trip to Afghanistan. He felt that given the focus on thanking the troops, that it would be good to bring with us some entertainment for the troops. So Brad Paisley, who has played at the White House a number of times in the past, including at the Fourth of July for the military and military families, came along. And so Brad will play for the troops before the President’s remarks.
We also, of course, are making some decisions about the future of our commitment to Afghanistan, and so the President will have a chance to hear directly from his Ambassador and General on the ground just as he’s been consulting with members of his Cabinet.
As a general matter, it’s an important moment in Afghanistan. This is a year of transition. The Afghan security forces have been fully in the lead for combat operations in Afghanistan, with our assistance and training. The election recently was successful as millions of Afghans turned out to vote. There are now two leading candidates in a run-off, and there’s a prospect of the first democratic transition of power in Afghanistan’s history. So even with all the challenges and the continued instances of violence in Afghanistan, there has been I think important progress made, both in terms of security forces, in terms of the election, and the prospect of an Afghanistan that is able to sustain the gains that have been made over the last decade.
So with that, I’d be happy to take your questions.
Q -- Can you talk about the decision to come before the election is over and apparently before you guys have made the decision on how many troops you’d be willing to leave after 2014?
MR. RHODES: Sure. Well, again, first of all, the principal driver of the timing is we’ve been looking for some period of time now, I’d say a few months, to come to Afghanistan precisely because we wanted to be able to thank the troops. It’s been a couple of years.
After the first round of the election went off well, we felt that there would be a good window to come on a troop-focused visit. We are mindful that it’s a political season in Afghanistan, and I think that accounts for the fact that we’re focusing our visit on Bagram. We don’t want to get into the middle of election season meeting with candidates and that type of thing. So it’s a good time for the troops to hear from the President, and also for the Afghan people to know that no matter what happens in the election, that we have an enduring commitment to the people of Afghanistan and that, frankly, both candidates who are in the run-off have spoken very positively about the U.S.-Afghan partnership, as well as the prospects for a BSA.
Then, lastly, I think it was actually important for the President to come -- before he articulates a decision -- to get that chance to sit down face-to-face with his Ambassador and General. We see them often on video conference. So I think we also wanted to get that input as he’s making decisions.
Q -- Has he made the decision yet? Or is he still --
MR. RHODES: He has not made the decision yet. Again, I think he wanted to -- he’s been consulting with his national security team. We had a NSC meeting on this topic recently. Again, he’ll be meeting General Dunford and Ambassador Cunningham.
I do think that -- I’d say a number of things. Number one, of course we still need a BSA to have troops here post-2014, although, again, both candidates have expressed their support for such a BSA. Secondly, I think that you can expect to hear additional clarity from the President about his thinking on Afghanistan in the coming days. He obviously has a series of speeches and engagements on national security, and he’ll certainly want to talk about Afghanistan in the context of the future of America’s foreign policy and national security priorities. And there’s a NATO Defense Ministerial on June 4th, where we will be coordinating with the Alliance. So you should expect to hear more from the President on Afghanistan after this trip.
Q -- What’s the current thinking about how many troops to leave behind? Will we see numbers like 10,000, 5,000? What exactly?
MR. RHODES: Well, that’s precisely the question that we’re looking at. And we’ve had a range of options for the type of presence that we would maintain in Afghanistan after 2014. I think the important principles there are we’re focused on missions, and the principal missions are the two that the President has identified publicly, which are continued training of the Afghan National Security Forces and supporting their counterterrorism operations. In all cases, our combat mission here in Afghanistan would come to a conclusion at the end of 2014 consistent with our transition plan.
Now, there are a range of different force structures that could accomplish those objectives. We’re looking into questions not just about the size of that force, but how long you sustain any potential troop presence after 2014. So those are the types of questions the President is looking at.
The main thing for us is how can we help the Afghan security forces sustain their own capability to be in the lead for security -- so what type of support are they going to need after 2014. We’ve been looking very closely at those questions.
And secondly, we’ve been looking broadly at counterterrorism and how do you have a counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan, in South Asia, in cooperation with Pakistan that keeps al Qaeda core on its heels, but also how does it fit into the broader counterterrorism challenge across the entire region all the way to North Africa. And that’s what the President will be discussing a bit in West Point.
Q -- One more thing. And when you say “coming days,” is this the West Point speech you’re talking about?
MR. RHODES: I don’t want to specify -- I don’t want to get ahead of the President on this. But again, we have a number of opportunities, including the West Point speech. And I think he’ll be talking about Afghanistan in that context.
Q -- We shouldn’t rule out that on the day of the West Point speech we would hear some clarity on the numbers? We can’t say that that is going to happen either, but --
MR. RHODES: I don’t want to say for certain, but, yes, I wouldn’t rule it out.
QSo when you said that the planning began a few months ago, do you mean the planning for this date began a few months ago? Or that a few months ago is it was like, yeah, we should go, and then -- basically, how long does it take to stand up a trip like this?
MR. RHODES: Well, there’s a weather window that is relevant. So basically as you go through December and January, it’s very difficult to plan for this type of trip. So coming out of that winter, I think we anticipated that we wanted to find a good time to come in the spring. And we wanted to factor in, though, things like the first round of the elections and letting those go off without the added burden of a presidential trip. But once we got past those elections I think is when we started looking to find a date. So, in other words, we were notionally planning for a trip over the last two or three months. In recent weeks, we settled on this weekend as a good date for the President to be able to come. So this particular trip has been in the planning stages for several weeks, I’d say.
Q -- Two questions. The recent problems and investigation with the VA, to what extent did that factor into whether or not to go and what message he’ll deliver to those troops? And can you talk about the decision not to meet with Karzai on this trip?
MR. RHODES: So the VA really didn’t factor into the planning for the trip at all. This is kind of taking place on a separate track. I think, generally, of course, when he talks to troops he talks about our commitment to active duty servicemembers, to their families and to veterans. And so I think that’s a general message that he’ll be delivering. But he won’t be focusing on the situation and the VA here. He’ll be focusing on the service of these troops and their families.
The VA is obviously something he’s going to continue to work on very hard in the coming days and weeks back home as well.
Your other question was?
Q -- Karzai.
MR. RHODES: Well, again, we are -- precisely because it’s a political season in Afghanistan, we were mindful about the potential disruptions that could come from a presidential trip into Kabul. We also wanted to keep this trip principally focused on the troops. And again, that’s why the President decided to bring Brad Paisley out and really celebrate them and their service.
He’s talked to President Karzai recently. We expect he’ll have opportunities to talk to him in the coming days, as well. So it really had to do with how we wait -- keeping this focused on the troops and not necessarily getting in the middle of Afghan politics at this time.
Q -- So apart from that phone call you read out I think in February, has he talked to Karzai?
MR. RHODES: Yes, he spoke to him after the -- yes, earlier this month after the landslides in northern Afghanistan.
Q -- you inform Karzai that the President is here?
MR. RHODES: Yes, Karzai is informed in advance that the President is coming.
Q -- Now? He knows now?
MR. RHODES: Yes, I couldn’t tell you specifically when. But I know that he’s informed before we get there.
Q -- Can you just talk a little bit about the speech? Why does the President feel that he needed to make a speech such as he’s going to make on Wednesday? Is he at all frustrated at the perceptions of his foreign policy six years into his presidency?
MR. RHODES: Well, I’d say a couple of things. First of all, we are in a bit of a turning point in terms of our foreign policy generally. So much of what we did in the first term was winding down the war in Iraq, putting Afghanistan on a plan to wind down the war, focusing on al Qaeda core. Now having removed all of our troops from Iraq, having a transition that’s going to be completed in Afghanistan at the end of the year, and having a threat that has really shifted from being focused in South Asia to other al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups in different parts of the world.
Our foreign policy is going to look a lot different going forward than it did in the last decade when Iraq and Afghanistan really dominated the discussion. So there’s a natural inflexion point. That’s one thing.
And in his speech, I think what the President will talk about is what does that transition mean, what is the counterterrorism strategy that replaces the strategy that really focused most of our resources in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I think he’ll also want to talk more broadly about the U.S. role in the world. And, look, there has been a lot of discussion of these issues, in part because there have been a series of events like the chemical weapons attack in Syria, the Snowden disclosures, the situation in Ukraine that have demanded a lot of time and attention from the United States.
What we want to do is step back and put all of these different events into the context of how does America lead in the world and how do we strike that balance between not getting overextended as we were in Iraq, but ensuring that we are leading coalitions of nations, leading the international community on different issues -- whether it’s resolving the situation with Iran peacefully, whether it’s completing the removal of Syrian chemical weapons, whether it’s supporting Ukraine as they go to the polls and making clear to the Russians they’re going to pay a cost for continuing to intervene in Ukraine’s affairs -- and in all of these different cases, how does America lead.
And I think the President wants to provide some clarity on those issues and really put a framework around it. And it’s not just something he’ll do at West Point. He then goes to Europe where he’ll be able to give his speech in Poland, speaking about our commitment to Europe and European security. And he’ll be with the G7 in Brussels, and then concluding in Normandy, where I think he can tie together the history of America’s leadership with what we’re doing around the world today.
Q -- So if you’ve been planning this for several weeks, how hard is it to get the President sort of secretly out of the White House onto the plane, fly halfway around the country?
MR. RHODES: Well, it’s difficult but we’ve done it several times before. So you learn tradecraft, and the Secret Service is very capable. The fact that it was over a long weekend, a holiday weekend, I think makes that a simpler thing to do. So basically, we have to plan these things with a high degree of secrecy and confidentiality out of the security concerns in play. And that involves everything from how staff gets to Andrews, to how you all get there, to how the President does. It’s not the same motorcade; it’s not the same footprint. We have to do things a lot more quietly.
Q -- Does he tell his daughters where he’s going?
MR. RHODES: I don’t know, you’ll have to ask him that. But generally speaking, we don’t share these -- we, the staff, don’t share the fact that we’re going to Afghanistan broadly. And so, again, it’s something that you plan with maximum discretion. But again, we’ve done it several times, so in some respects it gets easier each time.
Q -- Ben, is it something of it an indictment that after 13 years of war in Afghanistan the President can’t stick around to watch the sunrise there?
MR. RHODES: Well, look, the fact of the matter is Afghanistan is still a place that is very violent. And the President of the United States is uniquely a security challenge in terms of providing for his security. You just don’t want to take any risks with the President’s security. Obviously, when other Cabinet officials come here they have more robust schedules and more opportunities to move around the country.
Part of what’s happened in Afghanistan is the security challenge has changed over time. Part of what we see, for instance, now, is less day-to-day combat on the ground between the Taliban and the ANSF and the coalition forces, and a bit of a shift from the Taliban towards more terrorist tactics. So in the absence of large-scale offensives, at times we’ve seen them move towards more targeted terrorist efforts in Kabul against Western targets. So that speaks to the fact that in the absence of holding large pieces of territory, they are resorting to terrorist tactics. That does present a security challenge.
And, look, our view is that we’re not going to leave Afghanistan without -- we’re not going to leave Afghanistan a perfect place. There’s going to be violence. But the goal is to leave Afghanistan in a way in which Afghan National Security Forces can provide for the security, can be in the lead, and that a new Afghan government has an opportunity to continue to build democratic institutions. That’s how wars have to end here in the 21st century where there’s not going to necessarily be a signing ceremony on a battleship. It’s got to be a hand-off. And what we’ve done over the last two or three years is have a very methodical hand-off of moving the Afghans into the lead, training and equipping them, and providing that additional support that they need to be prepared.
Q -- Can you just give us on the record -- key staff that’s traveling with the President and any color you have about what he’s been doing on this 13-hour flight?
MR. RHODES: Sure. Well, the staff, we have Susan Rice, National Security Advisor; John Podesta, the Counselor to the President, whose son serves in Afghanistan; Jeff Eggers, who’s the President’s Senior Director on the NSC for Afghanistan. We have Dan Pfeiffer, the President’s Senior Advisor. And -- am I leaving anybody out? I think that’s -- and Danielle Crutchfield, who’s the Director of Scheduling and Advance, who help put together the preparations for the trip; and Emmett Beliveau, the Director of the White House Military Office.
The President, in addition to getting some rest, he was able to come back and spend a decent amount of time talking to Brad Paisley and his manager, and thanking him for what’s he’s doing and coming out here on short notice to see the troops. So the two of them were able to catch up for some time. And now I think he’s just getting ready to see the troops.
Q-- done any work on the speech?
MR. RHODES: Not yet. But --
Q-- 13-hour flight.
MR. RHODES: All right, thanks, guys.