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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on Afghanistan

Via Conference Call 

10:49 A.M. EDT

MR. PRICE:  Good morning, everyone.  And thanks for joining this morning's call.  Following the President's statement this morning, we wanted to give you a bit more detail on the plans he announced for our troop posture in Afghanistan. 

First a bit about ground rules.  This call will be on background.  You can attribute what you hear to senior administration officials.  It will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call.  So please, we ask that you not use this material until the call is over.  

So with that, I will turn it over to my colleagues to get us started.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great.  Thanks, everybody. I'll just make a few opening comments and turn it over to my colleagues here.  I won't reprise the President's whole statement here, but let me just give some context for the decision that he announced today.

First of all, as he has said, over the last seven years we've made significant progress in addressing the core mission that brought us into Afghanistan in the first place, which was to degrade and ultimately defeat al Qaeda.  Over the last several years, we've struck significant blows against al Qaeda, which could not have been done without our presence in Afghanistan and our ability to support an Afghanistan government that was increasingly providing for its own security, and also to have the counterterrorism platforms necessary to continue to go after terrorist networks.

At the same time, as the Afghan government and security forces have gotten stronger, we've been able to significantly draw down our forces, which peaked at around 100,000 troops to now under 10,000 U.S. troops in the country.  We also have always been focused on ensuring that we are giving the Afghan government and security forces the best possible opportunity to continue to work to stabilize their country and to combat a Taliban insurgency, while also continuing to ensure that we have the necessary platforms both to support the Afghans but also to ensure that there's not a reemergence of al Qaeda or potential emergence of a terrorist organization like ISIL that could pose a greater threat in the region.

And so the President has been meeting regularly with his national security team to review the situation in Afghanistan.  When General Nicholson took over, he undertook an assessment of the situation on the ground and then worked with the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to provide the President with a recommendation as to what the appropriate troop level would be for the conclusion of 2016.  And again, today the President made his announcement of the troop levels that we will maintain through the end of the year, again, based on that recommendation from the Secretary and the Chairman.

I'd note importantly that we are making this announcement the day before the NATO Summit.  NATO continues to be deeply invested in Afghanistan and its future.  We have a number of allies who are themselves committing troops beyond 2016.  We have significant contributions in terms of funding the Afghan security forces from out NATO partners.  And of course, many of the allies who will be in Warsaw also provide additional assistance to the Afghan government.  

So we wanted to take this step to demonstrate the continued U.S. leadership of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.  We believe that this announcement will be very welcomed by our NATO allies and by the Afghan government in that it provides a clarity about our intentions and our enduring support for Afghanistan.  And, again, it will allow us I think to have a more constructive discussion on Afghanistan at the NATO Summit as the alliance plans for how it can continue to support the ANSF and work together through the end of 2016 and beyond.

The last thing I'd just say is we also believe that this is the responsible way to ensure that we have the best possible plan in place to carry out the mission of training and advising and assisting the Afghans, and engaging in our counterterrorism efforts through the end of this year.  And then the next President will have the opportunity to make their own determination about what additional steps to take regarding our troop presence.

So with that, I'll stop and I'll turn it over to my DOD colleague to give some more detail on the announcement. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I'll just give a breakdown kind of how we were thinking of the 8,400 to support, as the President said, the two primary missions that we currently have in Afghanistan which is train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces, in addition to executing our counterterrorism operation.  

But the 8,400 also reflects a lot of lessons learned in the last two fighting seasons.  In particular on TAA -- the train, advise, and assist mission -- we definitely have recognized the effects of having advisory capacity with the Afghans at the core level.  And this is an important part of what the 8,400 will enable us to continue to do through the end of year.  That means we'll be able to provide advisory capacity to the Afghan National Security Forces at the two- and three-star level out in the field, and doing it on a sustained expeditionary basis.  So it's a qualitative piece that we wanted to ensure that we could continue through the end of the year.

I also would say that it enables us on the NATO front, with our Resolute Support partners, to continue to provide critical enabling capacities in support of the broader Resolute Support Mission.  

So three big buckets:  Robust CT.  The second is train, advise, and assist all the way to the core level on an expeditionary and sustained basis, which the Afghans -- we've been using to create effect already, as well as the enabling capacity with NATO.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I'd like to just add a couple words about reconciliation.  We continue to recognize that this long war will only end through a political negotiation between the Afghan government and the Taliban to work out terms of peace and reconciliation.  And the President's decision today to maintain a sizeable U.S. military presence continuing in the train, advise and assist role will enable the Afghan government to preserve security while it pursues a peace settlement.

President Ghani remains absolutely committed to pursuing a peace and reconciliation process.  And the United States supports the Afghans going into this without any preconditions for a reconciliation process.  Our position is we would support any political settlement that includes the Taliban renouncing violence, breaking ties with international terrorism, and accepting Afghanistan's constitution, including protections for women and minorities.

So, in our view, the Taliban have a real choice.  They can accept the government of Afghanistan's invitation to engage in a peace process and ultimately become part of the political system of a sovereign, unified Afghanistan, which would be supported by the international community.  Or they can continue (inaudible) fellow Afghans, which is what is destabilizing the country.

Q    Hello, thank you.  I have two questions.  One, can you tell us if you budgeted for the funds for these troops to remain in Afghanistan, and just give us some idea where that money comes from?  And secondly, if you could give us an update on where the negotiation and reconciliation process stands right now.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:   Sure.  With respect to your first question, anytime we develop options like this, we obviously look very carefully and think through what the cost associated will be.  So part of the development of the option allowed us to view that work.  And now what we will do is we will engage and discuss with Congress about how to ensure that we're providing the necessary support for the mission. 

And in the past, we've always been able to work collaboratively with Congress to provide the necessary support for our efforts in Afghanistan.  And going forward today and beyond, we'll be in consultations with Congress about that piece of the announcement.

I'll turn it over to my colleague on the other question.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:   So you'll recall that -- just a bit history -- that last summer, the Taliban came to the table with the Afghan government for the first and had peace talks in Murree, Pakistan.  That process later came apart.  But in an effort to test the proposition that the Taliban were prepared to come to the table, we worked with three other international partners -- the government of Afghanistan, the government of China, and the government of Pakistan -- to set up a quadrilateral coordinating group.  

We met a number of times early in the year, and issued a call for the Taliban to come to the table to negotiate in an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process.  The call was made twice, actually.  Regrettably, the Taliban declined to join the process. But from our perspective, those offers still remain open.  We support the quadrilateral process.  And we continue to hope that the Taliban will come to the table.  In the meantime, we'll continue to explore all opportunities for pursuing reconciliation.

Q    Two things.  One, could you talk a little bit more about how you arrived at the 8,400 number?  What exactly will -- where will you draw those troops down from?  A little bit about that decision process.  And also this is obviously a really difficult decision for the President, who has made this a priority -- wanted to end the ground wars.  This is not the drawdown as quick as he wanted to do, obviously.  Can you talk a little bit about when he reached this decision, how we reached it, what pushed him to this point?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  On the first question, the recommendation on 8,400 really reflects the commanders’ recent assessment, which my colleague spoke to earlier and the President obviously discussed.  We took a look at the dynamic security environment in Afghanistan, we took a look at the Afghan national security forces' capabilities and where they were, and we also looked at in the short term their performance over the last two fighting seasons.  And so capturing all of those lessons learned, we came to the decision and recommendation to maintain at 8,400.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, the only thing I'd add to that is that the President's guidance was to just have a recommendation about what the best presence and necessary resources would be at the end of 2016.  And so the effort was to design that recommendation based on what those needs would be, what we've learned about we support the ANSF, what missioned we needed to protect and maintain.  And so, again, that did allow for a slight reduction in the number of troops.  

But this was not about calibrating how many troops we can reduce -- it was about designing what the best possible presence was to carry out these particular missions at the end of the year, and this is the resource request that came from the Department of Defense because of that process.

On your second question, I'd say a couple of things, Christi.  First of all, again, just to reiterate in some more detail what I said earlier, I think as it relates to this effort in Afghanistan over the course of the last seven and a half years, one of the things that the President has always been very focused on in his public comments from the very beginning of his time in office is to, on the one hand, remind people of what the core mission has been in Afghanistan, which is a mission to deny al Qaeda a safe haven from which they can launch attacks against the United States and their allies.  And we believe that because of our presence in Afghanistan that we've been able to put an unprecedented amount of pressure on al Qaeda in South Asia and have significantly degraded their leadership ranks and their operational capacity.  

And so, in that sense, we do believe that there's an enormous amount that has been accomplished.  Again, another element has always been trying to give the Afghans the best possible opportunity to stabilize their country and to deal with a protracted Taliban insurgency.  

And on that second point, I think the one thing that has changed significantly is the nature of our commitment and the scale of our commitment.  At the peak of the surge, we had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan -- that cost an enormous amount in terms of the sacrifice that our men and women in uniform were making, in terms of the resources to the American taxpayer.  And we were in the lead in that fight.  But because of the transition that we've done in building up the Afghan national security forces, we've been able to significantly draw down that commitment of U.S. troops to under 10,000 and, ultimately, to roughly 8,400.  

And one of the things that has guided the President in wanting to maintain this commitment is that as the Afghans have moved into the lead, they've really been in the fight.  And it's a tough fight, and we've seen them take on significant casualties, and we've seen them confront the Taliban.  And we've seen them continue to desire and request our support and the support of our NATO allies.  And so, given that circumstance, we have been committed to determining, what is the responsible assistance we can provide to them.  

And obviously, this maintains a certain troop presence.  But I think it's importance to note that it's significantly reduced from where we were.  It is a presence of troops that are not in the lead for security, but rather are in a supporting role in the counterterrorism mission.  And it's, frankly, very consistent with what President Obama is doing in other theaters -- like you see in Iraq and Syria, where you have U.S. forces in much smaller numbers -- not responsible for the security of a country, or not responsible for patrolling the streets in cities and villages and mountains of a country, but rather U.S. forces there in a role where we have a counterterrorism capacity to deal with potential threats to our homeland or our allies, and the support capacity, where we're bolstering partners on the ground who are doing the fighting and who are ultimately going to be responsible for security.

So I think the shift has been in what is the model.  Is the model one where the U.S. is responsible for securing Afghanistan and Iraq, or is the U.S. in a supporting role, with a much smaller number, a much greater -- a much reduced risk in terms of the casualties we're taking and the resources we're expending.

So I think his decision is based on all these questions -- not just Afghanistan but Iraq and Syria.  I think it's very evident what his approach is, again, which is to make sure we're doing everything necessary to disrupt and ultimately defeat terrorist networks, while significantly reducing the role of the U.S. military in terms of its ground presence and also reducing the resources associated with that presence.

Q    Can you shed some light on what General Nicholson asked for in terms of authorities and troop numbers?  And secondly, if you could address the CT mission and tell us to what extent the U.S. military will be at war with the Taliban in the months ahead.  For some time now, their primary authority was self-defense, but that's changed slightly in the last few weeks.  Going forward, to what extent are we going to be on the offensive against the Taliban?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I'll start and my colleague may want to add.  First of all, I think the decisions that have taken place in the last several weeks reflect where this mission -- well, look, obviously, there are always contingencies over the next few months, but the President's view was let's make these decisions now about troop numbers and about authorities.  So I think you should expect -- and it's our expectation -- that the decision that was announced on authorities and the decision that was announced today on troops is our expectation for where the mission will be in Afghanistan through the end of the President's term in office.

So, again, I'd note the caveat that he always will listen to recommendations from commanders on the ground, but we went through this process in advance of the NATO Summit so that we could establish what the appropriate authorities were for U.S. forces and what the appropriate troop number was for the end of 2016 so that we could have that kind of certainty and planning through the end of the year, and then allow for the next president and their incoming team to make any further determinations going forward.  So, again, I'd expect these authorities and this troop number to be the decisions that guide this mission through the end of the year.

I'll just say one thing on -- oh, and in terms of the troop request, the recommendation that came to the President was from the Secretary and the Chairman, and informed by General Nicholson's own review, and their recommendation was the troop level that we announced today.  So this matched that recommendation.

The only thing I'd say on the authorities -- and my colleague may want to add something -- is, look, our CT operations are focused on -- are not focused on the Taliban.  The authority shift we made simply represents ensuring that we have the best possible capacity to come to the assistance of the Afghan security forces, based on what we've seen about how they are operating, based on what we've seen about how we can best provide support to their efforts.

And so they are the ones who are on the offensive against the Taliban.  The Afghan national security forces are the ones who go on the offensive against the Taliban.  We, with these authorities, are giving ourselves the capacity to come to their support in certain circumstance.

I don't know if you want to add anything.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure, why don't I go back to the new authorities that were granted to the department.  So in May, the President gave the department additional authorities to be exercised within the two missions.  And these authorities now permit limited U.S. combat-enabler support to Afghan in DSF to achieve what we call "strategic effect."  So essential, the commander will have the flexibility to provide, in a limited way, combat-enabling support to the conventional operation. 

So, for example, with the Afghans operating in the south, the commander can now use this authority to support them in a limited way to achieve a broader effect, to make sure they can maintain momentum against the Taliban.  But it's going to be used in a very limited way and in support of a broader objective.

Q    I wanted to follow up on the authorities issue.  It has been used in a limited way already, as we learned last week.  Can you describe to the extent it's been used?  We know that there have been some airstrikes.  I'm also wondering to what extent combat advisors have been used on the ground in light of these new authorities.  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure.  I don't want to get into specifics of instances when we've used them -- all I can say is that it's early going and that they have been used, and this commander is executing them in a limited way.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The only thing I’d add here is that this is just to give some flexibility to commanders on the ground where if there’s a particular circumstance where the Afghans need a very specific capability in support of an ongoing operation that they’re undertaking or a circumstance in which they are under attack, there is some additional space for us to provide that support.  You mentioned the potential for the use of airstrikes, for example.  

But this does not apply in terms of opening up the aperture for the U.S. essentially being in combat with Afghan forces against the Taliban across the country.  This is about taking our training, advise and assist mission, looking at how the Afghans are operating, and seeing where we can essentially provide them some limited additional support in very specific circumstances, again, where they’re on the offensive trying to achieve a certain objective, or where they find themselves in a circumstance where there’s a unique capability that we can provide to allow them to continue their operations.

Q    Thanks, guys.  Thanks for doing the call.  The President talked about other countries in the region providing a safe haven for terrorism, and you also talked about the importance of denying a safe haven for terrorists.  Was the President sort of implicitly talking about Pakistan?  And if so, is there something that we can expect in the next six months that the President will do to put pressure on Pakistan to not provide safe haven for terrorism?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, look, I think this has been a longstanding issue of discussion between the United States and Pakistan and between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  We have seen Pakistan, over the years, go on the offensive against different terrorist organizations and take a significant amount of casualties in those offensives.  At the same time, we’ve also seen a persistent presence of extremist networks inside of Pakistan as well.

And so this is something that we have consistently raised with them.  We’ve expressed concerns, obviously, about groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, as well as, of course, al Qaeda.  Again, Pakistan has cooperated with us.  They have taken steps to go after some of these groups.  But we do believe that they need to provide continued pressure and that ultimately it’s in their security interests to, number one, work with us to root out terrorist networks, but, number two, to have a broader political resolution to the conflicts that have torn at this region.  And that’s why, again, we believe an Afghan-led reconciliation process should be supported by Pakistan.

But I don’t know if you guys have anything to add.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  If I could add to that, I think if you check this, General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s army chief, just today gave a speech in Pakistan saying something that we’ve heard before from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, that Pakistan’s territory will not be allowed to be used for terrorist attacks against its neighbors.  But what Raheel added today, which was very significant, is he issued instructions to the security elements -- law enforcement, intelligence, military elements -- to enforce that dictum, to ensure that the territory is not used for terrorism.  

Now, we’ll see how this plays out on the ground.  But I think what Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had indicated to President Obama when he came to the White House here last October was a recognition that Pakistan will only be secure if there is peace and stability in Afghanistan.  And Pakistan has worked with the Afghan government, Ashraf Ghani, to support a peace process that would align all forces, all the insurgents in Afghanistan in a political process to bring peace and stability to that country.  So we hope that Pakistan will continue to live up to its words, and we were very pleased with what we heard from General Raheel Sharif.

Q    Is it possible to characterize how the 8,400 break down between the two missions, the TAA mission and the CT mission?  And does that reflect some change in balance between the current mix in terms of the 9,800?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’ll see if my colleague has anything more to add, but I think -- and ultimately I think General Nicholson can speak to the specifics of the breakdown best -- but ultimately, I think that the balance reflects something very similar to where we are today.  So, in other words, there’s not a shift in terms of the nature of the forces from where we are with our current levels.  It’s just the matter that we can reduce that by a small amount while ensuring that we’re continuing both of those missions with appropriate resourcing and effectiveness.  

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I don’t really have much more to add to that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So the balance is basically very similar to what the current balance is.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  What I could add -- just this weekend at the summit in Warsaw, the NATO Summit in Warsaw, the leaders of the Alliance will come together and affirm the continued commitment, both financial commitment to the Afghan security forces, but also contributions of military troops to the resolute support mission, which will continue.  And that mission, which the U.S. is a major contributor, will primarily be responsible for the train, advise and assist mission, whereas the United States primarily is responsible for the counterterrorism mission.

MR. PRICE:  And with that, I think we’re ready to conclude. Just a reminder, this call was on background, and the embargo is now lifted.  Thank you very much.

11:19 A.M. ED