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Obama Sets Plan to Boost Afghan Stability, Confront Taliban and Al-Qaida

March 27, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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President Obama's new strategy for the Afghanistan war includes 4,000 more troops and assistance to Pakistan in its fight against militants. Special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, and Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus explain the plan.

MARGARET WARNER: The president began with a blunt appraisal of where things stand in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The situation is increasingly perilous. It has been more than seven years since the Taliban was removed from power, yet war rages on, and insurgents control parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Obama said that means the current U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan must be integrated into a regional counter-insurgency and development strategy to stabilize not only the Afghan front, but Pakistan as well.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Many people in the United States — and many in partner countries that have sacrificed so much — have a simple question: What is our purpose in Afghanistan? After so many years, they ask, why do our men and women still fight and die there? They deserve a straightforward answer.

So let me be clear: Al-Qaida and its allies — the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks — are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al-Qaida is actively planning attacks on the U.S. homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan.

So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.

To focus on the greatest threat to our people, America must no longer deny resources to Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: More troops are already on the way. President Bush deployed 3,000 additional American soldiers to Afghanistan before he left office — and President Obama had recently authorized sending another 17,000 soldiers and Marines. The first of them will arrive at the end of next month.

Today’s announcement also aims to bolster the training of Afghan forces. The president is sending 4,000 additional U.S. trainers — from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The goal — announced earlier — is to double the size of the Afghan Army to 134,000 by 2011. The police force would increase to 82,000.

In addition to the troop increase, hundreds more U.S. civilian workers are headed to Afghanistan. Their mission is to help renew a government widely seen as corrupt and ineffectual. A spokesman for Afghan President Karzai said today his country agrees with the new policy.

AFGHAN SPOKESMAN: We particularly welcome the recognition of the regional aspect of the problem in Afghanistan, and specifically, recognition that the al-Qaida threat is mainly emanating from Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: There were violent incidents in both countries, just hours before President Obama spoke. An Afghan soldier killed two American troops, then killed himself. And in Pakistan, a suicide bomber killed at least 50 worshipers at a mosque near the Afghan border.

As part of his plan, the president called for stepped-up military cooperation among the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan to go after militants in the tribal wilds of Pakistan. He also made clear the U.S. will demand better performance from Pakistan’s military and intelligence service, the ISI.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It is important for the American people to understand that Pakistan needs our help in going after al-Qaida. This is no simple task. The tribal regions are vast, they are rugged, and they are often ungoverned. That is why we must focus our military assistance on the tools, training and support that Pakistan needs to root out the terrorists. And after years of mixed results, we will not and cannot provide a blank check. Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al-Qaida and the violent extremists within its borders.

MARGARET WARNER: On the civilian side, the president also called for Congress to pass the so-called “Kerry-Lugar” bill of economic development aid to help stabilize Pakistan. It would total one-and-a-half billion dollars per year for five years. The Pakistani foreign minister said today his government approves of the reoriented American focus:

SHAH MEHMOOD QURESHI, Pakistan Foreign Minister: I think there was too much emphasis of use on brute force, too much reliance on the military option. And not enough attention was paid to capacity building.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Obama plans to enlist a host of nations in building that capacity — he said today it is “not simply an American problem.” He’ll press his case next week at a NATO meeting in Europe. And Secretary of State Clinton will attend a U.N. conference on Afghanistan — at The Hague — on Tuesday.

I sat down with Ambassador Holbrooke and General Petraeus right after the president’s announcement.

Departure from Bush's plan?

Richard Holbrooke
U.S. Envoy, Afghanistan-Pakistan
The critical issue here is to integrate our Afghanistan policy and our Pakistan policy, ... to recognize that success in Afghanistan is not possible unless western Pakistan, ... which is the current heart of the crisis, is brought under control.

MARGARET WARNER: General Petraeus, Ambassador Holbrooke, thank you for -- both for being with us. Now today, President Obama just minutes ago in his speech said, the ultimate goal was really quite a limited one -- to disrupt, dismantle, ultimately defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan. But then the steps he laid out looked like nation-building. How is this different, Ambassador Holbrooke, in its goal from what President Bush's goal was?

AMB. RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The critical issue here is to integrate our Afghanistan policy and our Pakistan policy, which have essentially been stove-piped, to recognize that success in Afghanistan is not possible unless western Pakistan, where -- which is the current heart of the crisis, is brought under control. Now, some people say, OK, why then are we still in Afghanistan? The reason is simple. If we leave Afghanistan the men who did 9/11, who killed Benazir Bhutto, who did the attacks in Mumbai, will return to Afghanistan and in a larger terrain, so we cannot separate the two countries.

To abandon what you called nation-building -- and it isn't nation-building, Afghanistan has been a country for many, many centuries -- it is building a viable government that can take care of itself, a government that can defend itself. That'll take time; that's why the president today talked about increases in the police and the army and improving the army and the police and dealing with the corruption. Without that, the Taliban will have an opportunity to exploit grievances and continue the war.

MARGARET WARNER: And how is that different from what President Bush was trying to do?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: It is an integrated policy. It's going to have far more resources, the president today announced hundreds of additional civilians. He mentioned agronomists and economists, were going to increase the agricultural effort. This is a rural country, but right now the U.S. mission in Kabul does not even have a really coherent, integrated agricultural-assistance program. We're going to make a much stronger effort to counter the propaganda of the Taliban and al-Qaida in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Kerry-Lugar bill is going to ask for much more money. We have way under-resourced this effort, and as you know, additional troops are on their way.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, let me just ask you about the security situation in Pakistan. The Times today has a story that runs as a companion to the piece about President Obama's new policy, which says that the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan are joining forces and they're going to launch an offensive against the stepped-up U.S. forces in Afghanistan. How do you combat that without going to the heart of the problem in Pakistan?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, first of all of course, the additional forces that are going into Afghanistan will help with this considerably. As you know, Margaret, in response to requests by General McKiernan, by the end of the late summer or so, we will have more than doubled the U.S. force component that was on the ground, say, in December.

So that will help a considerable amount there, and then of course there has to be the component that President Obama explained today of working with our Pakistani partners. This is their territory, they have existing organizations, an army that they're very proud of, other elements that in some areas have already been on the offensive. In Bajaur, in Mohmand, two of the areas in the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas in which they had made inroads against the syndicate, really, of all of these different elements -- not just the Pakistani Taliban, but also the other extremist elements that are allied with al Qaida in that area.

MARGARET WARNER: But as I think even President Obama said, the heart of the Afghan Taliban is believed to be operating out of Quetta, which is in -- not in the tribal areas but in Pakistan proper, one of the provinces. Can you ensure the security of Afghanistan without going after them there?

GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, that's why this has to be -- this is why it's an Af-Pak strategy, if you can -- this is why it has to be a comprehensive approach with both countries and, in fact, beyond that. It's not an accident that Richard went to India after visiting Afghanistan and Pakistan during the recent swing through the region. And beyond that, the central Asian states, the other neighbors -- he mentioned Russia, China, even Iran, as the president mentioned today. But certainly, the Afghan Taliban, if you will, leadership is concentrated arguably in the Quetta area of Balochistan province, just south of the border of Afghanistan, and again, that's where our Pakistani partners, with our assistance, as was announced, the additional contributions that will be made to their capability and capacity.

Benchmarks for governments

Gen. David Petraeus
Commander of U.S. Central Command
I think you could call it sustained substantial commitment. ... The Pakistani military, in particular, will remind us in their first paragraph about the ups and downs in the relationship between our two countries.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, let me ask both of you, it's really the same question. On the civilian and military side, the president talked about setting benchmarks for performance for both these governments. Essentially, it seems you're asking them to make good on commitments they'd made before. In the case of Afghanistan, to clean up corruption, get a handle on the drug trade, be more effective. In the case of Pakistan, to actually go after insurgent elements in their territory instead of coddling them. What is in this program that will make, let's say, the Afghan government any more likely to step up to these?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Resources, No. 1; troops, No. 2; focus, No. 3. The partnership which David Petraeus and I embody, which the president talked about today did not exist previously. You mentioned corruption. This is the first time an American president has talked that way about corruption publicly, yet corruption is a cancer eating away at Afghanistan. So we think it can be done better. And General Petraeus and I are going to work, as the president said today, for an integrated civilian-military effort that didn't exist before.

MARGARET WARNER: May I just ask, how do you assess the Karzai government's willingness to step up on, particularly, the corruption?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I don't know the answer to that. But it is a huge problem. And I have written and spoken about it as a private citizen. President Karzai has said very clearly in public that, in fact, in that extraordinary interview he gave you a few days ago, he said he agrees it's a problem. He said he wants to work on it. He said, show us the proof and well take actions. David and I are talking about how to do just that right now.

MARGARET WARNER: And, General Petraeus, the same question, essentially: What's in this program that will make the Pakistani intelligence and military go after the insurgents within their territories?

GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, I think you could call it sustained substantial commitment. And that's what I think we heard this morning. The Pakistani military, in particular, will remind us in their first paragraph about the ups and downs in the relationship between our two countries. There's an entire generation, as I'm sure you know, of Pakistani military officers who never had the opportunity to visit the United States because of various sanctions that were on for some understandable reasons, to be sure.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: The missing decade.

GENERAL PETRAEUS: But there is a decade of military leaders that has not had that experience. By the way, were trying to make up for that as well. But it's been an up-and-down endeavor. And what we need to do is, again, partner together effectively, confident that we are going to be there for each other in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Holbrooke, when you had an interview on the NewsHour just last month, as you took on this job, you said you were going to explore deeply, or in depth, what you called the hotly disputed issue of whether Pakistani intelligence was in fact aiding and abetting the Taliban. Now that you've studied it, what's your conclusion? Are they?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I'm going to study it some more. (Chuckles.) This is -- first, let me say, quite honestly, that this is at the top of our agenda, that I had extended talks with the director of central intelligence, Leon Panetta, and Admiral Blair, the director of national intelligence. David and I are going to drill down in it. My next trip out there next week is with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen.

Secondly, I personally haven't reached a definitive conclusion. You have reported, newspapers have reported, issues that are very disturbing. But I do want to clarify for your viewers the stakes here. Even if Afghanistan had the best government in the world, the best governance, it would not be able to stabilize itself if the western areas of Pakistan continued to be a sanctuary. You reported that yourself. And, therefore, we have to get to the bottom of this.

MARGARET WARNER: General, let me ask you about the Pakistan ISI. Afghan military people told me when I was there that they're sure that the ISI is assisting the Taliban in Pakistan because when they give them information -- perhaps they get it from the United States -- about specific places where militant leaders are hiding out, they know from intercepts that, in fact, the ISI essentially alerts the militants to move. Do you have, do you see that operationally? Do you see evidence that the Pakistani military or ISI is sustaining the Taliban?

GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, first we probably should review the history and remember that the ISI really established some of these organizations, with our money, by the way, back in the days of the mujahedin fighting against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And so those links were very strong and some of them, I think, unquestionably do remember -- or do remain, to this day. It is much more difficult to tell at what level those links are still established, whether some of the contact is the contact of intelligence with sources or it is, indeed, warning.

There are some cases, I think, that are indisputable in the past, and the fairly recent past, in which that appears to have taken place. I should note that Richard and I actually sat down with the director of ISI. Just the three of us. We have had discussions with the army chief as well, with General Kayani on this subject. And it's a topic that is of enormous importance, because if there are links and if those continue and if it undermines the operations, obviously that would be very damaging to the kind of trust that we need to build.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: The trilateral meetings, which we first announced on your program, will continue in the first week of May.

MARGARET WARNER: The Afghanis, Pakistanis and U.S.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Yeah, and these are very important -- the heads of intelligence, the foreign ministers, the heads of the ministers of interior. Were going to bring the agriculture ministers this time. General Petraeus and I, Secretary Clinton, Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen and higher-level officials are all going to focus on, above all, of all the issues were going to talk about -- and were going to talk about everything -- I personally, and I think David would say, this is the most important. We cannot succeed if the two intelligence agencies are at each others throat or don't trust each other, and if the kind of collusion you refer to is factually based.

Talking to the Taliban

Richard Holbrooke
U.S. Envoy, Afghanistan-Pakistan
We have to find ways to give these people alternatives -- jobs in the agricultural sector. Make them understand that they've been misled by Mullah Omar and his core leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask about something else President Obama put on the table a few weeks ago, which was negotiating with some elements of the Afghan Taliban. Today, he seemed to indicate that he is talking about lower-level elements. Yet, the Afghan government is talking -- I mean, President Karzai talked about the need to reach out to Mullah Omar. Is that a serious split between these two governments? And how do you propose to go about it?

GENERAL PETREAUS: There's actually something, which you know, I'm sure, in their constitution about the reintegration and reconciliation, if you will. Our sense is that it is most profitable, at this time, to pursue that at the lower, middle levels in local areas where, for a variety of different reasons, the Taliban has been able to muscle in, to buy their way in or to bring people to their side for ills against, perhaps, the local governance, even.

But in all those cases, there is an opportunity, we think, to split off the more hardcore and then to try to bring back, if you will, to the new Afghanistan, those others. Whether that's possible at the top, I think, is a bigger question indeed. And I think President Obama's description today was revealing.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Margaret, the majority of people fighting for the Taliban are not fighting for the precepts of returning to a 14th century caliphate or for Mullah Omar's precepts. They're fighting either because it's a gun culture and they -- and it's a long-standing thing, or because they've been misguided to thinking we're the latest round of foreign invaders rather than coming in to liberate them from the Taliban.

We think that's probably over 70 percent, according to polling. We have to find ways to give these people alternatives -- jobs in the agricultural sector. Make them understand that they've been misled by Mullah Omar and his core leadership.

GENERAL PETREAUS: I think it's very important, in fact, to stress that the Taliban brand, if you will, is still very damaged, as I'm sure you found in your several weeks in Afghanistan recently. But this also highlights the importance of not just more forces, but also the proper employment of those forces.

General McKiernan, for example, just issued counterinsurgency guidance to the ISAF U.S. forces in Afghanistan. That should govern the way our forces operate. We have to be seen as, actually, good guests. We have to be seen as, not conquerors, but as friends -- as there to help secure and to actually serve the people. And that is paramount as this goes forward.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask a quick, final question of each of you. Ambassador Holbrooke, next week, there's an international conference on Afghanistan. Iran has accepted the invitation to attend. Can you briefly say what you're going to be looking for from them as a mark whether they would like to be helpful?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: We believe that the Iranians and the United States have some common interests in strategic stability. And if the Iranians wish to entertain discussions on that, we'll see what happens next. This conference is not an American conference; it's a U.N. conference. Sixty nations are coming. One of them is Iran. I can -- I think the United States feels that that's a step forward.

MARGARET WARNER: And brief final question to you: This announcement today really only has 4,000 additional troops, all trainers; are there enough combat forces for this program going forward? Are you going to need more?

GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, I think right now what we need to do is deploy the substantial number that has already been ordered. That's going to take us all the way out through the end of the summer and into the fall. As was mentioned, there will be assessments along the way, and certainly among the assessments will be the need, possibly or not, for additional coalition forces and, possibly, for additional Afghan national security forces above the level that President Obama mentioned.

MARGARET WARNER: Gen. Petraeus, Ambassador Holbrooke, thank you both.