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Obama, Cameron Outline Afghanistan Drawdown Plans

March 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
At a White House news conference Wednesday alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama said he didn't foresee "sudden additional changes" to U.S. troop drawdown plans in Afghanistan despite recent incidents stoking anti-American tensions there. Ray Suarez reports on the leaders' reaffirmed relationship.

RAY SUAREZ: Reaffirming the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, that was on the agenda in Washington today, along with the mission in Afghanistan.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was greeted with full pomp on the White House South Lawn this morning. He also came in for good-natured ribbing from President Obama on the impending anniversary of the War of 1812 and the torching of the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s now been 200 years since the British came here to the White House under somewhat different circumstances.


BARACK OBAMA: They made quite an impression.


BARACK OBAMA: They really lit up the place.


RAY SUAREZ: But it was the war that both countries now fight together in Afghanistan that animated much of the leaders’ news conference this afternoon.

BARACK OBAMA: I think both David and I understand how difficult this mission is.

RAY SUAREZ: Cameron’s three-day visit follows on the heels of disastrous incidents in Afghanistan, starting with the Quran burnings by U.S. personnel, which led to rioting and the murders of six U.S. servicemen by Afghan forces.

Then came the death of six British troops last week in a roadside bomb attack on their armored vehicle, and on Sunday, the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children, allegedly by a U.S. staff sergeant based near Kandahar. He was flown out of Afghanistan today.

So far, the Kandahar killings have not aroused Afghan public rage as the Quran burning did. And, today, the Afghan defense minister sought to refocus attention.

GEN. ABDUL RAHIM WARDAK, Afghan defense minister: The stakes are much higher than these incidents which we have — all have condemned.

RAY SUAREZ: Back at the White House, the president tamped down talk that the killings, and the other recent setbacks, add up to failure of the mission in Afghanistan.

BARACK OBAMA: The tragic events of recent days are a reminder that this continues to be a very difficult mission. And obviously we both have lost a number of extraordinary young men and women in theater.

What’s undeniable, though, and what we can never forget is that our forces are making very real progress.

RAY SUAREZ: But that view is now rejected by large majorities of both countries’ publics — 61 percent of Americans and 73 percent of Britons favor immediate withdrawal, according to recent surveys. The leaders acknowledged those stark numbers, even as they pledged a continued commitment to Afghanistan.

DAVID CAMERON, British prime minister: It’s a still a very difficult situation. There are many challenges we have to overcome. But what’s happening in Afghanistan today is quite different to the situation we had three, four, five years ago.

BARACK OBAMA: Why is it that poll numbers indicate people are interested in ending the war in Afghanistan? It’s because we’ve been there for 10 years, and people get weary. I think the vast majority of the American people and British understand why we went there.

RAY SUAREZ: The current NATO timetable calls for phased withdrawal of most foreign troops and a transition to Afghan control of security in 2014.

And the president said today he’s seen no reason to alter that schedule.

BARACK OBAMA: In terms of pace, I don’t anticipate at this stage that we’re going to be making any sudden additional changes to the plan that we currently have.

RAY SUAREZ: Even so, tensions on the ground were evident, as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Afghanistan today. As his plane landed in the South, a stolen vehicle sped down the runway. The driver, an Afghan, crashed in a ditch and somehow emerged from the vehicle on fire.

Officials said Panetta was never in danger. Later, at nearby Camp Leatherneck, American troops were issued an unusual order, to disarm and leave their weapons outside a tent they occupied shortly before Panetta arrived. Afghan soldiers were unarmed, as is typical.

Panetta’s message, that despite setbacks, the mission will continue, was the same as that relayed by the president and prime minister later in Washington.

At their news conference, Mr. Obama and Cameron also discussed Iran and Syria. President Obama said the window for a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear issue is rapidly shrinking.