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Obama’s Afghanistan Pact: What it Does, What it Doesn’t Do

May 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama made a surprise visit Tuesday to Afghanistan to mark the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Gwen Ifill gets an update from the AP's Patrick Quinn in Kabul plus analysis of the agreement the president signed from RAND Corporation's Seth Jones and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress.
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GWEN IFILL: The president flew into Afghanistan this evening on a visit that had been kept secret. It came one year to the day after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Obama stepped off Air Force One in darkness at Bagram Airfield outside Kabul. Later, he met with President Karzai and signed an agreement on the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Together, we’re now committed to replacing war with peace and pursuing a more hopeful future as equal partners. To borrow words from this agreement, we are committed to seeking a future of justice, peace, security, and opportunity. And I’m confident that, although our challenges are not yet behind us, that the future before us is bright.

GWEN IFILL: Later, the president spoke to U.S. troops. He plans to address the American people from Afghanistan at 7:30 Eastern time tonight.

For more on all this, we turn to Patrick Quinn, Kabul bureau chief for the Associated Press, joining us now by telephone.

Patrick, when did you learn that a presidential visit was imminent?

PATRICK QUINN, Associated Press: Well, we only found out just shortly before he arrived.

There were rumors he was coming. But it was a complete surprise, I think, to almost everybody in Afghanistan that Barack Obama decided to come here on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death to sign this agreement.

GWEN IFILL: Tell us what you can about this agreement. How significant is it?

PATRICK QUINN: Well, the deal is not — the deal is significant, in that it defines — well, it broadly defines our presence, the U.S. presence here after 2014, when most troops are scheduled to leave here, most combat troops.

A lot of Afghans have been concerned that — about how the United States will remain here. This agreement basically says that we commit ourselves to supporting Afghanistan economically, and, you know, we will support its development, and we will retain a number of troops here in a counterterrorism role in the post-2014 environment, mostly to chase after what’s left of al-Qaida.

But this is a — signifies a sort of long-term commitment of the United States to Afghanistan and more broadly to the region.

GWEN IFILL: Even in the negotiating of this agreement, there have been tensions. And, of course, we have documented all the tensions in the U.S.-Afghan relationship, specifically with President Karzai.

Was any of that in evidence today?

PATRICK QUINN: Not really.

I think President Karzai got pretty much what he wanted for his own domestic audience, his constituency. Let’s not forget that we had these very controversial night raids that they wanted the Afghans to take the lead on. And we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Afghan government on that.

There was the detainee issue, which was a big sticking point. A memorandum of understanding was signed on that issue. Now, whether the Afghans themselves can actually effectively take over the night raids and take over the detention centers is not important. What was important was the symbolism that allowed this thing to happen before. Let’s not forget the May NATO summit in Chicago. It is an election year. Chicago is Barack Obama’s hometown.

GWEN IFILL: We saw the president arrive under cover of darkness. And, in fact, when he makes his address to the nation, it will be 4:00 a.m. in the morning. How extensive was the security in anticipation of this visit?

PATRICK QUINN: Well, nobody knew he was coming. So he basically flew in to another location. He didn’t fly into Kabul.

He flew into Bagram, which is a heavily secured U.S. military facility. And then he flew to Kabul, where he met with President Karzai and signed the strategic partnership agreement, and then flew back to Bagram and then flew home all in the cover of darkness, which is very interesting, given the fact that we have been here for 10 years and the president has to actually fly in, in the middle of the night.

GWEN IFILL: And the president said today, “Together, we have made much progress.”

Is that the commonly held view as well among Afghans?

PATRICK QUINN: Well, it depends on which Afghans you’re talking about.

We have made progress in transitioning parts of Afghanistan to Afghan security control, with the United States and the coalition troops being in a support role. But there is no — peace has not come to Afghanistan. The Taliban are still fighting. The peace negotiations are — have broken down. We’re in the middle of a major offensive in the eastern part of the country. So, I’m not quite sure how much has been achieved in 10 years here. The war is not over.

GWEN IFILL: Patrick Quinn, Kabul bureau chief for the Associated Press, joining us by telephone, thank you so much for joining us.

PATRICK QUINN: You’re welcome.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the president’s visit and the strategic partnership agreement he signed today, we turn to Seth Jones, who worked for the commander of U.S. special forces in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, and is now a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, and Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he analyzes U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia.

Seth Jones, does this — what you know of this agreement, does it represent a step forward in our relationship with Afghanistan?

SETH JONES, senior political scientist, RAND Corporation: Well, I think what it does do is, it ensures that the United States does not make the mistake that it made in — at the end of the Soviet wars, and that is completely leave.

But what it doesn’t do is, we have no indication of what the U.S. military footprint will be, how much aid it’s going to continue to give, and what the very specifics of the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan will be like after 2014. None of that is in this agreement.

GWEN IFILL: So, does this mean that this agreement — Brian Katulis, this agreement is about what’s not going to happen, as opposed to what is going to happen?

BRIAN KATULIS, senior fellow, Center For American Progress: No, I actually think this is a very important agreement in sending a message, reassuring the Afghans of enduring support at a time of transition.

The U.S. is bringing its troops home. We have got a plan to get down to 68,000 troops by the end of this year. They’re going to reassess those levels. But I think it sends the signal and cuts through a lot of, I think, the debate here at home of whether we’re staying or not. As Seth said, it sends this message of enduring support for at least another 10 years.

Now, the devil is in the details of the financial commitments and then how many troops will actually stay there in the longer term, though.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s exactly the question. And I will ask you this and then Seth as well, which is I always wonder about sending messages and whether the long-term commitment means anything more than those words when you don’t have those numbers attached.

BRIAN KATULIS: The second thing I think that the agreement does do is it actually sets up a structure for this relationship that didn’t exist before.

There’s a bilateral commission that actually puts the focus on issues like corruption and political reform in Afghanistan. And I think — I have not read the agreement itself, but as I have been told, it has serious commitments from the Afghan government on fighting corruption and political reform, which I would say is as important as the security efforts that we’re trying to do in building up the Afghan security forces, because we could be building security forces on a foundation that’s not very stable without those commitments from our Afghan partners.

GWEN IFILL: Seth Jones?

SETH JONES: Well, I think one — one issue that still is not addressed — and I know Afghans continue to be concerned about — is what will the structure look like that will fight against the Taliban and the range of other insurgents groups, including the Haqqani Network?

And many Afghans are deeply concerned about their own survival. So, will the Taliban increasingly take control of territory? Will they eventually overcome? It still doesn’t get by some concerns that the U.S. is militarily abandoning Afghanistan, especially when we have neighbors like Iran and particularly Pakistan that are supporting insurgent groups.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and there was also a semi-annual report that came out of the Pentagon today. And one of the things they said was that there was a long-term — there are long-term and acute challenges from neighboring Pakistan and widespread corruption in the Afghan government.

Does this do anything to address that, or do we just tiptoe around those issues, Brian?

BRIAN KATULIS: Well, this agreement, again, highlights the importance and the urgency of the Afghan partners to actually deal with those issues, especially corruption.

The biggest problem I think longer term will be Pakistan. This is a major challenge that we have not been able — you know, the Bush administration and the Obama administration has had significant challenges in getting compliance from the government in Pakistan. And I think we’re still working those issues. But I think that’s the biggest strategic challenge right now.

GWEN IFILL: So, Seth Jones, is this — in the end, the visit, the agreement, everything, is it more substantive or symbolic?

SETH JONES: Well, I think it is mostly symbolic.

Again, I would say it is useful to let Afghans and neighbors know that the United States will be committed to some degree over the long run. But, again, the devil is in the details. And we don’t have the details. And the administration hasn’t provided those details of what the military commitment will be like over the long run.

I think that, in the end, will be crucial.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you about the symbolism because, of course, today is the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Do you doubt that there is any coincidence there?

BRIAN KATULIS: I actually think that they were trying to get this agreement before the NATO summit in about two weeks in Chicago. And I actually think, yes, the symbolism is very important. It closes a chapter in a sense.

But I think what was driving this was policy, not politics, because the details of what is the enduring commitment not only from the U.S., but from our NATO allies, will come in discussions at Chicago and then follow-up conferences in Japan. But I think having this agreement makes those discussions much more constructive and productive both in Chicago and Japan.

GWEN IFILL: Seth Jones, do you agree with that?

SETH JONES: Yeah, I do agree.

The Chicago meetings were incredibly important, were viewed as important. And this long-term strategic partnership, I think, what — was important to sign before Chicago. But, again, we’ve got a lot of issues that have not been entirely addressed, especially the role of neighbors. And this document does talk about the importance of a strategic regional relationship. But, again, we don’t have that right now.

GWEN IFILL: We have been tracking, Brian, the drawdown, the gradual drawdown of the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan. Does this or this discussion affect that at all?

BRIAN KATULIS: I don’t think it does.

I think, as I understand, Gen. Allen, our top commander in Afghanistan, will conduct an assessment after the surge troops essentially are home. We will be down to 68,000 this fall. And they’ll do another reassessment of the security situation, importantly, how the Afghan security forces are doing.

So I think those — calibrating the pace of withdrawal will be based on the conditions on the ground and whether the Afghans are actually stepping up. I think this agreement again sends this message that we’re going to be there for a long time, but it also calibrates it in such a way that we’re sticking with the transition plan as well.

GWEN IFILL: And being there for a long time, Seth Jones, does that also mean training, continuing military civilian training, U.S. forces doing that job?

SETH JONES: Well, the document does note that it is important that the United States remains to conduct training of Afghan national security forces.

I would also assume it means training for the Afghan local police. This is the tribal/sub-tribe/clan elements that are providing security in rural areas. But, again, the numbers are not clear and what kinds of forces, whether they will be conventional or special operations, and what role they will play is not identified in the document.

GWEN IFILL: And I have to ask you both about another item in this Pentagon report, because we have been covering every few weeks, it feels, what the report calls significant shocks to the relationship, whether it’s burning of Korans or the killing of civilians or the mutilation of corpses.

Does this defuse that tension, Brian?

BRIAN KATULIS: I don’t think it necessarily defuses all of those tensions, but it sets a new tone. And, again, it structures the relationship in such a way that if there are shocks like this, that we have a structure to absorb those shocks, the shock absorbers, that we have commissions that will sit down in a bilateral way and talk about the long-term commitments that we have.

Those incidents, I think, are awful. And the incidents of Afghan soldiers killing our soldiers are tactical shocks, but I think overall we have a structure now that’s being built to provide enduring support for Afghanistan, something that didn’t exist when we left in 1989.

GWEN IFILL: But are those emotional shocks that no signed agreement can speak to?

BRIAN KATULIS: I think, to a certain extent, they are. But those emotional shocks can spill over into politics. And if you don’t have a structure in our bilateral relationship that can absorb those — and I think what we’re doing in this is saying let’s turn the page on this and let’s figure out how to move forward in the transition.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Seth Jones?

SETH JONES: Well, I think, among other things, what this agreement does is allow the U.S. to establish relationships with key partners in the region and in Afghanistan, establish a long-term training issue.

And so it is very useful in that sense. Again, most Afghans do remember the 1989-1990-1991 abandonment by the U.S. of Afghanistan. And at the very least, this document gets the U.S. out of that fear.

GWEN IFILL: And I have to ask you both briefly also at the end of this, Seth Jones, starting with you, do you believe that Hamid Karzai is a reliable partner at this stage?

SETH JONES: I think Hamid Karzai has been a reliable partner for at least part of the time. In a sense, though, that point may be moot soon, because there are elections that are expected to happen.

The dates actually have now been — gone back and forth between 2013 and 2014. But I think, in general, he’s been good enough. And that’s really the question in Afghanistan. Can you have a leader that is good enough? If you look at his support polls among public opinion polling data, he still gets up in the 60 percent category, which is, frankly, better than what we have in the United States and in most of Europe.

GWEN IFILL: Brian Katulis, good enough?

BRIAN KATULIS: I think he’s been mixed.

I think the key question, though, is, how do we help him execute a political transition? We talk about transition largely as a security dynamic and what our military does, but equally important are, what are the political institutions and the economic institutions that are being built?

President Karzai is going to have to step down someday. And I think what this agreement does is elevates those issues of political and economic sustainability.

GWEN IFILL: Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation, thank you both very much.

BRIAN KATULIS: Thank you.

SETH JONES: Thanks, Gwen.