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President Obama announced that the U.S. would scale back the pace of its promised troop pullout from Afghanistan, retaining current forces this year. Gwen Ifill interviews President Ashraf Ghani about thawing relations with the U.S., potential changes in how Pakistan differentiates between terror groups and whether the threat of the Islamic State might drive the Taliban to the negotiating table.
President Obama announced today the U.S. would scale back the pace of its promised troop pullout from Afghanistan, allowing forces to stay in place this year, and revisiting those numbers again next year.
That was at the top of the wish list Afghanistan's new leadership brought to town this week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
We agreed to continue to keep in place our close security cooperation. Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place.
On his first presidential visit to Washington, Ashraf Ghani came away with the commitment he wanted most: a promise from the U.S. president.
I have decided that we will maintain our current posture of 9,800 troops through end of this year. The bottom line is, our men and women in uniform make enormous sacrifices. Their families do too. They service alongside them. This will mean that there are going to be some of our folks who are in Afghanistan under the new schedule who would have been home.
The U.S. and international combat mission in Afghanistan formally ended late last year, and the U.S. military has been steadily reducing its footprint, aiming to have only a skeleton force in place by the end of next year.
The Taliban responded by stepping up attacks and seizing territory from often-ineffective Afghan forces. And the downsized U.S. presence led to a sharp reduction in air support for the Afghans. Another key mission, training Afghan forces — they now number 330,000, but the size of the force has fallen as casualties have risen. Desertions are also on the rise.
Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the U.S. would help out here as well, committing billions of dollars in additional support.
ASHTON CARTER, U.S. Defense Secretary:
The Defense Department intends to seek funding for Afghan forces to sustain an end strength of 352,000 personnel through 2017.
The announcements and warm words highlight a distinct thaw in U.S.-Afghan relations since the days of Ghani's predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
U.S. dealings with him had become poisonous, and he ultimately refused to sign a security agreement to formalize the American presence in Afghanistan. But once Ghani took office, the deal was signed immediately. In another sign of renewed goodwill, Ghani took pains during this visit to honor the sacrifice of more than 2,200 Americans killed fighting in Afghanistan since 2001, joining Vice President Biden today to lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery.
The new leader is being accompanied by former rival Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan's new CEO. That post was created after last year's presidential election was marred by allegations of fraud.
PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI, Afghanistan (through interpreter):
We now have proved that political affairs cannot be solved through the use of guns, but can be solved through talks and negotiations.
The two men created a so-called national unity government, although key positions remain unfilled. Ghani faces many other challenges, a recent, disturbing example, the stoning and burning death of a young woman in Central Kabul by a mob of men. She'd been falsely accused of desecrating the Koran.
Ghani's U.S. visit continues tomorrow, when he speaks to a joint meeting of Congress, before heading to New York and the United Nations Thursday.
Shortly after the White House news conference ended today, I spoke with President Ghani.
Mr. President, thank you for joining us.
You have just come from a pretty successful meeting at the White House — you're at Blair House right across the street right now — in which you asked the president the freeze troop withdrawals, at least for this year — he agreed to do that — and to rethink it for 2016.
What about that open-ended part about next year? Did you hope that perhaps they would give you a more definitive idea of how many troops would be on the ground this time next year?
PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI:
We're very gratified that the flexibility that we asked for and the stability has been provided.
With evolving conditions on the ground, one has to make use of this major opportunity for reforms of our security forces, and then assess the conditions.
You talk about the evolving situation on the ground. What would you describe as the most urgent threats?
The military operations by Pakistan have brought about a displacement effect, where a significant number of foreign terror groups that are a threat to practically every one of our neighbors near and far have been pushed towards our territory, while their leadership and their networks remain in Pakistan or elsewhere.
A new ecology of terror is forming because the weakening or collapse of the states in the Middle East is bringing new opportunities to strengthen these networks. We have to deal with this threat, not just by our Afghan action, but through coordinated regional action.
And the beginning of awareness is taking place, but it's important to understand that violence is changing its forms. It's rapidly acquiring a new set of capabilities. And unless we grasp them, we understand them and then preempt them from forming and acting, we will be in a defensive position.
We know that part of this ecology of terror you referred to, in the past at least, in the present, has been the Taliban, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But I also wonder whether ISIS, which we spend a lot of time talking about, is also getting a foothold in Afghanistan. Is there any evidence of that?
Da'esh has four phases, organize, orient, decide, and act.
But because its recruitment is media-based, and not just through old personal networks, one has to be both vigilant and cautious in terms of the extent of their presence. We have made sure that it doesn't go beyond the stage of deciding to acting. So we have seen some evidence, but it could also be copycatting or in relation.
And we need to share information and analysis in a coherent way, so that then one is not surprised the way their emergence in Iraq and Syria surprised both governments and analysts alike.
Of course, when you say Da'esh, you're referring to what we call ISIS or ISIL.
I'm also curious about the Taliban negotiations, however. How do you get them back to the table, when they won't agree to the basics that you have asked, that they renounce al-Qaida, that they accept the Afghan constitution, that they renounce violence? How — is it Pakistan? Is that the key to getting them back to the table?
It's two things.
One is, of course, Pakistan, because Pakistan is facing an internal threat. It is going — it's gone through heavy fighting last year. It's going to have a fighting season of its own, unfortunately, this year. So, in light of that and in light of the decision of the Pakistani army, in the Pakistani government and parliament, to confront the phenomena of terror through direct use of force in response to the heinous crime that took place against the children in Peshawar, we're going to see new forms of activity that now will hopefully bring about a policy that will not differentiate between good terrorists and bad terrorists.
This could be a significant driver for separating the Taliban from these other groups. The second is that Da'esh, or what you call ISIL, is also a threat to the Taliban and to the related groups, because a characteristic of Da'esh is to swallow its competition, the way it did with the Syrian Free Army.
So, the room for maneuver within these two factors limits their options. The other is that, now that the combat role of the international forces has ended, Afghans are clearly coming in support of our security institutions. For instance, 4,000 of our religious scholars, about six weeks ago, clearly endorsed the Afghan security forces.
The other significant event is that of Muslim response. The conference in Mecca has condemned terrorism and identified a common platform for action. These are pressures that should hopefully get the Taliban to the negotiating table.
In addition to those external pressures, you also have internal pressures. We saw the story about the woman who was stoned to death in Kabul. We have heard many reports about internal corruption in the government.
And I wonder, as you take over now — you have been in office since September — you — how you rank those in terms of major, domestic concerns that you have to tackle.
Corruption is clearly the cancer that eats through our societies.
We have taken decisive action from the second day, where we tackled the notorious case of Kabul Bank. We have focused on all key drivers of corruption, whether it's contracting, sale of office, smuggling, land grabbing, or the most difficult, which is narcotics.
So, we are systematically focusing on underlying causes, and not just symptoms. Our society, after 36 years of conflict, is deeply traumatized. We suffer from the post-conflict distress syndrome as a society. So, the tragic lynching, totally unacceptable, either according to Islamic law or our civil laws, that took place is a manifestation of this.
And we need to very clearly come, not just to have the police fight terror, but do their fundamental duty, which is enforcement of rights and upholding of rule of law.
And, finally, Mr. President, how different is your relationship now with the U.S. than President Karzai's was? As you know, that was tense toward the end. And President Obama alluded to that today. How has that changed?
It has changed fundamentally because we believe in a revitalized partnership.
We're not engaging in a blame game. We are engaged in common understanding, in common action. And part of this, of course, is also that the combat role of the United States has ended, as was agreed between our two governments, and the train, advise, assist mission that U.S. forces are currently engaged in does not involve combat roles.
We have common interests, are facing common threats, and need to engage an enduring partnership. And that is our key goal. And I hope that this trip has consolidated this revitalized this vital relationship for us.
Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan, thank you so much for joining us.
Pleasure to be with you.
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