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In an interview amid escalating U.S-Afghan tensions in the wake of Quran burnings and a civilian massacre allegedly at the hands of a U.S. soldier, Jeffrey Brown and the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, discuss the killings and President Karzai's demand to President Obama that U.S. forces be pulled from rural areas.
This afternoon at the State Department, I talked with the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, and started by asking for his reaction to Hamid Karzai's demand made directly today to President Obama that U.S. forces be pulled from rural areas.
RYAN CROCKER, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan: I would first draw attention to the statement that both presidents put out earlier today, in which they recommitted themselves to the Lisbon framework, which provides for full transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. There's no change there.
They further agreed to pursue the goal of a transition of combat lead to Afghan forces by 2013 or in 2013 with international forces in a supporting role, all part of an orderly transition that the president has addressed before. President Karzai did express concerns about foreign forces in villages. And President Obama agreed that this is an issue that is going to have to be discussed, as is the issue of night operations, which has also been a concern.
You say discussed. Is that something that the U.S. can do? What impact would it have on our ability to fight?
Obviously, we're going to have to take a close look at this.
Again, both Afghanistan and the United States share the same goal. We want a see a secure, stable, sovereign, democratic Afghanistan that is able to secure its own territory and prevent the return of forces that could once again threaten the Afghan people or indeed the American people. So we kind of got to keep our vision on the far horizon there as we wrestle with these also difficult issues.
Well, but — the far horizon, but the rhetoric today certainly was fairly pointed. President Karzai also accused the U.S. of not cooperating in the investigation of the American soldier who allegedly killed the civilians over the weekend.
In terms of the level of emotion, President Karzai had just met with the families of the victims of the shootings on Sunday and heard their stories. Those were horrific, shocking murders.
They shocked Afghans. They shocked Americans. President Obama, the day of the event, you know, spoke of his own personal sense of his grief and sorrow, noting that, as we pursue this case, we're going to pursue it as though those victims were Americans.
So, the fact that President Karzai is pretty upset, I fully understand. I'm pretty upset, too.
You said, yes, he was meeting with the families, but he has a habit of surprising and sometimes rather bold statements. Are they helpful or hurtful to this continuing relationship to hear him questioning and that — saying something like, I'm at the end of the rope?
I have a lot of time for him and a lot of respect for him. I think he's a committed Afghan nationalist. And at the end of the day, he seeks the same goals we do.
And, sometimes, the rhetoric gets a little heated. Sometimes, my rhetoric has been known to get a little bit heated in a few of these meetings. And then I go sit under a tree and think about the larger equities at stake, and we move on.
The question, though, seems to be whether the relationship is strained beyond repair.
We've been through over the last decade-and-a-half some pretty tough times in Afghanistan.
We have been through it, the Afghans have been through it, we have carried on. And my expectation is that we are going to carry on through this. Just a week ago, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Afghan government on a transfer of detention operations from the U.S. to Afghanistan. A lot of people didn't think that could be done, but we did it.
So I think we can carry ahead, deal with these tough issues on where our forces are deployed, night operations, and work our way through to a long-term strategic partnership agreement, because it's in the interest of both countries.
Even though the appetite in Afghanistan seems to be lessening from the president on down to the American presence, to some of the tactics that we use, you still think this is a functioning relationship?
I do think it's a functioning relationship.
I went to Afghanistan over 10 years ago to open our embassy there after the fall of the Taliban. That's when I first met President Karzai. I came out of retirement to come back to Afghanistan because I believe in the relationship. I believe in the criticality of that relationship to the vital national security interests of both countries.
It's true we've been at it a long time. It's true that people in Afghanistan and people in America are tired. Look, Jeff, I'm tired. I have been deployed for seven years now between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. But I do this because it's critical to our national security. It's critical to their national security. We have to stick with it.
When you say — it's interesting. You raise the American public as tired, in your word. You're tired. Do you fear that that is now going to affect what happens over the coming months, the American public feeling that this mission just may not be worth it any longer?
Well, I think the American public can and will focus on both long-term future equities in our national security, and they will remember what happened 10-and-a-half years ago — 9/11 happened — 9/11 came out of Afghanistan, the most destructive active war ever on American territory.
And the same people who brought us 9/11 are more than ready to retake the country. If we decide we're tired, if we decide we don't want to do it anymore, if we get out before the Afghans can assume full control, the Taliban will be back and al-Qaida will be right behind them, and we will be back in a pre-9/11 situation.
You feel certain of that, that that's not only potential, but that would happen if we pull out too early?
I think there's every likelihood that would happen, yes.
Another recent development was the announcement that the Taliban were pulling out of negotiations. Now, how much of a blow is that to any hopes of a negotiated peace settlement at some point?
Well, we'll see what happens.
Our position, our policy, our strategy has been clear since the secretary's speech in February of 2011, in which she said the United States would support an Afghan-led peace, a reconciliation process. That was our position. It remains our position. Now, what the Taliban decide to do about it, I don't know. We'll have to wait and see.
Are you worried, though, that all of these recent developments in Afghanistan are just emboldening hard-liners in the Taliban, so that there will be little incentive to come to the table to talk, and, in fact, more of an incentive to just wait this out and see if the American public and political system just tires of the whole thing?
Well, that's why I think, again, the recommitment by both President Obama and President Karzai earlier today is so important.
That is a long way off. The Taliban is not doing too well on the battlefield. And I would not expect them do too much better in the years ahead. They're going to have to think about just how many of their fighters and their commanders they want to see die in a cause that I don't think they can ever achieve as long as we stay the course.
All right, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, thanks so much for talking to us.
Thank you, Jeff.
Watch a web-only excerpt of Crocker's interview about safe havens for the Taliban in Pakistan.
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