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

bjbjLULU 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. gdM` gdM` gdM` :pM`
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Afghanistan this evening on a visit that had been kept secret Normal Microsoft Office Word
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