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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
President Obama in Afghanistan
Aired May 1, 2012 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're watching all of this unfold. Our own John King will give us an inside look at what it's like to be on a secret presidential trip to a war zone. He's been on one before. Our own Erin Burnett looks at al Qaeda's future. And our Christiane Amanpour and Fareed Zakaria will be joining us as well -- Anderson.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: That's right.
The president has only been on the ground in Afghanistan for a few hours, arriving, of course, under a veil of secrecy to protect his security. From Bagram Air Base, he took a helicopter to Kabul, where signed that strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, with President Hamid Karzai.
It could mark the beginning of the end of the war there. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Neither Americans nor the Afghan people asked for this war.
Yet, for a decade, we have stood together to drive al Qaeda from its camps, to battle an insurgency and to give the people of Afghanistan the possibility to live in peace and in dignity. The wages of war have been great for both our nations. But today, with the signing of this strategic partnership agreement, we look forward to a future of peace.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Our Nick Paton Walsh is live for us in Kabul.
Nick, there were attacks, significant attacks in Kabul just about two weeks ago that really rocked the capital.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely.
This is obviously a place where a presidential security detail didn't feel enormously comfortable bringing him in daylight, this whole trip occurring under a great veil of secrecy, U.S. officials and Afghan officials doing their very best to quash rumors about seven or eight hours ago that he was already in Kabul.
But, really, as you saw the president there addressing a hangar, many of those troops will perhaps be on their way home, Bagram being a hub for many troops returning back to the United States, and I think keen to try and suggest, as he said a year ago, the tide of war is still receding here, choosing this anniversary, the death of bin Laden, the man -- for many Americans, the reason why they came to Afghanistan in the first place, choosing the anniversary of his death to take this narrative an extra stage forwards and explain exactly how America will tie up the loose ends of its decades-long war here and how its presence will look like in the years ahead -- Anderson.
COOPER: Nick, exactly what is the strategic partnership agreement? It doesn't really talk about funding. So there are those who say, well, look, this is more about -- this isn't really something that kind of sets out the logistics of what's going to happen over the next 10 years, after 2014.
WALSH: It's very, very strong on symbolism, not particularly heavy on substance.
It's very important for America that it was signed, that it happened because for months there were many outstanding issues that made it look like it may never actually come to fruition. It's also important that it was signed ahead of this vital summit in Chicago in May, where NATO allies have to put forward their contributions, financial and military, for the years ahead.
But it does leave these vital questions. How much money is Washington going to give Kabul? It leaves that still to be answered and of course puts aside for a future agreement the vital question of what kind of military presence will America have here in the years after NATO's withdrawal, and what limitations will there be upon it, how many troops, and what kind of bases, Anderson?
COOPER: Right. About 20,000 troops from the so-called surge are supposed to leave starting in September.
Christiane Amanpour is here. She spoke to President Hamid Karzai just about two weeks ago.
Will today's agreement really make a difference? Is this just symbolic?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: It is symbolic, but it will make a difference. At least it will when it's completely negotiated because crucial elements have not been negotiated.
President Karzai wants to know that he's not being abandoned. Afghanistan wants to know that it's not being abandoned, that there will be a 10-year time period where U.S. forces in some way will be there, by no means in the same numbers.
COOPER: That perhaps is one of the reasons the president himself wanted to go to sign it there as a symbol that there is a commitment to Afghanistan.
AMANPOUR: To Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to the Taliban, to any of those who would wish to seek a U.S. vacuum and try to fill that vacuum. The question of course is, what exactly does this mean? There are very important issues that have not been negotiated. For instance, the strategic forces agreement, will Afghanistan grant American forces immunity?
COOPER: It's a huge issue.
AMANPOUR: Huge issue.
COOPER: It's been an issue in Iraq as well.
AMANPOUR: It collapsed the ideal in Iraq. So no Americans could stay in Iraq because they wouldn't allow that. Will the...
COOPER: And that's a particularly sensitive issue, given what's happened just in the last couple of months in Afghanistan with the soldier who is accused of killing a number of Afghan civilians.
AMANPOUR: That's exactly right. And when I asked President Karzai will you expect somebody like Sergeant Bales to be tried under an Afghan legal system, if that should happen again, he said yes.
But this issue of immunity is still to be negotiated. And he said to me that it will depend on the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan at the time. And the other thing, of course, is the Afghans are now saying absolutely publicly that there will be no drones allowed to take off from Afghanistan to target terrorists wherever, in Pakistan or elsewhere. This is also a big issue...
AMANPOUR: ... because when the U.S. takes its forces out, it will rely increasingly, as it has already, on the drone strikes. So that's an issue, if they can't take off...
COOPER: The number of drone strikes by the Obama administration has skyrocketed as compared to what it was under the Bush administration.
And Peter Bergen recounts in his new book the impact it's had on al Qaeda, the fear that drone strikes has caused al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden himself wrote about it.
AMANPOUR: That's absolutely right, but there are still the militants in Pakistan, as we saw two weeks ago with that very audacious attack that some are saying came across from Pakistan and penetrated the very heart of the government, didn't get to the palace in Kabul, but it did get to the parliament.
And the other, of course, issue is, remember, we all remember when the United States packed up and left after the Soviets were defeated. This is what gave the space to the mujahideen, that led to the Taliban, that led to al Qaeda, that led to 9/11. So this is what they're saying will not happen because we will have some kind of presence here.
COOPER: The Republican criticism of President Obama announcing this kind of withdrawal timetable has been, you're allowing the Taliban to kind of -- you're giving them a timetable. They can just wait it out.
AMANPOUR: Well, you know, there's been a lot of that.
The real crucial issue, Anderson -- and this is absolutely crucial -- the United States does not believe that they can -- that this is winnable on the battlefield, even though they're making progress. The Taliban is still there. They want to negotiate with the Taliban.
Even now, despite all the talk about it, there is none of that going on in any formal fashion, and many senior Afghan leaders who fought the Taliban don't want the Taliban back anyway.
A lot to talk about with Christiane. She will be here over the next several hours as we continue to cover this. We will bring you the president's address live.
Let's go to Wolf.
BLITZER: Anderson, thanks very much.
John King is here. He's been watching all of this unfold as well.
It didn't take very long for some Republicans to be critical of the president, the timing of this visit to Afghanistan, on this, the one-year anniversary of bin Laden's death.
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Republican, member of the Armed Services Committee, saying it's good that the president goes and visits the troops in Afghanistan, but then he adds this: "Unfortunately, this president has allowed Washington and campaign politics to dictate his strategy in Afghanistan, rather than the conditions on the ground."
JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Well, that is from Senator Inhofe, a conservative, a frequent critic of this administration, not only on military issues, but on other issues as well, trying to say that the president's plan to draw down most troops by 2014 -- you have heard that from Senator McCain.
You have heard that again from Senator Inhofe today. You have heard that from Senator Lieberman, the independent who used to be a Democrat, Senator Lindsey Graham, that group of the Republicans who have said, well, wait a minute, Mr. President. They think he should have left troops in Iraq. They think you needed a residual force there and they think he's in too much of a hurry to get out of Afghanistan.
Interesting, though. Senator Inhofe is almost a reflexive critic of this administration. I don't mean that negatively, but he's a conservative who criticizes the president almost all the time. Most other Republicans, including the president's likely opponent, Mitt Romney, have decided, Wolf, at least until after this speech tonight to hold their fire.
It's hard to criticize the commander in chief for visiting the troops. There have been huge outstanding issues with the Afghan government, so they want to read this new agreement. And it's short. As Nick Paton Walsh said, it's short on the critical details, how many troops, how much money is this going to cost, what are the rules of engagement, where will the bases be where the U.S. are in Afghanistan?
Will they be close to the dangerous areas? Will they be more protected? So watch over the next several days. It is clear, both as the commander in chief and as a candidate for reelection, the president will dominate this day. We will see what happens when the Republicans start to look at the details.
BLITZER: Yes. We're waiting to hear from the president.
John, stand by.
Fareed Zakaria is joining us as well.
Fareed, it's a blunt question, but can the United States really trust the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai?
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN WORLD AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think they can trust that Hamid Karzai wants to have a good relationship with the United States.
He has wanted that from the start. He was one of the most pro- American politicians in Afghanistan at the Bonn conference, which -- where he was in effect anointed. Karzai is treading a careful line. He knows that Pakistan, his next-door neighbor, is powerful, controls many of the militant groups who attack him, so he can't be anti- Pakistani.
He needs the Americans as a ballast against them. He also has good relations with the Indians. So he is playing this tri-corner game. And he needs America very much. So it's not really a question of his personal preferences, but the strategic national interests of Afghanistan as he correctly sees them require a very close relationship with the United States.
So I think we can trust in those permanent national interests of Afghanistan. We don't have to worry very much about Mr. Karzai. But to be fair to him, he has -- on this issue, on this core issue of having a relationship with the United States, he has been very firm.
Now, there have been occasions where there have been clashes because a sergeant -- the issue with the Koran burning, but those issues have never detracted from the broader perspective that Karzai has had, which is he's wanted to have a good relationship with the United States.
BLITZER: What did you think of what the president had to say at that signing ceremony about an hour, hour-and-a-half or so ago at the presidential palace in Kabul? Because he's walking a delicate line right now. He's got a lot of different audiences that he's got to appeal to.
ZAKARIA: I thought that it was sober, and understandably so.
It seemed that perhaps the main audience, as with any president and perhaps certainly in an election year, was the American people. He was acknowledging that this had been a long war. This has been our longest war. He was acknowledging that it had been a tough road, that there wasn't a clean victory that you could look at, and he was acknowledging the fact that the relationship had not always been perfect.
So I thought it was an attempt to frame the relationship as one that was solid, sober, and purposeful. He pointed out we did not ask to come to Afghanistan. We did not seek to come to Afghanistan. We were in effect forced in because of at attacks of 9/11.
KING: And, Fareed, it's John. Connect, if you will, the geopolitical dots with the domestic political dots, in the sense that there is no escaping the moment. It is the first anniversary of the raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.
It was in Afghanistan that those al Qaeda training camps where 9/11 was planned were conducted. And that's the reason the war began in the first place. But the president of the United States being in Afghanistan on this day and then speaking to the American people tonight on what is -- without -- you can't escape the big policy calculations or the domestic political campaign calculations.
ZAKARIA: I think that the political calculations were more obvious in the release of that ad in which the Obama campaign questioned whether Mitt Romney would have taken out Osama bin Laden. I think that was blatantly political, if you would like.
Here, I think the president is behaving like the president. I think that the fact that he chose the one-year anniversary, well, there was going to be some kind of marking of that event. He had to go to Afghanistan. As we have been discussing, there were all these issues that had to be resolved, that there was a need to shore up the relationship after three months of pretty bad stuff that had happened.
You also had the need, as Christiane was pointing out, to signal to the Pakistanis, to the Iranians, to all the neighbors, that, look, we're not -- we may be drawing down troops, but we're not going anywhere.
So I think here he's on very strong ground of saying, look, I'm commander in chief. This is important business that had to be done. Yes, they picked an auspicious day, one might say. But I think had that ad not come out, there would be a lot less questioning of the politics of today. It was all the shadow of that ad which frankly I think was unfortunate.
BLITZER: Stand by, Fareed.
I want everyone to stand by, because we're following the breaking news. We're getting new information on how dangerous a mission this has been for the president of the United States. He will not see daylight while he's in Afghanistan. He arrived close to 11:00 p.m. local time.
It's going to be about 4:00 a.m. when he will address the American people, local time, and shortly after that, he will board Air Force One to fly back to Washington. See, we're getting new information about the danger, the safety of the president of the United States in Afghanistan right now.
Stay with us. The breaking news will continue in a moment.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: We did not choose this war. This war came to us on 9/11. And there are a whole bunch of folks here, I will bet, who signed up after 9/11.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: These are some of the pictures we have just been receiving, President Obama on the ground during the night in Kabul, Afghanistan, arriving at Bagram Air Base. He then helicoptered in to Kabul, where he signed the strategic partnership agreement with the president.
He's going to be addressing the United States, addressing the American public within about an hour or so. We of course are going to bring that to you live in a special report.
The president is in Kabul, getting ready to speak to the American people just over an hour, at 7:30 Eastern time exactly.
I want to bring in our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr to just talk about the level of security and the danger involved in this.
It's extraordinarily dangerous for any sitting president to make this kind of trip into a war zone, particularly, Barbara, in Kabul, where, as I said to Nick, just two weeks ago, there were massive attacks in that city.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, absolutely, Anderson.
In a situation like this, one of the key ways the Secret Service keeps the president safe is keeping his travel plans secret.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) STARR (voice-over): It doesn't get much riskier than sending the president of the United States into a war zone. President Obama arrived at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan under cover of darkness with extraordinary security measures. Reporters traveling with the president were sworn to secrecy. The Secret Service is prepared for anything that could happen.
It starts with getting in. U.S. planes landing in Afghanistan perform a corkscrew type landing making sharp banks and terms to avoid heat seeking missiles.
Colonel Mark Tillman knows first hand how dangerous it can be. Now retired, he told Wolf Blitzer about secretly taking President George W. Bush to Baghdad in 2003 while combat raged.
COL. MARK TILLMAN (RET.), FORMER AIR FORCE ONE PILOT: The challenge wasn't so much to get him in there, because we easily fooled everybody and got him in there. The challenge was once he was on the ground, and everybody knew he was there to get him back out again. So, we worked very hard to make sure he had minimum time on the ground.
STARR: Any longer and terrorists might be able to set up an attack. And over the years, Bagram, right where the president landed, has come under repeated rocket and mortar attacks. So, the president quickly boarded a heavily armed helicopter for a half-hour ride to Kabul with apache gunships providing escort.
Even the heavily protected area where the president headed to meet with President Hamid Karzai is not totally secure. Just last month, the Taliban pulled off multiple attacks in the green zone where the presidential palace, NATO headquarters, and the U.S. embassy are located. But the Secret Service, of course, works to make sure there are no attacks.
Only a handful of U.S. officials and top military commanders even knew the president was coming. Less information, more security is the way the president's men make it happen.
STARR: Now, the president, of course, is running for reelection as commander in chief. So in this election year, as with all things White House, there is that bit of a political overtone to all of it, but, still, we saw the pictures a short time ago. The troops were absolutely thrilled to see President Obama in Afghanistan -- Wolf, back to you.
BLITZER: Barbara, thank you very much.
I want to bring John King in once again.
John, you have been on one of these very secret dangerous presidential visits to a war zone. Remind our viewers, what's it like?
KING: Well, I was on the Bush trip to Baghdad, the first trip to Baghdad after Maliki became prime minister.
And you just saw -- you had that interview with the pilot on that trip. I was called by Dan Bartlett, then the White House communications director. It was a weekend. He called me and asked if he could see me for coffee.
And he said, look, we're going to have this secret trip. I had actually just left the White House beat, which I covered for eight- and-a-half years. He said, we need you to keep a secret. You can tell maybe one boss. Please don't -- if you can, keep this even from your family, because we're so worried about security.
Then you show up at Andrew's Air Force Base. One of the first things they do is they tell you, when you get close to Baghdad, everything must be turned off. And, actually, they took these away from us because they didn't trust us, because they don't want any electronic signal, Wolf, from the plane.
You remember from your days covering the White House on Air Force One, in all of the cabins, in the press cabin, for example, there's a television, and it says, time in Washington, time and place of local, wherever you're going, and this other -- three times. All the clocks were turned off. All the power that they could turn off, any external lights were turned off.
You come in. Once you get over the air base, then you go down pretty quickly. Sometimes, they corkscrew. Sometimes, they drop the plane, but they want to get down on the ground quickly and they want to go down from over the base.
When we were on the ground, we were told to be incredibly careful. We couldn't call in a pool report to the other networks to disclose the president was there until the White House gave us approval for that. When we left, it was the most interesting part, because by then you're on the ground for a few hours. The enemy knows you're there and they know where you are.
President Bush decided, as President Obama did today, to bring Air Force One, the 747. The Secret Service and the military usually ask him, please don't do that, sir. Can you take a nondescript plane? But they wanted the symbolism of that flag on the back of that 747.
When we left, Wolf, again, they took all our electronic devices. They raised their voices, told us, don't do anything. Don't -- close the window shades. Don't give any light, no electronic signals. They revved the engine, like if you have got your foot on the brake and you're gunning the gas in your car. And then a 747 took off like that.
It's a pretty impressive 747, but I have never had G's before on a 747. We took off. It was kind of a fun ride. Once you get to safety, the pilot tells you you're OK and they hand you back your tools.
Let's talk more about the strategic challenge now for the United States, Wolf, as the president signs this new agreement. But a lot of the missing details, that is what we need to find out.
General James "Spider" Marks is with me.
And, General, when you look at this map, the president says he's going to bring most troops home by 2014. But we're going to negotiate. Now they have a partnership agreement. They need to negotiate a strategic forces agreement.
GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Right.
KING: What are your biggest concerns? How many troops do you need here to continue the mission, and where might they be vulnerable or not so vulnerable?
MARKS: John, I think the thing to talk about is, what are the functions that need to be performed?
I couldn't get into numbers. It would be a pure guess. But, clearly, in order to -- to sustain an ongoing mission in support of Afghanistan, as it continues to grow in its governance and its legitimacy, the United States has to have a very aggressive intelligence-sharing arrangement.
So we are going to have forces on the ground that will be able to access national intelligence collection capabilities. Those include not only overhead -- those are satellites -- but also ground-based assets that the CIA will continue to run.
So there has to be very strong intelligence. You have to do something with that intelligence, which means there will be a continuing amount of pressure going against known terrorists, pockets of resistance, resistance that exists different places throughout the country.
Now, clearly, in terms of location, it will be in what is called the Federal Administrated Tribal Areas here between Afghanistan and Pakistan...
KING: Help yourself.
MARKS: ... and in the southern regions.
And then as terrorist organizations, offshoots, surrogates of al Qaeda or the Taliban pop up in different locations, the U.S. will track those and go after those.
Now, those are very precise targeting missions. The U.S. will have the lead in that. But in terms of the continuing training mission, the U.S. will be deeply involved in that. But in terms of normal law enforcement and border type operations, the Afghan forces will lead that.
KING: Let me ask you a question in the sense of what happened a year ago tonight was that U.S. special forces from a camp here went across the border when they had bin Laden, went to Abbottabad.
KING: If al-Zawahiri is somehow spotted up in here, or maybe he's down here in Pakistan, does the president -- will a new agreement allow the United States to use Afghanistan as a base to violate Pakistan's sovereignty, which happened a year ago tonight, again, or is that a sensitive subject?
MARKS: John, it's very sensitive.
Afghanistan is going to have to agree to that type of arrangement going forward. And I guarantee you that will be part of the negotiation for the enduring agreement that exists between Afghanistan and the United States.
KING: Let me ask you lastly, it's been a decade at war. The American people are tired of it. The military in some ways is tired of it. Why is it that after 10 years the Afghans are not fully ready?
MARKS: John, it's where they started from.
Many have said -- facetiously, I would say -- that Afghanistan was at the 13th century when we arrived and we're moving it slowly into the 14th century. This is a nation that is only a nation defined by its neighbors. These are very tribal, very, very rustic type of existence.
So how do you take and how do you embed that type of professional ethos that has to be in the law enforcement, as well as the military forces? It takes a lot of time. And we didn't really begin that in earnest until about five or six years ago, after we'd already been there about four or five years.
Remember, when we went into Afghanistan, we accomplished the mission very quickly and then we left, and we left a very small presence. Most of the country was covered by the Afghan forces themselves, and there weren't very many of those.
KING: Appreciate your insights, General Marks.
And, Wolf, it's an important point. As the president prepares to tell the American people he's winding down in Afghanistan, still a lot of questions and a lot of challenges for the next decade.
BLITZER: Yes, still about 90,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan as of right now.
Stand by, everyone. We're just about an hour or so away from the president's address to the American people live from Afghanistan. We will get details about the secret documents also found bin Laden's compound. That's coming in, what they reveal about a terror threat potentially to the United States right now.
COOPER: Hey. Welcome back to our breaking news coverage of President Obama's surprise visit to Afghanistan. We are awaiting the president's address to the nation. He's going to be speaking about the new strategic partnership that he just signed outlining the areas of cooperation between the United States and Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2014, though, of course, U.S. forces, some U.S. forces will still be on the ground. That is the plan after 2014.
Here's some of what the president said to U.S. forces on the ground at Bagram Air Base.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Because of the sacrifices now of a decade and a new greatest generation, not only were we able to blunt the Taliban momentum, not only were we able to drive al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but slowly and systematically, we have been able to decimate the ranks of al Qaeda, and a year ago we were able to finally bring Osama bin Laden to justice.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: The Taliban still obviously very much a presence in Afghanistan, able to operate, not just in the border regions, along Pakistan but also in the heart, in the capital of Kabul as we saw just a few weeks ago.
John King joining me now from Washington -- John.
JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Anderson, thank you so much.
I'm joined right now by a man who knows quite well the intelligence challenge of tracking al Qaeda and its leadership, General Michael Hayden. He's the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
And General Hayden, let me first ask you a question. One year after the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda as a terrorist -- global terrorist entity.
MICHAEL HAYDEN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: John, we're in a good place. And what I want to describe for you now is a measure of our success. Al Qaeda here, al Qaeda main, infinitely less capable of what they were one, three, five, ten years ago. In fact, their ability to conduct the kind of attack they want to conduct, the mass casualty attack against the iconic target, infinitely reduced. So that's really good news. Again a measure of success.
What we've now seen the franchises: al Qaeda in Yemen, al Qaeda in Somalia, al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb and now in Nigeria, Boko Haram. We've seen this metastasizing the al Qaeda threat. That makes it more dangerous. Folks doing my old job makes it a bit more complex.
But again it's good news, because al Qaeda's ability to do that mass attack much reduced. Let me give you a summary. Future attacks against the United States will be less well organized, less complex, less likely to succeed, less lethal if they do succeed. The bad news, John, they could be more numerous.
KING: Could be more numerous. As the president talks about another decade of partnership with Afghanistan, we don't know how many troops. We don't know exactly what it will look like. Is the threat, is the reason for that to keep al Qaeda and the Taliban from reconstituting, or is that threat pretty much gone and it's another challenge, like keeping Iran from expanding its influence and things like that?
HAYDEN: No, and I think the administration has been on point the last several days, pointing out that we are safer but not yet safe. And we need to keep doing what we have been doing to keep this organization where it is now, far less capable.
Now, we went into Afghanistan because of the attacks against us. That's reason enough to stay. But John, life goes on. Things happen. We've gotten more attachments with what goes on inside this country. A lot of people, good people in Afghanistan have pinned their future to us. Have pinned their future to a free, more pluralistic Afghanistan. We owe them something, too.
KING: I was talking earlier about when I flew into Baghdad with then-President Bush in 2006. I know he was advised to take a nondescript military plane. He wanted to take the red, white and blue. We wanted to take Air Force One. We wanted the flag, the picture of the flag on the ground in Baghdad.
President Obama made the same decision today to fly in Tobago. If you were still there, would you advise against that? And why is it ten years -- again, ten years later, why is it so dicey and so dangerous that the president of the United States has to go in under the cover of darkness, and they have to keep it a secret?
HAYDEN: I would have advised him to go in in a vanilla C-17, and I would not have been at all surprised if the sitting president said, "No, we're going on Air Force One because I'm the president of the United States, and my being there with all the symbolism of that office is very important for the message I want to send."
This is a very important visit, John. I mean, to establish -- to put in play President Obama's personal prestige and personal political capital and the future of the American presence in Afghanistan is really important.
KING: Risky, though. You say important. How risky? Ten years later how risky?
HAYDEN: Look, mathematically, I think the risk is very, very low, but mathematically, we've got one president, and that's why we've got to take all these precautions.
KING: General Hayden, appreciate your insights. Wolf, you understand there, a good assessment of the challenge going forward in terms of the terrorist threat and why, again, ten years after, still the president has to go in under the cover of darkness and the cloak of secrecy.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It speaks volumes of how bad the situation remains in Afghanistan right now, that the president of the United States can't visit the country during daylight hours and has to do it in such total, total secrecy.
We're getting excerpts of what the president is going to say in his address in less than an hour from now. We'll share the excerpts with you right when we come back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Some of your buddies are going to get injured, and some of your buddies may get killed, and there's going to be heartbreak and pain, and difficulty ahead. But there's a light on the horizon, because of the sacrifices you've made.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. The president of the United States on the ground in Bagram airbase right now in Afghanistan. Less than an hour from now he'll be addressing the American people. We're just getting in some excerpts of what the president plans on saying. Let's go to our White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar. Brianna, share some of those excerpts with our viewers.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're getting some of these ahead of the president's address here in an hour. Let me read to you off of my BlackBerry. We just got these.
"The Iraq war is over," the president will say. "The number of our troops in harm's way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al Qaeda."
The president in these excerpts released by the White House says, as well, "As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is a time to renew America." And perhaps later in his remarks he says, "This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end."
And Wolf, that's one of the reasons that senior administration officials are giving for why the president is in Afghanistan on this anniversary. We heard from some senior administration officials who said that this was where Osama bin Laden was, that Afghans have suffered a lot. They've suffered a lot because of his actions, and so it's appropriate that the president is there.
BLITZER: Yes, and the president presumably will mention bin Laden's death, exactly one year ago, in his remarks.
Stand by, Brianna. Fareed Zakaria is joining us right now. He's got to be very sensitive in what he says on this, the first anniversary of bin Laden's death, doesn't he, Fareed?
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: He does have to be, and particularly because of what we've all been talking about for the last few days after that campaign ad of his. But I think what that -- those excerpts -- and you know, I'm doing a little bit of reading of tea leaves here -- what it suggests is that President Obama is setting out a strategy which is to say we are done with nation building. We are done even with General Petraeus' broad counter-insurgency strategy, which involved tens of thousands of troops. We are moving to a very narrow counterterrorism mission.
He almost seems to be saying that the war on terror as it had been conceived, articulated and defined for the last decade, is over. It began in Afghanistan, it ended in Afghanistan, and it ended really over the last year with the decimation of al Qaeda, of course, most of that in Pakistan.
So it sounded to me like the new strategic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan is a way for President Obama to say we're transitioning out of nation building. We're moving to counterterrorism, the war is over.
BLITZER: That's what he's going to say, and we're going to hear it from the president in about 45 minutes or so.
Fareed, stand by. I want to go back to Anderson.
COOPER: It's interesting. I'm here with Christiane Amanpour. And no one in the Bush administration and the Obama administration liked to use the termination building, but we have been nation building in Afghanistan, attempting to at least. The question now is, is the Afghan nation ready to stand on its own? Are the security forces, the police, the Afghan national army ready?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Well, precisely that and as Fareed said, yes, that is the message the White House wants to deliver the war is over but is it? We've to stay at least another year before the U.S. forces are there. How many will stay to keep beating back the Taliban? They are not defeated, no matter what spin anybody wants to put on them. Yes, there are areas of progress, but in the east of the country, they're still there.
What about the relationship with Pakistan? Absolutely crucial if the United States wants to leave Afghanistan in any sense of reasonable security, what about Pakistan? That is a relationship, U.S. and Pakistan, that has to be repaired, and it's not.
OBAMA: You can't fight the war in Afghanistan without essentially fighting the war in Pakistan, as well, or at least addressing the safe havens of Pakistan.
AMANPOUR: Well, addressing the relationship and addressing the safe havens. I've already mentioned that President Karzai told me they would not allow drone strikes, which is the counterterrorism weapon of choice of this administration. Won't allow those to take off from Afghanistan to attack any foreign countries. That's what the president told me.
But what about the Afghan forces? There was a great hullabaloo about raising, let's say, nearly -- over a quarter of a million forces. Now that's going to be reduced by at least 100,000, because neither Afghanistan can afford it nor the United States, nor the other international countries.
COOPER: They -- they also had a huge problem with the Afghan national forces with the army and the police, with getting them to re- sign. They give them this training, and then essentially a lot of them, some of them will desert, go back to their homes, go back to farms. Some of them just won't re-sign so all of the training they then have to start again.
AMANPOUR: And what about the spike in Afghan force violence against U.S. and coalition troops recently? That's the most serious spike in violence that we've been seeing over the last several weeks and months. And that is very, very nerve-wracking, frankly, if that is what's going to be relied upon.
And so I think that there's good news, but there's also a huge amount of work still to be done. And this war is not over, and the Taliban have not come to negotiate. And I think that that is something that the U.S. has to really look at. They mustn't waste all this ten years there.
COOPER: It is extraordinary. I mean, I remember being in Afghanistan in May of 2002, I guess it was. And, you know, everyone talking about training the Afghan national army was a huge priority. But then, for years, they dropped the ball on it. They basically moved -- we didn't have a lot of troops on the ground there. We didn't have the capabilities of early training. There was some special forces trying to do training.
But it's really only been in the last couple of years that this has become the primary mission, even though all along, people are paying lip service to that.
AMANPOUR: Exactly for the reasons you mentioned before, there have been all of these challenges towards that. But also in terms of good governance. I mean, one of the aspects under this strategic partnership agreement is to have and maintain good governance and a sovereign democracy in Afghanistan. That's going to be the key.
COOPER: I mean, there's huge corruption issues throughout Afghanistan.
AMANPOUR: And that is really going to be key to how this all plays out. Of course, President Karzai is happy. Because he's saying this is now a relationship that's based on mutual interest, mutual respect, two sovereign nations together, happy that the U.S. won't be bolting. But we'll see how much stays. COOPER: And the devil is in the details and still not a lot of details in this strategic partnership deal that's been signed. The president is going to be speaking less than an hour from now. He's certainly not the first commander in chief to go overseas to, his critics say, score political points with a photo-op. We'll talk about that a little bit ahead.
We're tracking the presidential news conference, coming up. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Getting lots of reaction, the president of the United States making a surprise visit to Afghanistan. He's at the Bagram Airbase right now, getting ready to address the American people, in about 40 minutes or so from now.
I want to go to Jim Acosta. He's covering the Romney campaign for us. Jim Acosta is in Philadelphia. Any reaction from the Romney folks? What are you picking up, Jim?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via phone): Oh, right now, no, Wolf. Actually, it's business as usual right now for Mitt Romney. He and his wife, Ann Romney, are at a fundraiser just outside of Philadelphia. It is a closed fundraiser, so the press is not allowed inside. So I can't get a sense of what he's saying.
But I can tell you that, you know, just by the appearance of not really hearing much from the Romney campaign, that it seems that the presumptive GOP nominee is allowing the president to have this moment.
I will say earlier today, he was at a New York City fire station along with Rudy Giuliani. He did come out and talk to reporters briefly, and I asked him the question whether or not he thought that it was inappropriate for the president to use a White House news conference to sort of call him out on whether or not he would have gone after Osama bin Laden.
And Mitt Romney said, no, he didn't think it was appropriate, but he said the president deserves credit for making that call.
We will see some campaigning from Mitt Romney over the next couple of days. He's going to be in Virginia tomorrow and on Thursday, and as you know, Wolf, that's an important battleground state. So even though the Romney campaign and the candidate himself are laying low right now, that will be changing in short order. You can rest assured that.
BLITZER: Jim Acosta in Philadelphia. Another battleground state, Pennsylvania.
Tom Foreman is here, watching what's going on. Tom, other Republicans are reacting, this being a presidential election year, and we have six months before November.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And they're trending a little bit cautiously. Some, like John McCain, you know, earlier came out and said, really, this is a good thing to make this trip.
But others are saying, because of the timing, because of the Osama bin Laden killing anniversary, because of the election, they want it to be known that they have their doubts about the motivation behind this trip.
FOREMAN: Even with the president still on the ground in Afghanistan, conservative critics back home were going on the attack.
Long-time Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma went after the president, calling the trip campaign related and an attempt to shore up his national security credentials. In short, political grandstanding.
The president has been under fire from the right for several weeks already.
OBAMA: There is nothing that will stop us.
FOREMAN: Republican National Committee has asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate his visits to several battleground states.
OBAMA: And we will finish what we started in 2008.
FOREMAN: Which conservatives complain were really just campaign rallies masquerading as official business.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: You know it, and I know it. It's time for the Obama campaign to pony up and reimburse the treasury.
FOREMAN: Still, he would hardly be the first president to grab headlines with a dramatic journey. Nixon did it in China and Reagan in Berlin.
RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.
FOREMAN: But such high-profile appearances can be a gamble. Exactly nine years ago today, after the invasion of Iraq, President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier 30 miles from California wearing a jet fighter's flight suit to give a speech.
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States and our allies have prevailed.
FOREMAN: Liberals called it pure political theater from the start. As the war descended into years of violence and bloodshed, many other voters seemed to settle on the same opinion.
FOREMAN: It is not at all clear how much appetite the Republicans have for this particular news and criticizing it. But certainly, the blogosphere out there, all the Twitter, all just lighting up with those who are angry about it.
How many? We don't really know, Wolf. But we do know this. What the president says tonight may matter a lot. The justification he gives in the speech as to why he physically went there and whether or not he can blunt that criticism and basically take it off the table.
BLITZER: We'll see how he -- how he does in his speech, which is expected to be about ten minutes.
I want to bring Candy Crowley into this conversation.
Candy, politics in a political season like this. Gloria Borger is here, as well. But Candy, first to you. Should we be at all surprised that people are expressing their political views on a sensitive subject like Afghanistan?
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: I would be surprised if they didn't. Because even if there isn't political motivation and political intent, there is always a political implication, because it's 2012 and it's a presidential election year.
I'm just thinking, so far as this trip is concerned, why you are seeing from most Republicans, in particularly Mitt Romney, being pretty circumspect about this and saying, you know -- you know, the president is over there.
I think part of this is he's over there with the troops. Yes, he's going to give a speech over there. I think this is a significantly different arena than, say, the ad that his reelection campaign put out, using the death of bin Laden and questioning whether Mitt Romney would have made the same decision the president did. I think that was much more political fodder. And the Republicans jumped all over this.
I think in terms of the politicians right now, the president is overseas. So there's a delicacy to this, particularly when he's in a war zone, particularly when he's with U.S. troops, which is something they cheer about. I think Republicans cheer when the commander in chief is over there. I think this is different than the political ad which took so much heat.
BLITZER: You're absolutely right. Gloria, you're here, as well. They have to be really sensitive. I think Romney is being smart. Wait at least until the president is back in Washington. Then you can get into the politics.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Because as much as they complained about the Osama bin Laden ad, which asked the question. And I might point out it's a Web advertisement, which asks the question sort of would Mitt Romney had followed the same path. I think they're being very careful now, because the president is -- is abroad. However, Wolf, I was e-mailing with somebody in the White House who's traveling to Kabul with the president. And I e-mailed before learning that the Republicans were circumspect. I e-mailed, how are we going to counter their criticism? And the response that I got was we're signing a very important agreement that helps bring the war to a close. And he was -- he meaning the president was going to spend today with the troops. What better day to do it than today?
So it's very clear they're aware this is an important anniversary for them. They're bringing an unpopular war -- seven out of 10 Americans oppose it -- to a close. And this is the way they're going to get an awful lot of attention for doing it.
BLITZER: To a certain degree, a lot of the conservative Republicans are more in line with the president's time table in bringing this war in Afghanistan to a close. Another 2 1/2 years of tens of thousands of U.S. troops remaining on the ground. A lot of Democrats would like the president to simply pick up and get out of there right away.
BORGER: In many ways the Republican Party has grown more and more isolationist, much to John McCain's chagrin. And that's because it's become an economic issue, because they believe we cannot afford to continue to fight this war.
The real problem that Mitt Romney has with the president is the withdrawal time table. And essentially, he believes allowing al Qaeda to lay and wait for us to leave and then pounce.
What this agreement is about, though, is saying to the people of Afghanistan that, in fact, we will be there in some way, shape or form beyond 2014 for ten years. And our purpose is to keep al Qaeda from coming back out of the shadows.
BLITZER: And that would not necessarily be what a lot of folks want to hear. Gloria, thanks very much.
We're only about a half an hour or so away from the president of the United States addressing the American people from the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Our special coverage continues right after this.
BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer. Thirty minutes from now, the president of the United States will address the American people.