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Obama, Karzai Meet at White House; Obama, Karzai Give Press Conference on Afghanistan.

Aired January 11, 2013 - 13:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

We're awaiting the president of the United States and the president of Afghanistan. They've been meeting in the Oval Office, very important meeting on the future of U.S./Afghan relations.

The United States still has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan right now. Most of them are supposed to stay there throughout this year. The withdrawal will really get going next year, 2014. All U.S. troops, all U.S. troops, are supposed to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, although negotiations are now under way to see what kind of troop presence will continue after 2014, if any. There could be zero U.S. troops, 3,000, 6,000, 9,000. These are among the issues being discussed right now.

Another critically important issue, how much aid, how much economic assistance, military assistance will U.S. taxpayers to continue to provide to Afghanistan. Right now, it's still costing about $100 billion a year for the United States to maintain that extensive troop presence in Afghanistan. The U.S. had been engaged in Afghanistan now for more than 10 years. This is clearly the longest war in American history.

Let me bring Gloria Borger in.

Politically, it's very unpopular right now. A lot of Americans are saying, why not spend all that money to build schools and roads in the United States as opposed to building schools and roads in Afghanistan.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think the public is very sensitive to that right now. And I also think the president is sensitive to that himself, as is the Pentagon because, of course, they're facing these huge cuts, as Chris knows, and every dollar has to be accounted for. Over half the American public believes things are not going well in Afghanistan. So the question is, how much political capital does the president want to spend by keeping a larger number of troops there on the ground. I mean, I have been told by a few people that the zero option is really more of a negotiating ploy than anything else, that it's not likely to be a zero option. But there is a large difference between zero and 15,000.

BLITZER: Chris, the U.S. wanted to keep a few thousand troops in Iraq, but couldn't, because the Iraqi government or the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, refused to give them immunity from Iraqi prosecution and the U.S. said no troops will stay if they'll be subjected to being arrested by Iraqi police, if you will.

Here is the question. Will the Afghan leadership, the president, Hamid Karzai, agree to give any remaining troops there after 2014 immunity from Afghan prosecution?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It remains to be seen, Wolf. But I spoke with a senior defense official yesterday who has spoken with the Afghan delegation many times and he said sovereignty is very, very important to President Karzai. But that Karzai sees sovereignty more in the prism of owning those prisons. He doesn't like the idea of being U.S. imprisoning Afghans in these military bases. He may be more flexible in terms of giving some legal flexibility to U.S. troops. He didn't see Karzai as inflexible as the Iraqi government, which pretty much says what that they're not --


BORGER: And they don't want that to happen in Iraq, right?



LAWRENCE: Because they're not nearly as far along as the Iraqi forces were.

BORGER: Exactly.

LAWRENCE: Iraq felt to some extent they could handle things on their own and they didn't want the U.S. there.

BLITZER: What do you think, Richard Haass, how big of an issue potentially is this?

RICHARD HAASS, PRESIDENT, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: It didn't work out in Iraq, only in part for the reasons you mentioned, that the Iraqis were not terribly forthcoming. But we didn't push terribly hard. The administration, I believe, was comfortable with the idea of a full withdrawal from Iraq because that had been something the president had talked about.

I think here you could walk this out. This is a sticking point in every base negotiation we have, and every time we want to keep U.S. troops in a foreign country. The most difficult issue is always the question of whether local laws apply. For example, an American serviceman or woman gets in to an automobile accident or fight, does he have to go to local court, go to a local prison, do we take custody and deal with it. So this is not unique to Afghanistan. We've worked this other dozens if not hundreds of times around the world. And in my experience, you can almost always work it out when the local government and U.S. government want something, want there to be the basis for keeping U.S. forces inside the country. BLITZER: You know former Senator Chuck Hagel, Richard. I've covered him for many years. He was skeptical about the wars in Iraq, and Afghanistan, for that matter, and if he's confirmed as the next defense secretary, where do you think he personally will come down on keeping a military presence in Afghanistan?

HAASS: He and I have talked about Afghanistan. We've not talked about that particular issue. My hunch is he would be comfortable, as are most people in the national security realm, although, I won't speak for him, about keeping a residual force. The cost would be relatively small. It would allow you to do some continued training and advising. It would allow to you do limited counterterrorism. It avoids looking like you're pulling out the rug. So in some ways, it is protects the United States somewhat from the argument that we've, quote/unquote, "abandoned Afghanistan." Though after a decade, it's hard to argue that we would be doing so.

So the only danger it seems to me is if you have small forces, they often can accomplish a lot. And then are they there to baby-sit, to use a terrible phrase, a country that's unraveling. What is it you do if things get really bad? You don't want to beef them up. Do you pull out under extraordinarily difficult circumstances? So the biggest risk it seems to me whenever you keep small forces in a messy situation is they're simply big enough to get into trouble and not to really change the trajectory of things on the ground.

So if I were in Mr. Hagel's shoes or the president's shoes, that's the biggest question, can a small force accomplish enough to offset the risks that could, very easily, be proved impotent in the face of events.

BLITZER: I think Brianna Keilar, our White House correspondent, can join us right now.

Brianna, are we getting closer? Are those seats filling up there?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. We got the two-minute warning before President Obama comes in and we're starting to see problems of the U.S. delegation trickle in to the room.

But just a note that this is the third time this week we've been in the East Room this week before, the other two times for personnel appointments. And those appointments to his cabinet will be key, of course, in this relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan. In fact, it was in 2008 when then-Senators Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry -- Chuck Hagel his pick to be defense secretary, John Kerry his pick to head up the State Department -- went to Afghanistan and actually met with Hamid Karzai. They had a very contentious meeting with him as they confronted the issue of corruption in Afghanistan. So certainly this is a relationship that that has had tension over the years, as we've been talking about. And that is something as well that these new picks for the president's national security team and foreign relations team are going to be confronting and they certainly have experience with -- Wolf? BLITZER: All right, Brianna, sit down. We're in that two minute warning. I think they will be announcing the introduction of the two presidents walking in will. I think the format will be opening statements, first, by President Obama, an opening statement by President Hamid Karzai, and then questions, a very limited number of questions. I think two questions maybe from each side, from the Afghan side, from the U.S. side, and then they will answer questions.

The president of the United States and the president of Afghanistan, they've been meeting in the Oval Office now. This follows President Karzai's meetings yesterday with the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, earlier with the defense secretary, Leon Panetta. An important visit to the United States.

Lots of questions, though, about Hamid Karzai. Can he really be trusted by the U.S.? Can he really deliver? Does he have the clout within his own country to make things work? And what about al Qaeda in Afghanistan? How strong is al Qaeda? We've heard in recent weeks and months that the al Qaeda presence is limited.

Here come the two presidents, so let's listen to their opening statements.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon, everybody. Please have a seat. It is my pleasure to welcome President Karzai back to the White House, as well as his delegation. We last saw each other during the NATO summit in my hometown of Chicago, a city that reflects the friendship between our peoples, including many Afghan-Americans, as well as the Karzai family. So, Mr. President, welcome.

We meet at a critical moment. The 33,000 additional forces that I ordered to Afghanistan have served with honor. They've completed their mission and, as promised, returned home this past fall. The transition is well under way and soon nearly 90 percent of Afghans will live in areas where Afghan forces are in the lead for their own security. This year will mark another milestone. Afghan forces will take the lead for security across the entire country. And by the end of next year, 2014, the transition will be complete. Afghans will have full responsibility for their security, and this war will come to a responsible end. This progress is only possible because (sic) the incredible sacrifices of our troops and our diplomats, the forces of our many coalition partners, and the Afghan people, who've endured extraordinary hardship. In this war, more than 2000 of America's sons and daughters have given their lives. These are patriots that we honor today, tomorrow, and forever. And as we announced today, the next month I will present our nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, to Staff Sergeant Clinton Romashey (ph) for his heroic service in Afghanistan. Today, because of the courage of our citizens, President Karzai and I have been able to review our shared strategy. With the devastating blows we've struck against Al Qaida, our core objective, the reason we went to war in the first place is now within reach: ensuring that Al Qaida can never again use Afghanistan to launch attacks against our country.

At the same time, we pushed the Taliban out of their strongholds. Today most major cities and most Afghans are more secure and insurgents have continued to lose territory. Meanwhile, Afghan forces continue to grow stronger. As planned, some 352,000 Afghan soldiers and police are now in training or on duty. Most missions are already being lead by Afghan forces. And of all the men and women in uniform in Afghanistan, the vast majority are Afghans who are fighting and dying for their country every day. We still face significant challenges. But because of this progress, our transition is on track. At the NATO summit last year, we agreed with our coalition partners that Afghan forces will take the lead for security in mid-2013. President Karzai and his team have been here for several days. We've shared a vision for how we're going to move ahead. We've consulted with our coalition partners, and we will continue to do so. And today we agreed that, as Afghan forces take the lead and as President Karzai announces the final phase of the transition, coalition forces will move to a support role this spring. Our troops will continue to fight alongside Afghans when needed, but let me say it as plainly as I can. Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission: training, advising, assisting Afghan forces. It will be a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty, something I know that President Karzai cares deeply about, as do the Afghan people. This sets the stage for the further reduction of coalition forces. We've already reduced our presence in Afghanistan to roughly 66,000 U.S. troops. I've pledged we'll continue to bring our forces home at a steady pace. And in the coming months, I'll announce the next phase of our drawdown, a responsible drawdown that protects the gains our troops have made. President Karzai and I also discussed the nature of our security cooperation after 2014. Our teams continue to work toward a security agreement, and as they do, they will be guided by our respect for Afghan sovereignty and by our two long-term tasks, which will be very specific and very narrow: first, training and assisting Afghan forces; and, second, targeting counterterrorism missions-targeted counterterrorism missions against Al Qaida and its affiliates. Our discussions will focus on how best to achieve these two tasks after 2014, and it's our hope that we can reach an agreement this year. Ultimately, security gains must be matched by political progress. So we recommitted our nations to a reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban. President Karzai updated me on the Afghan government's road map to peace, and today we agreed that this process should be advanced by the opening of a Taliban office to facilitate talks. Reconciliation also requires constructive support from across the region, including Pakistan. We welcome recent steps that have been taken in that regard, and we'll look for more tangible steps, because a stable and secure Afghanistan is in the interests not only of the Afghan people and the United States, but of the entire region. And finally, we reaffirmed the strategic partnership that we signed last year in Kabul, an enduring partnership between two sovereign nations. This includes deepening ties of trade, commerce, strengthening institutions, development, education, and opportunities for all Afghans-men and women, boys and girls. And this sends a clear message to Afghans and to the region: As Afghans stand up, they will not stand alone. The United States and the world stands with them.

Now, let me close by saying that this continues to be a very difficult mission. Our forces continue to serve and make tremendous sacrifices every day. The Afghan people make significant sacrifices every day. Afghan forces still need to grow stronger. We remain vigilant against insider attacks. Lasting peace and security will require governance and development that delivers for the Afghan people and an end to safe havens for Al Qaida and its ilk. All of this will continue to be our work. But make no mistake, our path is clear, and we are moving forward. Every day, more Afghans are stepping up, and taking more responsibility for their own security. And as they do, our troops will come home. And next year, this long war will come to a responsible end. President Karzai, I thank you, and your delegation for the progress we've made together, and for your commitment to the goals that we share; a strong and sovereign Afghanistan, where Afghans find security, peace, prosperity, and dignity. And in pursuit of that future, Afghanistan will have a long term partner in the United States of America. Mr. President? HAMID KARZAI, PRESIDENT OF AFGHANISTAN: Thank you. Thank you very much. I want to start off with your warm welcome to me and the Afghan delegation on this visit to Washington, and for bearing with us, as I mentioned, during our talks in the warehouse with all of the crowds that we had there. The president and I discussed today, and in great detail, all of the relevant issues between the two countries.

I was happy to see that we have made progress on some of the important issues for Afghanistan. Concerning Afghan sovereignty, we agreed on the complete return of detention centers, and detainees to Afghan sovereignty. And that this will be implemented soon after my return to Afghanistan. We also discussed all aspects of transition to Afghan governance and security. I'm very happy to hear from the president, as we also discussed it earlier, that in spring this year, the Afghan forces will be fully responsible for providing security and protection to the Afghan people, and that the international forces, the American forces, will be no longer presential (ph) Afghan villages, that the task will be that of the Afghan forces to provide for the Afghan people in security and protection. That we also agreed to-on the steps that we should be taking to-in the peace process, which is of high strategy (ph) for Afghanistan. We agreed on allowing a Taliban office in-in Qatar, in-in Durick (ph) where the Taliban will engage in direct talks with the representatives of the Afghan high counsel for peace, where we will be seeking the help of relevant regional countries, including Pakistan, where we will be trying our best together with the United States and our other allies to return peace and stability to Afghanistan as soon as possible, and employing all the means that are within our power to do that. So the Afghan people can live in security and peace and work for their prosperity and educate their children. The president and I also discussed the economic transition in Afghanistan and all that entails for Afghanistan. Once the transition to Afghan forces is completed once the bulk of these international forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan, we hope that the dividends of that transition economically for Afghanistan will be beneficial to the Afghan people and will not have adverse effects on Afghan economy and the prosperity that we have gained in the past many years. We also discussed the issue of election in Afghanistan and the importance of elections for the Afghan people, and with the hope that we'll be conducting a free and fair election in Afghanistan where our friends in the international community, in particular the United States, will be assisting in conducting those elections, of course, where Afghanistan will have the right environment for conducting elections without interference and without undue concerns in that regard for the Afghan people. We also discussed in a bit of detail and in the environment we have, all aspects of the bilateral security agreement between Afghanistan and the United States. And I informed the president that the Afghan people already in the loya jurga that we called for the strategic partnership agreement between us and the United States, has given their approval to this relationship and they value it as one that's good for Afghanistan.

So, in that context, the bilateral security agreement is one that the Afghan people approve, and I am sure we will conduct it in detail where both the interests of the United States and the interests of Afghanistan will be kept in mind. We had a number of other issues also to talk about. During our conversations and perhaps many times in-in that conversation- beginning with the conversation, of course, I thanked the president for the help that the United States has given to the Afghan people, for all that we have gained in the past 10 years, and that those gains will be kept by any standards while we are working for peaces (sic) and stability in Afghanistan, including the respect for Afghan constitution. I also thanked the president and endorsed (ph) with him the sacrifices of American men and women in uniform, and those of other countries. Accordingly, I also informed President Obama of the sacrifices of the Afghan people-the immense sacrifices of the Afghan people in the past 10 years. Both of our servicemen and of the Afghan people. I'll be going back to Afghanistan this evening to bring to the Afghan people the news of Afghanistan standing shoulder to shoulder with America as a sovereign, independent country. But in cooperation and in partnership. Thank you Mr. President for the hospitality. OBAMA: Thank you very much, Mr. President. OK, we've got two questions each, I think, from-we'll start with Scott Wilson (ph) of Washington Post.

QUESTION: Mr. President, does moving up the deadline for the transition to an Afghan security role lead to the Spring mean you'll be winding down U.S. troops faster than you expected this year? And, as specifically as possible, how many troops do you expect to leave in Afghanistan beyond 2014 for the two missions you outlined? And would you consider leaving any troops in Afghanistan beyond that date without an immunity agreement for their actions? And, President Karzai, you've spoken often about the threat the American presence in Afghanistan poses to the-your nation's sovereignty, but I'm wondering if you will be considering and working on behalf of an immunity agreement to preserve some U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the 2014 date and how many U.S. troops you would accept after that time. Thank you.

OBAMA: OK. Our first task has been to meet the transition plan that we set first in Lisbon, then in Chicago. And because of the progress that's been made by our troops, because of the progress that's been made in terms of Afghan security forces, their capacity to take the lead, we are able to meet those goals and accelerate them somewhat. So let me repeat. What's going to happen this spring is that Afghans will be in the lead throughout the country. That doesn't mean that coalition forces, including U.S. forces, are no longer fighting. They will still be fighting alongside Afghan troops. It does mean, though, that Afghans will have taken the lead and our presence, the nature of our work will be different. We will be in a training, assisting, advising role. Obviously, we will still have troops there, and that means that our men and women will still be in harm's way, that there will still be the need for force protection. You know, the environment is going to still be very dangerous. But what we've seen is, is that Afghan soldiers are stepping up at great risk to themselves. And that allows us then to make this transition during the spring. What that translates into precisely in terms of how this drawdown of U.S. troops proceeds is something that isn't yet fully determined. I'm going to be over the coming weeks getting recommendations from General Allen and other commanders on the ground. They will be designing and shaping a responsible plan to make sure that we're not losing the gains that have already been made, to make sure that we're in a position to support Afghan units when they're in theater, and to make sure that our folks are also protected, even as we're drawing down. So I can't give you a precise number at this point. I'll probably make a separate announcement once I've gotten recommendations from troops-from the generals and our commanders, in terms of what that drawdown might look like. With respect to post-2014, we've got two goals, and the-our main conversation today was establishing a meeting of the minds in terms of what those goals would be, with a follow-on presence of U.S. troops. Number one, to train, assist and advise Afghan forces so that they can maintain their own security and, number two, making sure that we can continue to go after remnants of Al Qaida or other affiliates that might threaten our homeland. That is a very limited mission, and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint, obviously, that we've had over the last 10 years in Afghanistan.

OBAMA: Similar to the issue of drawdown, I'm still getting recommendations from the Pentagon, and our commanders on the ground in terms of what that would look like. And when we have more information about that, I will be describing that to the American people. I think President Karzai's primary concern, and obviously you'll hear directly from him, is making sure that Afghan sovereignty is respected. And if we have a follow on force of any sort past 2014, it's got to be at the invitation of-of the Afghan government, and they have to feel comfortable with it. I will say, and I've said to President Karzai, that we have arrangements like this with countries all around the world. And no where do we have any kind of security agreement with a country without immunity for our troops. You know that's how I, as commander in chief, can make sure that our folks are protected in carrying out very difficult missions. And so I think President Karzai understands that. I don't want to get ahead of ourselves in terms of the negotiations that are still remaining on the bilateral security agreement. But I think it's fair to say that, from my perspective at least, it will not be possible for us to have any kind of U.S. troop presence post-2014 without assurances that our men and women who are operating there are in-in some way subject to the jurisdiction of another country.

KARZAI: Well, sir, the bilateral security agreement is in mind for the interest of both countries.