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Obama to Delay Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired October 15, 2015 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The Taliban is making gains in parts of the country the United States was not anticipating and the White House, when you talk to senior administration officials and I talked to them last night, they said this is because the U.S. wants to leave Afghanistan in a better place at some point. Of course, that won't happen under President Obama's watch. But they want to make sure these Afghan security officials are trained adequately, they're not at that point yet according to administration officials, and they want to continue to conduct thse counterterrorism operations, not just against al Qaeda and remnants of al Qaeda, but potentially against ISIS. ISIS is starting to make gains in Afghanistan. If ISIS is deemed to be threatening the homeland, the U.S. homeland from Afghanistan, U.S. forces could potentially go after them in Afghanistan under this new security arrangement. Now, the president, as you said, John, this is part of his legacy. He had hoped to end two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, by the time he leaves office. John, it is arguable he will do neither of those things when he hands over the White House to his successor.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: As with speak, more than 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, 9800 in Afghanistan that will stay there through 2016, 5500 that will stay there as the next president takes office. We're looking at life pictures of the Roosevelt Room where any second now President Obama will walk to that lectern and deliver the news that he is halting a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and will maintain current troop levels through the end of this year and next year as well.

This largely, Jim Sciutto, on the advice of military officials who have been studying the situation on the ground. The U.S. military wanted this decision. Why?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Because of the reality on the ground. The fall of Kunduz in the last couple of weeks, although that has been gain back, shows the strength of the Taliban. It's something they knew before the fall of Kunduz. The Taliban is active in many parts of the country that they have been virtually cleared out from and even getting closer to Kabul as well. There is talk of danger to Ghazni (ph), which only 80 miles or so from Kabul, the capitol. So they saw that reality on the ground communicated it to the president.

But I think we should keep in mind that this is not just an extension of troop presence, but also an expansion. As Jim noted, you have another target now. It is not just the Taliban. It is ISIS on the ground there. The administration will often refer to these as counter-terror operations but really they're military operations as well. U.S. troops are still militarily active on the ground in Afghanistan and now they have a new adversary because ISIS is building its presence there as well, which speaks to this question, how long do those troops stay beyond 2017? What will the necessity be? Will keeping fewer than 10,000 troops on the ground for another year and a half dramatically change the situation on the ground? That's an open question. It's going to be a question for the next president.

I'll tell you, John, one more thing. In the background here, thoughts of Iraq. They have to be. Remember, this is a president who pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq. Of course, as you said, the Iraqis didn't want him there, but this is a decision that happened on his watch. We saw what happened in Iraq with the advance of ISIS there. You have to think and believe that that experience colored this decision by the president to maintain a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan.

BERMAN: No doubt.

Defense One, which is a military media site, said today America's longest war just got longer.

Senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, we have about 40 seconds until President Obama walks up to that lectern. You spent so much time in Afghanistan. The new leadership, the new president, Ashraf Ghani, considered perhaps an easier ally to work with for the United States, he, too, wants this extend, in some cases, increased troop presence there?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. Ashraf Ghani, he is one of a fractured government. Yes, he's very Western-friendly, a much better partner. But he's sharing the government with who he fought the election against, Abdullah Abdullah. They've yet to find a common defense minister they can agree upon. So it is a fractured administration and that hobbles the ramshackle elements of the Afghan security force, who are supposed to be doing the job of securing Afghanistan --


BERMAN: Nick, the president is approaching the lectern right now. President Obama with Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joseph Dunford. Let's listen.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good morning. Last December, more than 13 years after our nation was attacked by Al Qaida on 9/11, America's combat mission in Afghanistan came to a responsible end. That milestone was achieved thanks to the courage and the skill of our military, our intelligence and civilian personnel.

They served there with extraordinary skill and valor, and it's worth remembering especially the more than 2,200 American patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. OBAMA: I visited our troops in Afghanistan last year to thank

them on behalf of a grateful nation. I told them they could take great pride in the progress that they helped achieve. They struck devastating blows against the Al Qaida leadership in the tribal regions, delivered justice to Osama bin Laden, prevented terrorist attacks and saved American lives. They pushed the Taliban back of the Afghan people could reclaim their communities, send their daughters to school and improve their lives.

Our troops trained Afghan forces so they could take the lead for their own security. And protect Afghans as they voted in historic elections, leading to the first Democratic transfer of power in their country's history.

Today, American forces no longer patrol Afghan villages or valleys. Our troops are not engaged in major ground combat against the Taliban. Those missions now belong to Afghans, who are fully responsible for securing their country.

But as I've said before, while America's combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures. As commander-in-chief, I will not allow Afghan is 10 to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again. Our forces therefore remain engaged in two narrow but critical missions: training Afghan forces and supporting counter-terrorist operations against the remnants of Al Qaida.

Of course, compared to the 100,000 troops we once had in Afghanistan, today, fewer than 10,000 remain and support these very focused missions. I meet regularly with my national security team, including commanders in Afghanistan to continually assess honestly the situation on the ground, to determine where our strategy is working and where we may need greater flexibility.

I have insisted consistently that our strategy focus on the development of a sustainable Afghan capacity and self-sufficiency. And when we have needed additional forces to advance that goal, or we have needed to make adjustments in terms of our timetables, then we have made those adjustments.

Today, I want to update the American people on our efforts. Since taking the lead for security earlier this year, Afghan forces have continued to step up. This has been the first fighting season were Afghans have largely been on their own, and they are fighting for their country bravely and tenaciously. Afghan forces continued to hold most urban areas. And when the Taliban has made gains, as in Kunduz, Afghan forces backed by coalition support have been able to push them back.

This has come at a very heavy price. This year alone, thousands of Afghan troops and police have lost their lives as have many Afghan civilians.

At the same time, Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be. They are developing critical capabilities, intelligence, logistics, aviation, command and control. And meanwhile, the Taliban has made gains, particularly in rural areas, and can still deadly launch attacks in cities, including Kabul. Much of this was predictable; we understood that as we transitioned, that the Taliban would try to exploit some of our movements out of particular areas and that it would take time for Afghan Security Forces to strengthen.

Pressure from Pakistan has resulted in more Al Qaida coming into Afghanistan, and we have seen the emergence of an ISIL presence. The bottom line is, in key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile. And in some places there is risk of deterioration. Fortunately, in President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah, there is a National Unity Government that supports a strong partnership with the United States.

During their visit earlier this year, President Ghani and I agreed to continue our counterterrorism cooperation, and he has asked for continued support as Afghan forces grow stronger.

Following consultations with my entire national security team, as well as our international partners and members of Congress, President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah, I am therefore announcing the following steps, which I am convinced offer the best possibility for a lasting progress in Afghanistan.

OBAMA: First, I have decided to maintain our current posture of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of next year, 2016. Their mission will not change. Our troops will continue to pursue those two narrow tasks that I outlined earlier: training Afghan forces and going after Al Qaida. But maintaining our current posture through most of next year, rather than a more rapid drawdown will allow us to sustain our efforts to train and assist Afghan forces as they grow stronger not only during this fighting season, but into the next one.

Second, I've decided that instead of going down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul by the end of 2016, we will maintain 5,500 troops, a small number of bases, including at Bagram, Jalalabad in the east, and Kandahar in the south. Again, the mission will not change. Our troops will focus on training Afghans and counterterrorism operations, but these bases will give us the presence and the reach our forces require to achieve their mission.

In this sense, Afghanistan is a key piece of the network of counterterrorism partnerships that we need from South Asia to Africa, to deal more broadly with terrorist threats quickly and prevent attacks against our homeland.

Third, we will work with allies and partners to align the steps I'm announcing today with their own presence in Afghanistan after 2016. In Afghanistan, we are part of a 42-nation coalition and our NATO allies and partners can continue to play an indispensable role in helping Afghanistan strengthen its security forces, including respect for human rights.

And finally, because governance and development remain the foundation for stability and progress in Afghanistan, we will continue to support President Ghani and the national unity government as they pursue critical reforms. New provincial governors have been appointed and President Ghani is working to combat corruption, to strengthen institutions, and uphold rule of law.

As I told President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah yesterday, efforts that deliver progress and justice for the Afghan people will continue to have the strong support of the United States. And we cannot separate the importance of governance with the issues of security. The more effective these reforms happen, the better off the security situation is going to be.

We also discussed American support of an Afghan-led reconciliation process. By now, it should be clear to the Taliban and all who oppose Afghanistan's progress, the only real way to achieve the full drawdown of U.S. and foreign troops from Afghanistan is through a lasting political settlement with the Afghan government. Likewise, sanctuaries for the Taliban and other terrorists must end.

Next week, I'll host Prime Minister Sharif of Pakistan and I will continue to urge all parties in the region to press the Taliban to return to peace talks and to do their part in pursuit of the peace that Afghans deserve.

In closing, I want to speak directly to those whose lives are most directly affected by the decisions I'm announcing today. To the Afghan people who have suffered so much, Americans' commitment to you and to a secure, stable and unified Afghanistan, that remains firm. Our two nations have forged a strategic partnership for the long term. And as you defend and build your country, today is a reminder that the United States keeps our commitments.

And to our men and women in uniform, I know this means that some of you will rotate back into Afghanistan. With the end of our combat mission, this is not like 2010 when nearly 500 Americans and many more were injured. But still, Afghanistan remains dangerous. Twenty-five brave Americans have given their lives there this year.

I do not send you into harm's way lightly. It's the most solemn decision that I make. I know the wages of war and the wounded warriors I visit in the hospital, and in the grief of Gold Star families. But as your commander in chief, I believe this mission is vital to our national security interests in preventing terrorist attacks against our citizens and our nation.

OBAMA: And to the American people, I know that many of you have grown weary of this conflict. As you are well aware, I do not support the idea of endless war. And I have repeatedly argued against marching into open-ended military conflicts that do not serve our core security interests. Yet, given what's at stake in Afghanistan and the opportunity for a stable and committed ally that can partner with us in preventing the emergence of future threats, and the fact that we have an international coalition, I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort.

In the Afghan government, we have a serious partner who want our help. And the majority of the Afghan people share our goals. We have a bilateral security agreement to guide our cooperation. At every single day, Afghan forces are out there fighting and dying to protect their country. They are not looking for us to do it for them. I am speaking of the Afghan army cadet who grew up seeing bombings and attacks on innocent civilians who said, because of this, I took the decision to join the army to try and save innocent people's lives.

O'er the police officer trained to defuse explosions -- explosives. I know it's dangerous work he says, but I've always dreamed of wearing the uniform of Afghanistan, serving my people and defending my country.. Or the Afghan commando, a hardened veteran of many missions who said, if I start telling you the stories of my life, I might start crying.

He serves he said, because the faster we bring peace, the faster we can bring education, and the stronger our unity will grow. Only after these things happen will Afghanistan be able to stand up for itself. My fellow Americans, after so many years of war, Afghanistan will not be a perfect place. It is a poor country that will have to work hard on its development.

There will continue to be could contested areas. But Afghans like these are standing up for the country. If they were to fail, they would endanger the security of us all. And we have made enormous investments in a stable Afghanistan. Afghans are making difficult but genuine progress. This modest, but meaningful extension of our presence, while sticking to our current, narrow missions, can make a difference. It is the right thing to do.

May God bless our troops and all who keep us safe and may God continue to bless the United States of America.

QUESTION: Mr. President, can you tell us how disappointing this decision is for you? If you could tell us how disappointing this decision is for you?

OBAMA: This decision is not disappointing. Continually, my goal has been to make sure that we give every opportunity for Afghanistan to succeed while we are still making sure that we're meeting our core missions. And as I have continually said, my approach is to assess the situation on the ground, to figure out what is working, and figure out what is not working, and make adjustments where necessary. This isn't the first time those adjustments have been made and this probably won't be the last.

What I'm encouraged by is the fact that we have a government that is serious about trying to deliver security and the prospects of a better life for the Afghan people. We have a clear majority of the Afghans who want to partner with us and the international community to achieve those goals. We have a bilateral security arrangement that ensures that our troops can operate in ways that protect them while still achieving their mission. And we've always known that we had to maintain a counterterrorism operation in that region in order to tamp down any reemergence of active Al Qaeda networks or other networks that might do us harm.

So, this is consistent with the overall vision that we have had. And, frankly, we anticipated, as we were drawing down troops that there were be times where we might need to slow things down or fill gaps in Afghan capacity. This is a reflection of that.

OBAMA: It's a dangerous area, so part of what we are trying to balance is making sure that Afghans are out there doing what they need to do, but that we are giving them a chance to succeed and that we're making sure that our force posture in the area for conducting those narrow missions that we need to conduct, we can do so relatively safely.

There's still risks involved, but force protection, the ability of our embassies to operate effectively, those things all factor in. And so we've got to constantly review these approaches. The important thing I want to emphasize, though, is that the nature of the mission has not changed and the cessation of our combat role has not changed.

Now, the 25 military and civilians who were killed last year, that always weighs on my mind, and 25 deaths are 25 too many, particularly for the families of the fallen. But understand relative to what was involved when we were in an active combat role and actively engaged in war in Afghanistan was a very different scenario.

So here, you have a situation where we have clarity about what our mission is, we've got a partner who wants to work with us, we're going to continually make adjustments to ensure that we give the best possibilities for success and I suspect that we will continue to evaluate this going forward, as will the next president. And as conditions improve, we'll be in a position to make further adjustments.

But I'm absolutely confident this is the right thing to do, and I'm not disappointed because my view has always been how do we achieve our goals while minimizing the strain and exposure on our men and women in uniform and make sure that we are constantly encouraging and sending a message to the Afghan people this is their country and they've got to defend it. But we're going to be a steady partner for them.

OK. Thank you, everybody.

[11:22:06] BERMAN: A major announcement from President Obama from the Roosevelt Room, one you can expect he did not want to have to make. He will not end the U.S. war in Afghanistan. That war will not be over by the time he leaves office. The president announced he will maintain 9800 U.S. troops through 2016. 5500 U.S. troops will still be in Afghanistan when the next president takes office. The mission of those troops, two-told, to train Afghan forces and to find and fight al Qaeda. The reason for this extension, the reason for this reversal of a planned pullout is simply because the Afghan forces, as constituted inside that country right now, are not as strong as they need to be. Those words from President Obama from the Roosevelt Room, just a little more than a year after he made the announcement from the Rose Garden that the U.S. would be pulling out of Afghanistan. So a major reversal in policy.

I want to bring in Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

General Hertling, explain to me, explain to our viewers what can 9800 troops do. What will those troops be able to do over the next year that 5500 cannot do? And what will they be able to do that 30,000 would not be able to do better?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yeah, John, the military conducts something they call troop-to-task analysis as part of a campaign plan. Based on a lot of situations, the enemy, what the terrain looks like, what needs to be done, the mission they're assigned, the influence of other allies, and the president mentioned allies, but that's specifically NATO in this case, because he received a lot of information at the NATO ministerial. You do an analysis and say here's the mission is and what we need to conduct that. 9800 will hit the two mission sets that he said, counterterrorism and the continued train-and-equip mission of Afghan force. That is what will occupy their time. But when you talk about a resurgence of al Qaeda, potential new ISIS targets, and an increased resurgence of Taliban, the counter-terrorism force is going to have to be larger. At same time, the emphasis on training and equipping more of the Afghan security forces is going to have to go at a higher pace. You need more forces to do that.

BERMAN: Jim Sciutto?

SCIUTTO: A of couple points here. First of all, as you note, John, this was a damning assessment of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. In the president's word, he says "It's fragile and a risk of deterioration." In other words, they're concerned the Taliban will gain more ground unless the U.S. stays, and along with Afghan forces, pushes them back.

But it's interesting here. The president calls this a counter-terror operation against al Qaeda particularly. Remember, when Kunduz fell, you had U.S. troops there helping to call in air strikes. In fact, as you remember, you had an American air strike that hit the MSF, Medicins San Frontieres, hospital there. It is not just a counter- terror operation. You still have U.S. troops doing combat support for Afghan forces because Afghan forces on their own haven't been able to fight back the Taliban. There's fudging of the language there. Earlier on, the president said all major combat operations have stopped. That's true. The major ones have. But let's be frank, combat has not stopped because those Afghan troops need support. As the president said, that's vital not only to the security of the country but to also preventing Afghanistan being used as a base for terror strikes against the U.S., as they did during 9/11. The concern -- he didn't mention it, but it is true, it's not just al Qaeda they're concerned about. It is now ISIS as well. You have two enemies on the ground in addition to supporting combat forces from the Afghan side.

[11:25:56] BERMAN: Nick Paton Walsh, a cornerstone of the Obama foreign policy right now and over the last few years has been to train other country's forces, to train forces in Iraq, to train forces in Afghanistan and, yes, even to train forces inside Syria to take the battle to the terrorists. Now, in each one of these places, we have found it could not be done as fast or as effectively as the U.S. had wanted. How much of an admission is it that this strategy is flawed?

PATON WALSH: That's a final reflection of the reality. My understanding is, in 2011, on background, listening to the phrase, "The tide of war is receding," coming from Barack Obama's lips. Ever since then, we had a steady drip of narrative that the Afghan security forces were up to the job, that they were getting into the fight and they increasingly didn't need U.S. support to back them up, when, come 2014, when they had to take security of the whole country, they would be up to the job. It didn't ring right then, frankly. And we've heard so many speeches of Barack Obama like this one that listed the achievements. This one different, though, because, as Jim pointed out, recognizing the fact that in some areas the forces simply aren't as good as they need to be.

We've spoken ourselves to an Afghan soldier, a captain, who fled the front line of Kunduz fighting the Taliban and is now in Germany, in fact, in Brussels, saying he couldn't get the ammunition, the food, the fuel he needed to do the job there because corruption and medicinal supplies were endemic through the Afghan national security ranks. There was always a problem that, potentially when the American money, when the American supervision began to dry up, you'd start to see the vital supply chains, the discipline begin to crumble. A new force, a force often plagued with simple problems like literacy, Afghan soldiers unable to read instructions on the weapons or things they were being given by their well-equipped Western paymasters at time. A massively complex challenges, but it is remarkable to hear Barack Obama, after so much of the Pentagon's effort has been in the past four years, drumming that narrative in, the Afghan national security forces will be up to the job, it's clear, sadly, terribly, that they haven't been and Kunduz and other parts of the country where 30 of 34 provinces are now racked by violence, the refugees inside Afghanistan itself. There's not really much choice the White House has had. He didn't want to continue the war indefinitely. There's not public appetite for that. There was always going to be a point where the stabilizers had to come off. The Afghan army, Afghan government had to be left to fend for themselves. But what we're seeing here, though, is an administration that always wants to be seen to be doing something, but only just enough for that to have been recognized. It doesn't matter if we change the contribution on the ground. It stays what it is now until, effectively, he leaves office. It potentially buys the Afghan security forces a little more time but it is, frankly, a recognition of what happened in Iraq, a bid for that not to be his legacy, too, in Afghanistan. A president who wanted to say the tide of war is receding, but gam (ph) that with what he referred to as the good war, Afghanistan, in which he ordered the surge. Frankly it worked in some areas but it was never going to be able to last forever. Now, sadly, there is a reflection in Afghanistan the American troops left behind wasn't able to fend for itself just yet -- John?

BERMAN: I want to bring in CNN historian, Douglas Brinkley, for a little perspective here.

Doug, the president was asked one question after he made this announcement from a reporter. I couldn't tell who it was. Effectively, the question was, are you disappointed that you have to make this announcement? The president claimed, no. However, he also did make clear he is not a support who ever supported endless war. Endless war, I mean, if Afghanistan at this point is not an endless war, I'm not sure what is.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, the president began his address by saying, in a victorious way, that the combat mission in Afghanistan has been achieved. And then he gave the big "but." But we still need to leave 9800 soldiers there. So the president does not want to be known for -- he had always said he wanted to get us out of the Afghanistan situation, but, hence, as you're pointing out, it kind of is an endless war.