White House Press Briefing on President Obama’s Visit to Afghanistan

En Route Joint Base Andrews—(ENEWSPF)—December 3, 2010 – 12:35 A.M. AFT

 Briefing conducted aboard Air Force One by General Lute and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Rhodes.

MR. RHODES:  Hey, guys, thanks for doing this — we want to do this quick at the beginning.  So I’ll just say a few things and then Doug Lute will take over and he can read out the call with President Karzai and a number of the other meetings that the President had.

We just talked to the President.  He was very moved by this visit and by the troops that he interacted with, by how many of the troops — and Doug can speak to this, too — told him that the thing that’s on their mind is their families back home and that the American people are supporting our military families as strong as they support our troops; that the President thought it was a very good visit to get pretty substantive briefings — and Doug can speak to this — from different components of our team in Afghanistan as well, above all, as his time he was able to spend with the troops in various forms that Doug can speak to — working the rope line several times, and hearing directly from them.

So, Doug.

GENERAL LUTE:  The first thing I’d highlight is just Ben’s point about the importance and recurring theme being the importance that the troops feel about America being behind them. They do feel that support from the country.  When asked repeatedly by the President, well, what can I do for you, basically they said, just tell the American people to support our families while we’re away.  That leaves us to focus on the mission here.  Rest assured that our families are being taken care of.

So it was really moving to hear that.  This is from a series of groups who had not interacted.  So starting with folks we had talked to on the airplane, asking what could the President announce here, and repeatedly they said, consistently they said, support for our families.  So that was very moving.

The Karzai call — it was about a 15-minute call.  Unfortunately, weather and some technical difficulties between the palace and Bagram interfered with plans — originally, obviously the plan was to go there.  But the weather intervened.

We also wanted to visit the embassy while we were there.  So we were unable to do that as well.  But the two Presidents spoke for about 15 minutes by telephone.  President Obama explained the primary purpose of the visit, which, as you know, was all about visiting the troops for the holiday season.  At that point President Karzai interrupted him and said, well, look, Mr. President, when you’re thanking your troops add me to that list and tell them that President Karzai appreciates their efforts as well.

They went on to talk a little bit about the last time they’d seen one another.  So this is just — less than two weeks ago.  Some of you may have been on the Lisbon trip.  They spent three or four hours together in the large format, the ISAF format meeting at Lisbon, with 39 other heads of government, heads of state.  But then more telling, they had a very meaningful one-hour bilateral session on the margins of Lisbon.  And both of them referred back to that meeting and called it the best session they had had so far.

Both Presidents reviewed for one another and then reaffirmed their commitment to the two major deliverables coming out of Lisbon — the first is this framework for security transition that is due to begin in early ’11, and then conclude by the end of ’14, when we hope — we intend that all 34 provinces in Afghanistan will have passed onto the lead security responsibility to the Afghan security forces.  So they reaffirmed their commitment to that.

They both acknowledged that early 2011 is not far off and that this has to remain a priority for both of them, to begin the transition process and the build-off of the momentum set at Lisbon.

Then they went to the second theme of Lisbon, which is this notion of an enduring commitment even beyond 2014, once the Afghans have assumed the security lead.  You’ll recall that in Lisbon the NATO Secretary General and President Karzai signed a declaration, a statement of intent to continue this longstanding, enduring commitment of NATO supporting Afghan security forces.

The two Presidents agreed that our work on a similar bilateral partnership declaration needs to continue and conclude in the early months of 2011, and we’re on track to do that.  They both reaffirmed their commitment to finishing up this bilateral arrangement as well.

The President briefed President Karzai only for a few moments on where we stand on the annual review.  President Karzai had actually been briefed on this in detail — in fact, I briefed him for two hours about a month ago when the review kicked off and I spent some time with him explaining the charter from President Obama and what the review was and what the review was not.  He was comfortable with it at the time.  He’s given us some feedback over time to include that session about a month ago, again at Lisbon.  And the President — our President committed to get back to him telephonically before the review — the findings of the review are published later this month.  So they seemed to be on track on that front.

Closing out, President Karzai reminded President Obama to thank the troops on his behalf.  And President Obama wished President Karzai well for the holiday season and hoped that the weather would improve for the scheduled visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani to see President Karzai tomorrow.  And Karzai indicated he hoped the forecast would allow that visit.

MR. RHODES:  Just before any questions, just so you have the sequence of meetings — the President met — when he got there, did the hospital visit, which he awarded five Purple Hearts.  He also met for about 40 minutes — right, Doug — with General Petraeus, Ambassador Eikenberry, Doug and Tom Donilon to just get a briefing on the situation in Afghanistan.

He then met for about 30 minutes with the platoon that had just recently lost six members to an attack.  Doug was in that meeting.  It was a very powerful discussion that the President had with this platoon that recently lost six of their members.

Then the President gave his remarks, which you obviously saw.  Then when concluded, the President — after he was done with the rope line he went back and he spent some time with some of our Special Forces here in Afghanistan who were able to discuss with the President their work.  Obviously Special Forces are an important part of our strategy here.  So he had a pretty full spectrum from the leadership of the civilian-military team down to the Special Forces guys who are carrying out some work, and of course a lot of our different troops from the platoon he met with, the people he spoke with at the hospital, to of course troops he spoke with in the hangar.

Doug, I don’t know if you have anything to add.

GENERAL LUTE:  I think the most moving — the two most moving sessions he had were the series of meetings in the hospital where the President met six soldiers who had been wounded, several wounded American contractors.  He awarded four Purple Hearts to those wounded in combat.

Q    Five —

GENERAL LUTE:  Five?  I thought it was four.

Q    Katie Lillie said it was five.

GENERAL LUTE:  We’ll go with Katie.  Five it is.

Then the second moving session was this time he spent, almost 30 minutes, with the platoon of about 20 soldiers from the 101st who were involved in this very unfortunate incident earlier in the week where they lost six soldiers in one incident.  It was very moving to see the Commander-in-Chief — so you’ve got the entire chain of command here from the man at the top all the way down to the sergeant on the ground in a very emotional but bonding event that relates that — even though the President sits in Washington as the Commander-in-Chief, is able to relate I thought in a very moving way — as a former military officer — a very moving way with these guys who have been through a very traumatic experience.

Talked to each one of the members of the platoon individually, then called them into a group; recognized the leadership of the platoon, the challenges of the path ahead because now they’ve got to recover from this incident and put their rucksacks back on and get back into the fight.  He reminded them in I thought a very telling way that they have a nation of 300 million Americans behind them and that in these times when they’re getting through this tough period, especially in the holidays, that they shouldn’t feel alone, and they should feel the support of the 300 million strong American nation behind them.  Then he expressed sort of the personal support he feels as Commander-in-Chief to them.

Q    He met individually and then as a group?

GENERAL LUTE:  He went to each man individually, shook their hands, had an exchange, and then, as you can imagine, they’re sort of stiff and formal — he tried to put them at ease, draw them closer in, and then just talked to them privately for a while.

Q    About how many?

GENERAL LUTE:  About 20, I think.  There were about 20 in the group.

MR. RHODES:  Just so I got the sequence right — Katie reminds me — the call was the first thing he did —

GENERAL LUTE:  The call was the first thing —

MR. RHODES:  Then the briefing with civ-mil team —

GENERAL LUTE:  That’s right.

MR. RHODES:  And then the hospital, then to the hangar, and then the Special Forces guys.

Q    And at the hospital originally we were told he was meeting with five troops and three civilians.  Is that still accurate?

MR. RHODES:  We’ll confirm the numbers for you.

GENERAL LUTE:  There were only a couple folks who go into those things because we try to keep those very discreet so that the patients aren’t — the wounded aren’t so overwhelmed by a flock of people.  So we’ll get somebody who was bedside so they can tell you.

Q    Did President Obama raise, did they discuss at all this issue of corruption within the Afghan government, particularly because that has become an issue in the news the last few days?

GENERAL LUTE:  They have talked about this before in their periodic discussions, but it did not come up today.

Q    — the following meeting?

GENERAL LUTE:  These are meetings that go back now months.

Q    — in the meeting with Ambassador Eikenberry and General Petraeus.

GENERAL LUTE:  So you’re referring now to the other session, the second session?

Q    — whether or not corruption came up in that —

GENERAL LUTE:  It did not specifically come up in that meeting, either.  Now, you have to understand, though, that the President communicates in writing — he receives written reports from Eikenberry and Petraeus weekly and he sees them at least once month for an extended VTC.  So this is just an opportunity to continue this sort of pattern of engagement that he has with them.  But he has talked to them before, obviously, about corruption and the challenges corruption poses for effective governance, and how important effective governance is to our mission.  It’s not only important to Karzai’s, it’s important to our mission.

So it’s been a topic, but it wasn’t today.

Q    And did the WikiLeaks disclosures come up?

GENERAL LUTE:  I don’t think that came up.

Q    Do you have a timing on when the embassy informed Karzai that the President was coming?

MR. RHODES:  I’ll get that — I’m sorry, Carol, I’ll get that for you.

Q    Just one other question on the December review — in briefings today that the parameters are largely in place.  The President has talked about progress.  He talked in Lisbon about staying with the withdrawal starting in July.  Petraeus has seen areas differently now.  So it seems like things are moving the way the President wants them to move, and this review is, as Ben said earlier, not about major policy changes.  Should we anticipate any adjustments to the strategy at all as a result of this review?

GENERAL LUTE:  I don’t think you’ll see any immediate adjustments.  The review will feature — our charter was essentially diagnostic, meaning that the fundamental question we were charged to assess is, is this approach working?

Now, you can imagine that there are going to be some parts of the approach that will probably likely to be found working and others that are perhaps lagging.  So in the aftermath of the review — so now, I’ll say, the first six months of the new year the policy agenda will take up how can we take advantage of things that are working, right, and maybe amplify those effects, and how can we mitigate where things aren’t working as well.

But that process is not part of our charter between now and the end of December.  That’s the to-do list for the rest of — for the early part of 2011.

Q    But you will identify those aspects that are working?  That’s the diagnostic —

GENERAL LUTE:  The review will identify things that need to be addressed in the policy process in 2011.

Q    — rollout of the review, you said not a big speech.  Will it be a small speech or —

MR. RHODES:  It’s not entirely set, but what I would anticipate, Caren, is some kind of statement from the President  —

Q    Written statement or —

MR. RHODES:  I’d expect it’s something he’d speak to, and then more extensive briefing about the review from the national security team, the senior national security team.  So I think it’s another opportunity for the President, just as he did in Lisbon, to frame — and as he did in some respects today — to frame where we are, what we’ve learned about the strategy, what we’ve learned about what’s working and about areas where we need to put additional emphasis going forward.  So I think he’ll speak to that.

I’d just — the speech he gave last year at the end of the policy review where he was making a major policy address to the American people about a new way forward in Afghanistan.  This will be more an update to the American people about how the strategy is going and how we are positioned heading into the new year.

Q    Will an actual report be made public?

MR. RHODES:  There will be — I would anticipate an extensive report that is classified.  But I would also anticipate materials that would be able to be made public about the key points of the review and the key facts about where we are in Afghanistan.

GENERAL LUTE:  The real challenge here in terms of public or not public is that any review that assesses what’s going well and what’s not going so well is a gold mine for the enemy, because he would then obviously try to take advantage of this and so forth. So we’ve got to be careful about keeping things private and secrets secret.

MR. RHODES:  But we’ll be able to lift up the top lines to give people a clearer sense of where we think we are and to do that in a public way, while there will also be a more extensive guide that is to inform the interagency process and the policy-making process moving forward.  It’s not unlike, frankly, the monthly assessments that have come to serve this purpose, where areas — in the briefings the President receives and the questions that he asks, which are often based on the weekly reports he gets — those briefings provide an update, again, as to areas of progress, areas that are lagging.  And the President, through his questioning, and the chain of command through their questioning, can give some guidance and points of reference to the team out in the country as to areas that we need to work on, maybe do a better job at, focus on going forward.  And so that’s basically a process of feedback group.

This was laid out as a marker because the President wanted to make sure that we were constantly doing not just regular assessments but had the ability to step back and do kind of a comprehensive assessment as to where things stand one year after the rollout of the new policy.

And the other thing I’d emphasize, too, is just as Doug has done a lot of work to tee this up with the different agencies involved who’ve given inputs to Doug and his team at the national security staff, the Lisbon summit provides a strong foundation for the review because it established this framework of both the transition period and process as well as the long-term partnership that NATO and ISAF forged with Afghanistan in Lisbon. But as Doug said, we’ll continue to develop a bilateral vision for a long-term partnership with Afghanistan.

So those issues will certainly be — we’ll be looking to figure out the best way forward to accomplish our goals within that context.

GENERAL LUTE:  Lisbon actually helps us because before Lisbon we didn’t have the security transition framework that’s in place now.  So I can tell you one element of the review that’s going to say, hey, we’ve made progress here is we now have in place a security transition framework, thanks to Lisbon.

Q On the Karzai call, how would you describe the tone and how — was it different or the same from other phone conversations they’ve had in the past?

GENERAL LUTE:  Two partners who routinely engage, comfortable with one another and mutually respectful.  It was exactly what you would expect from two heads of state.

Q (Inaudible) — classified cables on the front page of The New York Times criticizing Karzai’s half-brother.  This didn’t come up?

GENERAL LUTE:  Well, it didn’t come up because those cables are dated.  Most of them were dated such that as we conducted the month-long review last fall this was a major topic.  So it wasn’t news to either President — obviously.  So it didn’t come up.

MR. RHODES:  Let me just add, Jake, as somebody who’s been working with WikiLeaks response a little more actively than Doug — as a part of our — well, two things.  First of all, this is not the first WikiLeaks dump that was relevant to Afghanistan.  We had one just entirely devoted to it.  But as a part of this WikiLeaks exposure, just as we did with embassies around the world, Secretary Clinton spoke to President Karzai about it and Ambassador Eikenberry then went in to brief the Afghan government to include President Karzai about what we expected in these WikiLeaks.  So there had already been consultation with the Afghan government about this in the previous several days, just as the State Department has been running consultations with governments around the world what we thought to be in the cables.

It’s worth pointing out, as Doug said, not only are they dated but they also speak to issues that have been in the public domain through different vehicles for some time.

Q Does the fact that they’re now out complicate Eikenberry’s assignment at the embassy?

MR. RHODES:  I think he’s been a very effective ambassador. Frankly, it’s not the first cable of his that found its way into The New York Times, if you’ll recall.  He’s managed to, despite that kind of reporting, again, be a very good ambassador for the United States, to be a very good partner with the Afghans.  Doug works with him on a daily basis.  He can speak to that.

So I think, look, it’s part of a very challenging war that we’re engaged in in Afghanistan.  But we, right now, with the Afghans are aligned on our strategic priorities and that, to us, is more important than the effect of this information.

Q Can you give us just a little bit of behind the scenes on the decision to cancel the Kabul part, just clarify —

MR. RHODES:  I’ll say a couple things and then Doug can weigh in because he has more experience in this kind of thing than I do.  But every time that we do a trip like this, the military aides and the people on the ground have the ability to make what we would call a bad-weather call.  That always takes place within the last couple of hours before we land.  That’s when our communications are turned on back here on Air Force One, as you know.

As you saw, when Robert and I went in to brief you, it was our full expectation that we would do the lift, because we had not yet had any contact with the mil aides about this.  But in the middle of that, Alyssa came in and she had received the judgment that because of I think what were 45-mile-per-hour winds and the low ceiling, that they strongly advised against any helo lift into Kabul.

GENERAL LUTE:  I would just say that the standard here is to defer to the experts, the weather experts and the pilots, because in this part of the world, given the elevations, given this seasonal — we’re in the seasonal flux now between the heavy weather coming in — there are — you’ve probably all flown in the helicopter path from Bagram to Kabul before.  There are mountain passes, you get close through there.

So we don’t second-guess the technical experts, the weather guys and the pilots.  They always have the last call on these kinds of decisions.  And their advice was not to make the trip.

Q — made impossible for Karzai to come to Bagram?

GENERAL LUTE:  He’d have to fly in reverse so —

Q Petraeus and Eikenberry came —

GENERAL LUTE:  Petraeus and Eikenberry, when I saw them on the ground, I said, well, how long have you guys been here?  They just got through the weather and made it from Kabul.  And it will be interesting, they might end up staying there tonight.

So they flew through that but then the weather closed down.

Q We don’t know the technical explanation either, but initially it was citing heavy winds and low clouds.  But when we landed everybody was confused because in Kabul they said the sky was clear.

GENERAL LUTE:  It’s a 30-minute flight from Kabul to Bagram, and you’ve got elevation changes between those two locations.

Q — in the mountains then?

MR. RHODES:  Yes, and the winds on the ground.  I mean, I think you probably experienced the same winds we did.  So it’s not just — I don’t know what the weather is now in Kabul.  I saw what the weather was in Bagram and it was quite windy.  But you’re dealing with a pass of some 30-minute flight.  I remember from last time we made it through different elevations through the mountains.  And, again, the entire flight path has to be suitable for the helicopter.

GENERAL LUTE:  And sustainable, too.  It’s not just a question of sneaking through the weather and then ending up in Kabul.  Air Force One is back here so you’ve got — so you’ve got to have a reasonable forecast that the mission is going to be complete.  The mission is also a two-way mission.

So, look, the bottom line here — I’ve been working in this theater now for six consecutive years — you don’t second-guess the weather and you don’t second-guess the experts and the mountains.

MR. RHODES:  We’re actually only one for three, too, because we had our first stop in Baghdad actually — we were supposed to helo into see Talabani and Maliki and I think it was winds and sand storms that kept us down — so we don’t make those calls.  We defer to the people who can make them.

Q You said Petraeus and Eikenberry got there just before the weather closed, or did they move up their departure to get — knowing that the weather was going to turn?

GENERAL LUTE:  I think my sense is that they were — being the civilian and lead military guy, they’re not going to arrive at the last minute to greet the President of the United States.  They were there for a while, making sure arrangements were right.  They noted, however, that the weather was dicey as they came in.

Q So it’s not like the weather was getting worse and Karzai, at the last minute, decided —

GENERAL LUTE:  Again, whether Karzai is flying in our direction or we’re flying in Karzai’s direction, we’ve got the inverse, but you’ve got the same weather picture that you’ve got to get through.

Q And the SVTC didn’t come together because of technical problems?

MR. RHODES:  I think we just couldn’t pull it together in the time available.  And that was fine — just talking by phone call.

GENERAL LUTE:  They said the phone call was more convenient to President Karzai, so we deferred.

MR. RHODES:  They have these SVTCs regularly, though, so I imagine we’ll do that another — thanks, guys.  I’ll check on the — okay, so just to check on one of your questions, there were five Purple Hearts awarded.  There were six service members who the President spent time with, and two U.S. contractors.

And then I’ll check the embassy notification.

Q At some point can we get a tick-tock of the President before he arrived at Andrews and what he’s been doing on the plane, some sort of background on that?

MR. RHODES:  Sure, the quick version of that is, as is his  — we actually did a briefing — my days are screwed up — Thursday afternoon he had a briefing on this trip led by Doug at the White House.  That was Thursday afternoon during his national security staff time.

GENERAL LUTE:  About 4:00.

MR. RHODES:  Roughly 4:00.  Then he obviously met us on the plane.  He came after the Hanukkah ceremony, met us at the plane.

Q Motorcade —

MR. RHODES:  I will have to — again, let me check with Service what he did and what we can say.

Q Was staff with him?

MR. RHODES:  Reggie.  And then obviously he then hooked up with us.  He does his briefings as we approach later in the flight, so he slept overnight and then we briefed him on both the change in the schedule because of the weather call and then the content of his meetings in the last, I’d say, hour of the flight.

Okay, thanks, guys.

END                 1:07 A.M. AFT

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MR. RHODES:  I’m going to do a readout.  The President just called Prime Minister Netanyahu about the fires in Israel.  The President called to offer his condolences for the loss of life that has already taken place in Israel.  He also called to offer assistance to Israel that the United States would be providing as fast as we possibly can.

That includes USAID providing the procurement of fire-retardant chemicals that are being shipped to Israel to help fight the fire.  The Pentagon is also providing fire-retardant chemicals that they are going to be sending to Israel as soon as possible — these will be arriving in the coming day or so.

Then also we are providing a technical assistance team that has specialized expertise and equipment, so both the ability to fight these kinds of fires and the equipment that’s necessary.  Those should be arriving in Israel very soon.  And we’re looking at the need for additional personnel of that nature and working with private industry as well to see what assets from within private industry could be helpful in this kind of situation.

And finally, the Pentagon is mobilizing certain international guard members and assets that have firefighting systems that are useful again in confronting this kind of situation.  That will take a little bit more time as these assets are in the United States and may take a few days to deploy.

Then the President said that his thoughts and his prayers are with the Israeli people at this time and that he wanted Prime Minister Netanyahu to be assured that the United States was going to be pursuing what the President called “a full-court press” in terms of making sure that we provide this kind of assistance — because we, of course, as a country have substantial expertise and experience in fighting forest fires.  Israel, of course, has a huge challenge right now and as a smaller country — space-wise, geographically — again, this kind of fire is a very serious danger to the public.

So the President and Prime Minister agreed to have their teams stay in touch on this and to make sure that Israel has the support it needs from the United States in dealing with this challenge.

Q    How long did the call last?

MR. RHODES:  I don’t have the exact time, but it was a short call.  I think it was under 10 minutes.  They didn’t cover any stuff except the fires.

Thanks, guys.