Feb. 29, 2012 — -- President Obama said his formal apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the burning of Korans by U.S. troops last week has "calmed things down" after the incident sparked an outbreak of violence across the country.
"We're not out of the woods yet," Obama said in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Bob Woodruff at the White House. "But my criteria in any decision I make, getting recommendations from folks who are actually on the ground, is what is going to best protect our folks and make sure that they can accomplish their mission."
The president's comments came just hours before a formal White House dinner to honor Iraq War veterans, some of whom have also served in Afghanistan and may be redeploying there to assist ongoing U.S. military operations. Woodruff was the only journalist invited to attend the dinner.
Obama said his letter to Karzai aimed to curb further danger to U.S. troops on the ground. It reportedly expressed regret for the apparently inadvertent burning of the Korans, the sacred text of Islam, on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan.
Still, the president's critics and some members of the military have questioned the appropriateness of the move, given the subsequent murder of two U.S. military officers at the hands of an Afghan inside one of the capital's secure ministry buildings.
"Everything else -- the politics or second guessing of these various decisions -- I'm not worried about," Obama said.
Watch Bob Woodruff's exclusive interview with President Obama tonight on "World News with Diane Sawyer" at 6:30 p.m. ET and "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET.
Even as he honors the service and sacrifice of veterans who have returned home, Obama said he will tonight urge troops still fighting in Afghanistan not to recoil from the short-term challenges and to learn from the successful mission in Iraq.
"As difficult as Afghanistan has been, we are making progress because of the extraordinary service of our men and women in uniform," Obama said. "The overwhelming majority of Afghan troops have welcomed and benefitted from the training and partnering that we're doing.
"When you think about it, the same thing was true in Iraq," he said. "War is a tough business, and never goes in a perfectly good path. But because of the stick-to-it-ness of our teams, I feel confident that we can stay on a path that, by the end of 2014, our troops will be out and will not be in a combat role, and Afghans will have capacity, just as Iraqis, to secure their own country."
Tonight's event, themed, "A Nation's Gratitude," is the first of its kind to mark the end of a major war and comes just two and a half months after the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq.
A hand-picked group of 78 service members selected proportionally from across all military branches, ranks and states will attend, officials said, joined by members of military families, Gold Star families and wounded warriors. They are said to reflect the diversity of the more than 1.5 million Americans who served in Iraq during the nearly nine-year war.
The dinner "is a celebration of the men and women who carried out an extraordinarily difficult mission and did so with honor, integrity, and courage and, as a consequence, were successful in being able to give Iraq a chance to build a representative, democratic country," Obama told Woodruff.
"I am always in awe of the sacrifices they've made and the excellence of their work," he said. "And I think this is just one small gesture among many gestures across the country of gratitude for those folks who gave extraordinary service."