Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, and Security - Today's Q's for O's WH - 2/27/2012

TAPPER: I interviewed then-CIA Director Leon Panetta a couple of years ago. He said there were fewer than a hundred CIA - I mean - I'm sorry - he said there were fewer than a hundred al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan. How many do we think are there now? About the same amount or -

CARNEY: I don't have a specific number for you. The point you raise was, I think, discussed in the public arena at the time. And I think that it goes to the reason why the president has focused his - has focused his Afghanistan strategy on the original objective.

The original objective was not, or should not have been, to build a Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan. The original objective - the reason why we send U.S. troops to fight, and in some cases die, in Afghanistan was because we were attacked. The United States was attacked in a plot that was - originated in Afghanistan with the al-Qaida leadership on September 11th, 2001. And the president was very clear that he wanted to make sure that our policy - the reason why we were there - remained the same, and that we were focused on al-Qaida.

TAPPER: When's the last time U.S. troops in Afghanistan killed anybody associated with al-Qaida?

CARNEY: Well, I would refer you to ISAF and the Defense Department for that. I don't have that information. You - it is certainly clear that, because of our efforts in the Af-Pak region, if you will - which is the region covered by the overall strategy the president put into place - that we have aggressively pursued, with significant success, al-Qaida's leadership.

And I think that everyone knows, of course, of the Osama bin Laden mission. But there have been, as you know - because you cover this closely - numerous other instances of a successful implementation of this policy, which has resulted in significantly depleting the numbers of al-Qaida's leadership. And it is because of the president's policy, which includes allowing for space for the Afghan government as this transition takes place to the security lead. That gives us the capacity to implement the policy which, again, is focused on al-Qaida.

TAPPER: How much does the White House think that the incidents, the four U.S. service members who have been killed by ANA or Afghan security forces - how much does he think - and the protests that are - that are going on throughout the country - how much does he think these are just because of the Quran burning incident? And how much does the White House think this is - that was just the tipping point for an overall exhaustion and anger about things that have happened due to the American presence?

CARNEY: Well, I think that's - those are very important questions. And I haven't had that discussion with the president or members of his national security team, although I can say in general, we are keenly aware of concerns expressed in the past by President Karzai and others about the way that we operate there and the need to be sure that we operate in a - in a way that enhances our cooperation and doesn't detract from it.

And we work very carefully to try to do that.

This is - this is not an easy situation. You know, our objective is to defeat the entity that attacked us on September 11th, 2001. And there are - part of how we do that is working with the Afghan government to help stabilize that situation in that country, to allow them to have the security infrastructure that they need so that they can prevent al-Qaida from returning and plotting again against the United States and its allies.

So - but we're - this is an issue that obviously predates this most recent incident. And we work with President Karzai and the Afghan government to try to mitigate some of the tensions that understandably exist in a situation like this, but only insofar as they don't compromise our national security interests.

TAPPER: One last question, if I could, Jay.


TAPPER: I'm sorry.


TAPPER: I actually went to Jalalabad Airfield last November, and it was interesting for me to learn that when the - when it was set up as the headquarters for Regional Command East, it was actually safe enough in the area that troops could go to local markets and shop. Last year when I was there, it was so dangerous that you couldn't even drive down to the local ANA headquarters; you would have to fly. You went - it was a 20-second, 30-second flight. This morning, obviously, there was a suicide bomber there, and nine individuals were killed; we're still waiting to hear who they were. This is fully resourced, fully manned, more dangerous. Explain that. How does that work?

CARNEY: Well, I think most of those questions are best addressed - directed to the Defense Department because I don't have the map in front of me or the information that I would need to address -

TAPPER: But you understand the general concept -

CARNEY: - where we have - I certainly understand, and I appreciate the general concept. And I think it goes to the point that we have a specific mission to achieve, which is not to secure every inch of territory and - but to achieve an objective, which is to disrupt, dismantle, defeat al-Qaida and, in the service of that objective, to stabilize the Afghan government and help build up Afghan security forces so that they can take over the security of their own country.

I understand and I - you see stories about different pockets that were pacified, if you will, and then have become less so, and I think that there are other stories that indicate areas of the country which are much more under control than used to be the case. And I would - I would refer you to ISAF and DOD for that. Thank you.

-Jake Tapper