Questions from Troops for the President - Today's Qs for O - 5/21/2012

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'm going to call on Jake Tapper because Jake, the - Jay Carney told me that you've been talking to some of our troops in Afghanistan and, since so much of the topic of this summit has been on Afghanistan, obviously none of this would be working were it not for the extraordinary sacrifices that they're making. So -

TAPPER: Thanks, Mr. President. I appreciate it. Yeah, I put out an invitation for some troops and their families that I know, and I'll just give you two or three of them. Mr. President, "if this handoff and withdrawal prove premature, what plans are in place for dealing with an Afghanistan that's fallen apart or is possibly, again, under Taliban rule?" And I'll just do one more. "Do you feel that the reporting you receive from the Pentagon fully represents what the on-ground commanders assess? Is there any disconnect between what leaders feel the public and president want to hear versus what is actually occurring on the ground?" These are from troops I've met who served in Nuristan Province.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah. Let - let me take the second question first. I mean, I think that one of the things that I emphasize whenever I'm talking to John Allen or the Joint Chiefs or any of the officers who are in Afghanistan is, I can't afford a whitewash.

I can't afford not getting the very best information in order to make good decisions. I should add, by the way, that - that the danger a lot of times is not that anybody's purposely trying to downplay challenges in Afghanistan. A lot of times it's just the military culture is, we can get it done. And so their thinking is, "how are we going to solve this problem," not "boy, why is this such a disaster?"

That's part of the reason why we admire our military so much and we love our troops, because they've got that can-do spirit. But - but I think that we have set up a structure that really tries to guard against that, because even in my White House, for example, I've got former officers who have been in Afghanistan, who I will send out there as part of the national security team of the White House, not simply the Pentagon, to interact and to listen and to go in and - and - and talk to the captains and the - and the majors and the corporals and the privates, to try to get a sense of - of what's going on. And I think the reports we get are relatively accurate in these sense that there is real improvement in those areas where we've had a significant presence.

You can see the Taliban not having a foothold, that there is - that there is genuine improvement in the performance of Afghan national security forces. But the Taliban is still a robust enemy and the gains are still fragile, which leads me then to the second point that you've made, in terms of premature withdrawal. I don't think that there's ever going to be an optimal point where we say this is all done, this is perfect, this is just the way we wanted it, and now we can, you know, wrap up all our equipment and - and go home. There's a process, and it's sometimes a messy process, just as it was in Iraq.

But think about it. We've been there now 10 years. We are now committing to a transition process that takes place next year, but the full transition to Afghan responsibility is almost two years away. And the Afghan security forces themselves will not ever be prepared if they don't start taking that responsibility. And frankly, the large footprint that we have in Afghanistan, over time, can be counterproductive. We've been there 10 years, and I think, you know, no matter how much good we're doing and how outstanding our troops and our civilians and diplomats are doing on the ground, 10 years, in a country that's very different, that's a strain, not only on our folks but also on that country, which at a point is going to be very sensitive about its own sovereignty. So I think that the timetable that we've established is a sound one, it is a responsible one. Are there risks involved in it? Absolutely. Can I anticipate that over the next two years there are going to be some bad moments along with some good ones? Absolutely.

But I think it is the appropriate strategy whereby we can achieve a stable Afghanistan that won't be perfect, we can pull back our troops in a responsible way, and we can start rebuilding America and making some of the massive investments we've been making in Afghanistan here back home, putting people back to work, retraining workers, rebuilding our schools, investing in science and technology, developing our - our business climate. So - but there are going to be challenges. The one thing that I'm - I'm never doubtful about is just the amazing capacity of our troops and their morale. You know, last - when I was in Bagram just a couple of weeks ago, the fact that you still have so much determination and stick-to-it-ness and professionalism, not just from our troops, but from all our coalition allies, all of ISAF, is a testament to them. It's extraordinary. And - and we're very proud of them.

-Jake Tapper