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Obama in Command: The Rolling Stone Interview

Page 4 of 7

But it couldn't have just been those remarks, which were casual and forgivable. The whole article was pretty damning.
The remarks themselves, I think, showed poor judgment. The rest of the article had to do with a series of very difficult, complex choices on the ground in Afghanistan, in which, as I said before, there are no easy answers. So Gen. McChrystal, in response to a very serious and legitimate concern about civilian casualties in Afghanistan, put out orders that have significantly reduced civilian casualties. The flip side of it is that it frustrates our troops, who feel that they may not be able to go on the offense as effectively, and it may put them in danger. That's a profound strategic, tactical debate that takes place in the military. That's not unique to Gen. McChrystal — that's a debate that Gen. Petraeus is having to work his way through, that's a debate that I have to work my way through as commander in chief.

To broaden the issue for a second, you were asking about the sources of frustration in the progressive community; clearly, Afghanistan has to be near the top of the list, maybe at the top of the list. I always try to point out, number one, that this shouldn't have come as any surprise. When I was campaigning, I was very specific. I said, "We are going to end the war in Iraq, that was a mistake," and I have done that. What I also said was that we need to plus up what we're doing in Afghanistan, because that was where the original terrorist threat emanated, and we need to finish the job. That's what we're doing.

Now, I think that a lot of progressive supporters thought that maybe it would be easier than it has proven to be to try to bring Afghanistan to a place where we can see an end in sight. The fact of the matter is, when we came in, what we learned was that the neglect of Afghanistan had been more profound than we expected. Just simple examples: The Afghan National Army, the Afghan security forces, oftentimes were recruited, given a uniform, given a rifle, and that was it — they weren't getting trained. As a functional matter, there was no way that they were going to start taking the place of U.S. troops.

What we've had to do after an extensive review that I engaged in was to say to our commanders on the ground, "You guys have to have a strategy in which we are training Afghan security forces, we're going to break the Taliban momentum, but I am going to establish a date at which we start transitioning down and we start turning these security functions over to a newly trained Afghan security force." That is what we're in the process of doing.

It is exacting a terrible cost. Whenever I go over to Walter Reed or Bethesda, or when I was in Afghanistan, and I meet kids who lost their legs or were otherwise badly injured, I am reminded of that cost. Nobody wants more than me to be able to bring that war to a close in a way that makes sure that region is not used as a base for terrorist attacks against the United States. But what we have to do is see this process through. Starting July of 2011, we will begin a transition process, and if the strategy we're engaged in isn't working, we're going to keep on re-examining it until we make sure that we've got a strategy that does work.

But by every index we know of, there seems to be no part of the Afghanistan strategy that is working. The Taliban control more of the country than ever. The Karzai regime is incredibly corrupt and has lost the trust of its own people. The program to buy the loyalty of Taliban soldiers, which was used with the Awakening during the surge in Iraq, can't find enough takers for the $250 million that was allocated to it. The McChrystal offensive in Kandahar also failed. Afghanistan has been called the "graveyard of empires." In view of the fact that Great Britain failed there, the Soviet Union with millions of troops right on the border failed there — what makes you think we are going to succeed?
Number one, this is very hard stuff. I knew it was hard a year ago, and I suspect a year from now, I will conclude that it's still hard, and it's messy. Number two, when you tick off these metrics that have quote-unquote "failed" — well, they haven't failed yet. They haven't succeeded yet. We've made progress in terms of creating a line of security around Kandahar, but there's no doubt that Kandahar is not yet a secure place any more than Mosul or Fallujah were secure in certain phases of the Iraq War.

I will also agree that Afghanistan is harder than Iraq. This is the second-poorest country in the world. You've got no tradition of a civil service or bureaucracy that is effective countrywide. We have been very successful in taking out the middle ranks of the Taliban. We have been very successful in recruiting and beginning to train Afghan security forces. There are elements that are working, and there are elements that are not working.

Keep in mind that the decision I have to make is always, "If we're not doing this, then what does that mean? What are the consequences?" I don't know anybody who has examined the region who thinks that if we completely pulled out of Afghanistan, the Karzai regime collapsed, Kabul was overrun once again by the Taliban, and Sharia law was imposed throughout the country, that we would be safer, or the Afghan people would be better off, or Pakistan would be better off, or India would be better off, or that we would see a reduction in potential terrorist attacks around the world. You can't make that argument.

Some have argued that what we can do is have a smaller footprint in Afghanistan, focus on counterterrorism activities, but have less boots on the ground. We examined every option that's out there. I assure you: With all the problems we've got here at home, and the fact that I have to sign letters to the family members of every soldier who is killed in Afghanistan, if I can find a way of reducing the costs to the American taxpayer, and more profoundly, to our young men and women in uniform, while making sure that we are not rendered much more vulnerable to a terrorist attack in the future, that's going to be the option that I choose. But no matter what your ultimate belief is in terms of what will succeed in Afghanistan, it's going to take us several years to work through this issue.

Ideally, what would have happened was that we didn't go into Iraq. Right after our victory in 2001, if we had focused on rebuilding Afghanistan, and had been in much more direct day-to-day interaction with Karzai and his government, then we wouldn't find ourselves in this circumstance.

But you know what: I have to play the cards that I'm dealt. In an ideal world, I wouldn't have inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit and the worst recession since the Great Depression. But you work with what's before you.

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