Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, General McChrystal, and Ambassador Eikenberry
1:31 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: We figured since it was a horribly slow news day here at the White House, that -- and in preparation for President Karzai’s visit later in the week, we have -- lucky to have two individuals with us -- Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, our ambassador, as you know, to Afghanistan; and General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force and the commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Both will give a statement and will answer a few questions, and then let them get back to work.
GENERAL McCHRYSTAL: Thanks. Good afternoon. I’m pleased to be here this week to participate in President Karzai’s visit to the United States. I’d like to start by recognizing the courage and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. It’s my honor to represent them here today and to provide you with a brief overview of their efforts in Afghanistan. I’m also encouraged by the efforts of U.S. civilians in Afghanistan. And it’s good to be here today with my colleague and friend, Karl Eikenberry.
Our strategic priority is the development of the Afghan national army and police -- the forces that will ultimately secure Afghanistan. Much work lies ahead to mature this force, but its growth is largely on track. Our operational priority lies in securing the southern part of Afghanistan, an area that includes Kandahar, the spiritual center of the Taliban, and Helmand, an economic hub for the insurgency.
Ten months ago, we began a series of operations into Taliban-controlled parts of the Helmand River Valley, expanding the Afghan government’s influence into these critical areas. This year, building on the progress of those operations, we’ve continued that expansion. In February, the first of the 2010 uplift forces approved by President Obama partnered with Afghans to secure parts of central Helmand that had remained under the control of the Taliban.
With additional arriving forces, we’ll reinforce ongoing efforts to secure Kandahar, an environment that is uniquely complex and will require a unique solution. This effort is being led by the Afghans and will focus on the complex political and governance aspects of Kandahar. These dimensions are at the heart of the problem and their solution will ultimately be decisive.
Our efforts in Afghanistan are ultimately about changing the perceptions of people. Afghans long impacted by conflict and struggle believe more of what they see than what they hear. Only when they experience security from coercion and only when they benefit from better governance
will they begin to believe in the possibilities of the future.
This is a process that takes time. It will demand courage and resilience. We will encounter increased violence as our combined security forces expand into Taliban-controlled areas. Increasingly, the momentum will shift to the Afghan forces. Over time, security responsibilities will transition to Afghans. Seeing clearly the challenges in front of us, I have confidence that our campaign plan will succeed.
AMBASSADOR EIKENBERRY: Good afternoon, I’d like to offer some brief comments myself to complement those of my friend and partner in Afghanistan over many years, General Stan McChrystal. Like Stan, I’d like to start by recognizing the courage and the sacrifice of our men and women in our Armed Forces, those of coalition and Afghan forces, and their civilian counterparts, which now include those from 13 United States government departments and agencies.
Our combined civilian-military team in Afghanistan is one that we’re proud of and very humbled to lead. President Obama’s strategy directs our combined team to break the momentum of the Taliban, to protect the Afghan people, and help build essential Afghan government capacity.
The Afghans must take the lead in their own security and governance in order to defeat and preclude the return to Afghanistan of al Qaeda and their terrorist allies. Together, we’re stabilizing insecure areas, while helping enable Afghan institutions, which have been devastated by decades of turmoil, reclaim complete leadership of their people’s security.
We cannot succeed in Afghanistan by military means alone. As well, our civilian mission cannot succeed without the contributions of the military. And accordingly, our efforts have been redesigned and transformed over the past year. Our civilian presence has more than tripled now over the past year to over 1,000 people, and with a far greater percentage of those personnel being assigned to locations outside of Kabul, where they serve as members of an integrated civilian-military teams with units from our NATO/ISAF allies and our own forces. Our embassy and our mission organizations have been restructured so that we can achieve better unity of effort among our very diverse group of civilian diplomats, development specialists, agricultural experts, and law enforcement agents on the ground.
And finally, we’ve re-prioritized our developmental programs and tailored them to effectively address that which is essential to our success in Afghanistan, with particular emphasis on agriculture, key government services, critical infrastructure, and essential aspects of rule of law.
We’re confident that we’re much better postured to help deliver the progress needed in the months ahead. In governance, we’ve seen President Karzai make some very important decisions about how to carry the parliamentary elections forward. And following the Karzai administration’s commitments to the international community made in January in London, the government’s chief anticorruption body -- it’s called the high office of oversight -- has now been given new powers by presidential decree and can act with more autonomy. And we’ve recently seen high-profile public corruption trials taking place in Kabul.
Briefly, regarding the visit to the United States of President Karzai and key members of his cabinet, you’re aware of the extensive preparations that have been made by both sides in anticipation of this very important event. And there will be serious dialogues in the days ahead on far-ranging issues, including how to best deliver on our government’s commitment to help accelerate the strengthening of Afghans’ security and judicial institutions. And discussions will also cover our combined strategy to bring peace and security to Afghanistan, longer-term bilateral relations, shared responsibility behind efforts to improve accountability and the performance of the Afghan government, and the growth of the Afghan economy in sustainable ways.
Now, I just landed this morning at Andrews Air Force Base, having accompanied President Karzai and his ministers on their very long flight from Kabul, which included stops in Amsterdam and Gander, Canada, as the U.S. Air Force crew moving us towards Andrews expertly worked their way around volcanic ash clouds. Having spent much of the flight time in serious conversation with the Afghan ministers of foreign affairs, defense, finance, interior, education, agriculture, mining, health, and labor and social affairs, almost all of them, my friends over many years now, I can say that the United States and the Afghan governments have never been better aligned and had such seriousness of purpose in trying to reach our common objectives.
President Karzai told me as we were flying away from Gander that he has high hopes for his visit here and that he looks forward to discussing Afghan-American relations from the perspectives of security, governance, development, and long-term strategic partnership.
And this visit comes, as you all know, during a year of consequence. This visit will be followed by a consultative peace jirga in Kabul at the end of May when President Karzai will meet with his people to build national consensus on how to proceed with reintegration and reconciliation of Taliban elements. That in turn will be followed by a Kabul conference in July, and then parliamentary elections in September, both of which will be important political events for the Afghan people during this pivotal year.
And as we move forward in Afghanistan, we are facing daunting challenges. General McChrystal a moment ago mentioned some of those that are found on the security front, and there are others of course in the areas of governance and economic development as well. Our two governments will frankly address these challenges in the next few days, with an eye on developing common solutions, with confidence that we have now the necessary resources, the appropriate strategy, and the national will to make continued progress.
MR. GIBBS: Jake.
Q I have a question for each gentleman. General McChrystal, you’ve been very outspoken in your views about civilian casualties in Afghanistan and how that’s hurt the U.S. mission there. As I’m sure you know, Faisal Shahzad, who was just arrested for the Times Square bombing, one of the reasons supposedly given is how upset he is about drone attacks in Pakistan. And while I know there is a limited amount of anything you can discuss about what’s going on across the border in Pakistan, are you confident that civilian casualties in Pakistan are kept to the same minimum that they’re being kept under your new order in Afghanistan?
GENERAL McCHRYSTAL: I obviously can’t address things in Pakistan. My writ goes to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I can tell you that inside Afghanistan the importance of reducing those casualties to convince the Afghan people that we’re here for their welfare is absolutely strategic, and so we give it that level of effort.
Q Can I ask Mr. Eikenberry -- do you think that President Karzai is an adequate strategic partner?
AMBASSADOR EIKENBERRY: President Obama has expressed his confidence in President Karzai and our work together. As you know, every relationship -- every bilateral relationship, especially one that’s as close as we have with Afghanistan, they experience ups and downs. But what measures true partnership is the ability, when the stakes are as high as they are for Afghanistan and the United States of America, to be able to work our way through difficulties and come back together and still find ourselves well aligned. I think that the visit that’s coming up here that begins this evening, the talks over the next several days, I think we’re going to emerge with even better alignment.
Q General and Mr. Ambassador, a question for both of you, please -- can or should the United States live with a future Afghan government that has representatives – senior leadership of the Taliban? And is it time to start having a conversation about what that government might look like now this week during Karzai’s visit?
AMBASSADOR EIKENBERRY: Certainly, the topic of reintegration and reconciliation is one that will be high on this week’s agenda. I think there’s clarity right now between our two governments about what the common principles should be as Afghanistan moves forward with reconciliation. Those principles, I think, are well known. And those principles are that anybody who would come back to the fold of Afghan society and to be received back by the people and the government of Afghanistan, they would have to renounce the use of violence; they would have to have severed any ties with al Qaeda and international terrorists; and they would have to have respect for the Afghan constitution and following it; and, of course, with respect for the Afghan constitution is respect for the very great rights that are enshrined within that constitution.
Q Can I ask the General to follow up? I mean, you’re a student of counterinsurgency. Will that work? Can people who renounce violence and sever ties with al Qaeda effectively lead in Afghanistan as you know it?
GENERAL McCHRYSTAL: Historically, I think the most important thing is that we first get an Afghan solution crafted by Afghans, and second, that it be inclusive and it feel fair to everyone, that everybody has the opportunity to reintegrate -- or to reintegrate in or rejoin the political process. So I think those are the key points. And I agree with everything else Karl said.
Q General, could I –- this is a question for both of you again -- this is about your recent meeting with General Kayani. There was much comment over the weekend from officials in Washington that Pakistan needs to do more against the TTP. And your recent meeting with General Kayani was roped into that as well. It strikes me as a bit strange in that until recently the concern about Pakistan from the Pentagon was the exact opposite, in that too much focus has gone to South Waziristan, too much focus has been on TTP, and none of it is the enemies that you have focused -- which is on the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura Taliban. Can you clarify what U.S. policy is towards Pakistan when it comes to the TTP? Do we feel that they’re not doing enough? And did that come up in your conversation with General Kayani?
GENERAL McCHRYSTAL: Yes, there was an unfortunate news story that came out that was completely inaccurate that represented that I had expressed to General Kayani U.S. policy on doing more, and that just didn’t happen. It was a one-on-one meeting, and it did not occur. And I made it clear to General Kayani that I did not represent it that way.
I think that it is important that we understand that the insurgency faced by Pakistan, the TTP, is an essential threat. I mean, it’s a significant threat to their country, and it’s complementary to what Afghanistan faces, so it puts the two nations with a common problem. The Afghan Taliban and TTP are distinct, but they are not completely unrelated. And therefore, it’s important we sync our two campaigns together.
And that’s why I spend a lot of time with General Kayani, who is a good partner, working that.
Q Is it not accurate to say that the bulk of the Pakistani effort thus far has been on the TTP -- most of the division is in South Waziristan and the Mehsud tribe -- is that not accurate to say that that’s been the bulk of their --
GENERAL McCHRYSTAL: I think it’s interesting that most people don’t understand the scope of the Pakistani effort against the TTP. It’s been large and it’s been costly. They’ve lost a lot of soldiers in a significant campaign that’s actually been waged very, very well. So I think it’s really good when we get a chance to understand the major effort that they’ve made.
MR. GIBBS: Helene.
Q I’ve got a question for both gentlemen. General McChrystal, you’ve been described as the official in the U.S. government who has perhaps the best relationship with President Karzai. To what do you attribute it to? And what sort of advice do you have to your colleagues? And then I have one for General Eikenberry.
GENERAL McCHRYSTAL: I think that I am one of the people with a good relationship with President Karzai. And I think it’s important that each of us have a good relationship but also distinctly different. Mine is as a military commander, and as I support a wartime commander-in-chief, President Karzai, I think it’s important that I have an effective, candid, responsible relationship, and I’ve been real happy with it thus far.
Q General Eikenberry, I’d just like to get back to Jake’s question -- are the concerns that you’ve talked about in the past, about whether President Karzai is an adequate strategic partner, have those been allayed? Do you no longer have those concerns?
AMBASSADOR EIKENBERRY: President Karzai is the -- he’s the elected president of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a close friend and ally, and of course I highly respect President Karzai in that capacity.
Q So your concerns have not been allayed?
MR. GIBBS: I think he answered it.
Q Mr. Ambassador, you mentioned some things that the President is taking against -- some steps against corruption. Is that going to satisfy you, the steps he’s taking? Or does he need to do more? And is this going to come up in the talks this week?
AMBASSADOR EIKENBERRY: Of course, increasing the accountability of the government of Afghanistan is -- that’s certainly on the agenda. President Karzai when he started his second term in office, beginning with his inaugural speech, as he said at the London conference, he emphasized that it would be a pillar of his second term in office. And there has been progress that has been made there, as I mentioned earlier, the announcement of the high office of oversight giving executive decrees.
There are promising signs. Ultimately, though, the customer that has to be satisfied is the people of Afghanistan. It’s high on their agenda right now. But the United States government, I know our administration is in full support of President Karzai’s efforts right now to make improvements there. Much has to be done.
MR. GIBBS: Chuck.
Q One question for each. General, there have been mixed reports about Iran possibly helping with arms to the Taliban. Can you give us an assessment of what role, if any, Iran is playing arming the enemy?
GENERAL McCHRYSTAL: I think Iran’s reach into Afghanistan, first, is fairly legitimate. Most of what they do -- they provide money, they target certain elements, education and whatnot -- there is evidence, intelligence, that indicates some malign activity as well -- some training of insurgents, Taliban, and of shipments of some levels of arms. But they are not significant in the numbers and they have not been enough to change the basic calculus of the fight at this point.
Q And Ambassador, let me try again in a different way on this question about President Karzai and your skepticism. Are you less skeptical now of this plan going forward and the surge based on things you’ve seen President Karzai do, promises he’s kept -- not only made, but maybe kept -- that make you less skeptical than apparently you were four months ago?
AMBASSADOR EIKENBERRY: No, I’ve got cautious optimism that we’re making progress right now in an array of areas that are critical to our combined success with Afghanistan. We’re having military success that General McChrystal has talked about. We’re having success in terms of working with the government on a basis of partnership to steadily improve the capacity and the accountability of the government. We’re making great success in trying to come up with ways to make progress in the economy.
So I think, yes, I think we’re making progress.
Q So you were skeptical of those successes before?
MR. GIBBS: We’re going to let these guys get back to work. Thank you both for coming by.
Q Why are we in Afghanistan? Can you tell the American people? I’ll ask you, then.
MR. GIBBS: You have before, and I'll --
Q Why are we there? Is it worth all the killing and dying?
MR. GIBBS: Helen, we know that in -- leading up to September 11, 2001, this was the area in which, along with the border region in Pakistan, where these -- where the attacks on this country were planned.
MR. GIBBS: Why were the attacks planned? I can’t answer that.
Q Why are we there nine years, killing and dying?
MR. GIBBS: We are there in order to ensure that al Qaeda and its extremist allies are not allowed to come back.
Q Why would they want to if we have not taken revenge against us being there?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we are doing everything in our power to prevent their ability to come back.
Q You think that’s really true?
MR. GIBBS: I do. I do. I do. How do we want to start today? Do you guys have any questions on any other topics that are burning a hole -- yes, sir.
Q I’d like to carry on on the Afghan topic, if I may.
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q It wasn’t just a few weeks ago, Robert, that you were telling us you were gravely -- you had grave concerns about what Hamid Karzai was saying, his remarks about --
MR. GIBBS: Right.
Q I beg your pardon?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q His remarks about the West being responsible for election fraud and maybe even joining the Taliban out of frustration. How did he possibly allay concerns to the point where you’re able to have this meeting go forward?
MR. GIBBS: Well, this meeting -- this meeting has been scheduled for a while, Mark. And this is, as you heard the two gentlemen before me say, President Karzai is the elected -- the duly elected leader of the sovereign country of Afghanistan. They are our partner in this battle against al Qaeda and its extremist allies.
You -- and I said this the other day -- President Karzai has outlined a series of things that have to happen in his government, both in his inaugural address and in London, again, things you heard these two individuals mention. The President talked to President Karzai when he was elected on things that he had to do.
So we are going to continue to work with them to improve security, as you heard General McChrystal say. The ultimate solution for Afghan security is with the Afghans, first and foremost. We will continue to work with them and make clear the issues on governance, corruption, and accountability that we also believe are part of Afghanistan’s long-term security. We think President Karzai understands the steps that must be taken to strengthen that, and I think that will be discussed throughout his time in Washington this week.
Q So you just shrug off remarks like what he made?
MR. GIBBS: No. No, again, I think the President --
Q Or you’re saying he doesn’t mean them anymore?
MR. GIBBS: I think the President has characterized this relationship appropriately. Again, he is the leader of Afghanistan. He is our partner. We are going to work with them to improve both the security and the governance in Afghanistan. We will laud the President when he does things that we believe are both in our interest and in their interest. And we will work with them to make improvements on issues like governance and corruption that we know have to be dealt with, again, in order to provide that long-term security.
Q Not to belabor the point, did he say to you, look, don’t worry about those remarks, that was just for internal politics?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President has discussed in an interview that that could be the reason that some of that stuff was said.
Q Robert, can I just ask one on Afghanistan and one on the Court? The one on Afghanistan would be, when Ambassador Eikenberry was saying one of the goals in Afghanistan is to break the Taliban, how does that square with officials of this administration just yesterday going on Sunday shows and saying that the Taliban we now believe was behind -- the Taliban in Pakistan -- nearby -- but the Taliban was behind the attack in Times Square?
MR. GIBBS: But I think -- I want to stress what they said up here, which is that there are some similarities. We’re talking about two distinct groups. Let’s not confuse the -- let’s not confuse the two.
Q But how can they can say things are going well when the American people are seeing attacks from that region being planned and plotted and then being --
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, Ed, let’s -- it’s not the Taliban writ large, okay. We’re talking about two distinct entities. I think what General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry were talking about are we have made improvements in the security on the ground in and around Marja. The shaping is starting and continuing on what has to happen in Kandahar. We have seen -- and the President has been briefed and I think General McChrystal made mention of the steady but sure progress in training and retaining an Afghan national army and police, and some improvements that Ambassador Eikenberry mentioned on the governance side.
But I think it was characterized and I think I characterized it this way last Thursday after the meeting that was had in the Situation Room, that progress is steady but slow. And I think that is likely to continue.
Q Can I ask about the Court unless --
Q Can we stay on Afghanistan?
MR. GIBBS: You want to stay on Afghanistan?
Q The ambassador mentioned a peace jirga coming later this month. What does the U.S. want to see out of that specifically?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me -- I know that’s going to be a topic of discussion and we’ll get a chance to talk about it after the two leaders talk about that.
Q All right. A follow-up then -- the ambassador also mentioned the need to improve accountability. What needs to happen that demonstrates that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, there are a series of things that President Karzai has outlined. There’s things that we have asked for, not all of which I’m going to get into.
Q Can you give a couple examples?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I would say -- I would point you to what Ambassador Eikenberry talked about in terms of improving the run-up to parliamentary elections as important steps forward for the government.
Q Given the fact that everything we’ve heard this morning suggests that this is definitely a work in progress, and as you said, not going all that quickly, what confidence do you have that by the time American troops are ready to leave, according to the schedule laid out by the President, that you’ll have rule of law, that you’ll have a cohesive police and responsible army?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Bill, the plan that was -- the plan that the President worked through over the course of many months last fall and winter and what he approved additional forces for sets out a plan for, both in working with Ambassador Eikenberry and others, improvements in governance, improvements in corruption and accountability, and in steps --
Q Yes, but you’re up against a timeline, which is very short.
MR. GIBBS: Well, but -- again, I think our -- the progress in getting our additional forces in is on track. We are making -- as I think appropriately said -- steady but slow progress. Bill, we didn’t think this was going to happen overnight. This has been something that, as Helen mentioned, has been going on for a number of years -- I might add under-resourced for almost that entire time. So we are making up for an effort, as I said that I think the President believes wasn’t adequately resourced in the past.
But we have a plan both on the security and the governance side to make progress leading up to the point in which the President believes our troops will begin coming home.
Q Robert, two quick ones. What is the President’s position on reconciliation with Taliban, number one?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’m not going to get into -- in-depth in that --
Q -- stated by Ambassador Eikenberry.
MR. GIBBS: I’m not going to get into the President’s perspective on that. They’ll have a chance to talk about that. We’ll have a chance to read it out.
Q How does Wali Karzai, President Karzai’s younger brother, fit within any matrix of evaluating movement away from corruption?
MR. GIBBS: I would say there’s a whole host of things in which we’re working with -- the team is working with President Karzai and throughout levels of the government of Afghanistan to make progress.
Q So it fits into that evaluation?
MR. GIBBS: I’m not going to get into specific --
Q We were briefed a while ago about the likelihood of a Kandahar operation sometime in June. Is that deadline or that date slipping any because of lack of Afghan willingness to participate?
MR. GIBBS: No, not that I’ve heard. I would say this, I think the way -- the way a lot of this was described, and we talked about in the meeting last week, was, you are not -- this was not going to be something -- I’m trying to phrase this the right way -- this was not -- you are not going to see something that you might think of as a traditional military exercise. This is going to take quite some time. There won’t be -- as was mentioned in the meeting -- there won’t be some D-Day-like moment.
Q No frontal assault on Monday --
MR. GIBBS: Yes, this is -- and I think that speaks to the importance of and the preparation that General McChrystal and others have undertaken in order to shape this.
Q Can you state the goals of that operation?
MR. GIBBS: I think General McChrystal outlined them. I think we are -- obviously, he mentioned the importance of Kandahar and returning it and the area to one of security and good governance.
Q Thank you, Robert. The Center for American Progress, a group that’s not too unfriendly towards the administration, put out a report this morning on Afghanistan. And they said that Obama administration officials “need greater clarity of purpose in defining the end-state goals to achieve coherence in American policy towards Afghanistan and that administration objectives in the next two- to five-year period there are vague.”
I mean if your friends are saying this, do you think you’re having trouble communicating what your end-state is in Afghanistan?
MR. GIBBS: Well, David, I, not surprisingly, didn’t spend the morning reading that. It was by all accounts here a fairly busy morning. I’m happy to look at that and figure out what their notion is --
Q Well, do you think that you communicated a clear idea of what the administration wants in term of a state -- an end-state in Afghanistan in the next two to five years?
MR. GIBBS: I do. And I think we’re -- again, we’re making progress on that. Again, David, I’m happy to take a look at that and see what --
Q In your review of operations in March, Operation Moshtarak, what lessons have you learned that you hope to apply for Kandahar, especially in reference to civilian-military coordination?
MR. GIBBS: Let me -- I’m going to direct that over to ISAF. I should not be speaking specifically about military operations except to say, as I said earlier to Major’s question, this is something that will fundamentally look a lot different than what we’ve seen in the past.
Q Robert, to get back to Mark’s line of questioning, actually, you must admit that President Karzai has not made any of these statements for a while, these kinds of statements that would cause -- that seem to cause alarm in this administration for a while.
MR. GIBBS: He hasn’t made them in a while? Yes, I’d probably agree with that. I don’t know what the -- awkward pause.
Q Why not?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.
Q Robert, do you have any --
MR. GIBBS: Well, why not?
Q Yes, why do you think --
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’d -- I think -- look, I can’t speak to the reason of why those were made. I can only speak to the relationship that we have, the relationship that we have with any partner. You are going to agree on some things, and you are going to disagree on others.
We have that type of partnership. We understand I think what has to be done from a security and a governance perspective, and we will continue to work with our partner to make sure that happens.
Q Robert, do you have any -- does the administration have any specific plan or looking into the end of this year and going to next year to actually assess the progress on the ground? Because you emphasized to Congress many times that this is all going to be driven by the progress that you see taking place.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, look, I don’t have any of them with me, but, look, there are reports that go up to report on the status of our efforts, again, on both the security and civilian side. As General McChrystal said and as he told the President last week, obviously the pacing of our events there will increase as more of our forces flow in on the security side. You heard Ambassador Eikenberry -- look, one of the big things that the President, really dating back to early in the administration in meetings in the first few months on Afghanistan, was our strong desire to see a greater push on the civilian side through the State Department and other agencies that can impact what is happening on the ground, understanding that what General McChrystal does to clear an area and hold an area then has to be built on by the civilian side. So this is a process that involves both increased security and improved governance.
Q Ambassador Eikenberry, he characterized the disagreements as ups and downs. You said they were disagreements. I mean, what President Karzai said was pretty inflammatory stuff -- and inflammatory enough that you intimated at one point that the visit might be cancelled. I’m curious, does the President --
MR. GIBBS: No, I think I -- well, I don’t recall exactly everything I said at that time period.
Q We can show you. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Do you have Sam’s quote?
Q Not right in front of me.
Q Still on for now.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, that the visit was on as planned.
Q But, I mean, is this something that the President will be looking to clear the air over the next couple days? I mean --
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I got to tell you, I’m not entirely sure that the President is going to be hugely focused on what was said six or eight weeks ago, and instead focused on, first and foremost, the improvements that were made in the days after that, again, in terms of planning for parliamentary elections and the steps that have to take place over the course of the next several months and years to make progress.
Q So he’s not going to -- the President is not going to want to discuss and clear the air on this stuff?
MR. GIBBS: I am -- we’ll have a chance to talk about what the President says after the President says it. But, again, Sam, our focus is on moving forward. Our focus is on a partnership that allows our troops to train Afghans -- as I said, they’re the ultimate security solution -- that we’re able to establish a level, a base level of governance that will allow us to come home. That’s what the focus will be.
Q Robert, trust is an essential part of any relationship, and this administration I guess trusted Karzai before he said it and then when he said what he said and backtracked -- taking it back and forth for those few weeks and then what you said from the podium, there seemed to be a lack of trust. And now how is everything forgiven and is moving forward?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, you guys -- I’ll try to do this one more time. There are going to be times in which -- there will be many times in which we agree; there will be many times in which we disagree. I think if you look at virtually every bilateral relationship we have in the world, I doubt there is one in which we agree on everything that is done and said on one side. I certainly -- one doesn’t come to mind.
Again, I think the President has been enormously clear on this, that there are steps that we have to take both in security and on the civilian side. We will laud the steps that they take and the steps that need to be taken in order to improve either on the security side or on the governance side. We will work with them to make sure they happen.
Q So I take it right now there is a level of trust right now, a mutual level of trust?
MR. GIBBS: There is a partnership that has always existed over this course of the time period that we’re talking about between the country of Afghanistan and the United States.
Q And what do they have to gain and what do they have to lose if the trust is there or not there?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think each side understands the steps that have to be taken to improve security and to improve the civilian situation there.
Q Just to follow up on Jake’s question, actually, I know this has to deal with Pakistan as well, but in light of the Times Square bomber citing drone strikes as a reason for doing what he did, I’m wondering what kind of discussions, if any, have happened within the administration about that policy?
MR. GIBBS: None that I would get into publicly.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.
Q Same issue. Over the weekend, the Attorney General identified the Pakistani Taliban as behind the bombing; we had the Secretary of State warn the Pakistanis must do more to go after them. We just heard General McChrystal say that actually the Pakistanis are doing a pretty good job against the TTP. I’m trying -- I’m having a hard time what exactly the administration wants the Pakistanis to do when it comes to the Times Square bombing.
MR. GIBBS: I think we have -- we are pleased with the level of cooperation that we’ve gotten from the Pakistani government. We have a partnership with them, and we have seen them for the first time in the last year take on the threat that existed within their country that they had not addressed in quite some time.
So, again, I’m not going to get into specifics about the investigation. That will come if we desire to talk about that more from the Department of Justice. I would characterize our relationship as good. I would characterize the -- one of the things that has happened over the course of the past year as a far greater cooperation between the two governments. I’m pleased with that continued cooperation now.
Q Secretary Clinton certainly seemed to say, in her 60 Minutes interview, that they were not -- if we find out that there are perpetrators in Pakistan that were behind this, that that's going to be a bad thing, and they have to do more.
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I don't -- I think the Pakistani government recognizes the threat that the TTP poses to them, just as we recognize the threat that it poses to us. I think there is without a doubt an alignment of interests in understanding where that threat is and what it poses.
Q Can I change the subject?
MR. GIBBS: Do you guys want to change the subject?
Q Thank you. When the President was in Afghanistan, he had a very clear and straightforward message for President Karzai. What do you think now this time what different message he will have for President Karzai, and also, if any message for the misled young people in Afghanistan and Pakistan? What the President --
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, Goyal, on the first part, I think the President -- I think both Presidents understand what they face, and I think we will have a very clear conversation about what’s gone on and what has to happen moving forward. I think, again, we understand the trajectory of events that need to take place over the course of the next many months, the importance of what’s upcoming in Kandahar. But understanding, again, as I said, because I think -- I don't want to divorce the two issues, and understanding that what General McChrystal clears and what he and the Afghan National Security Forces clear and hold has to be built upon, that we can’t -- we’re not going to be able to do that without the clear guidance of improved governance. And that's -- that will be our focus.
Q Thanks, Robert. There was extreme violence today in Iraq; more than 80 civilians were killed there. I’m curious as to whether this in any way affects the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, whether it affects the endgame for the mission in Afghanistan.
MR. GIBBS: None that I’ve heard. I will check again with NSC and see if there are developments on that.
Q Do you a comment, though, about what occurred in Iraq today?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, we have always known and planned for, that in a period of governmental formation, that those whose violent grip slowly diminished over several years, that they would make one last charge at trying to foment violence and chaos. The Vice President has been working on the political situation there and we continue to believe we’re making progress -- they’re making progress on the ground in terms of a government.
Q Following his conversations with European leaders this weekend, is the President satisfied that enough has been done over there to contain the debt crisis? And how much concern was there this weekend over here that what was going on in Europe could imperil the U.S. recovery?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we -- I will say that the President and his economic team have been following and have been engaged in this situation for quite some time. As you know, we discussed calls that the President made both on Friday and over the course of the weekend to our European counterparts about the importance of taking strong action to give confidence and to stabilize the situation. And I think we are pleased thus far with that result.
Q Quickly back to Afghanistan, Robert. Everybody puts a lot of emphasis on training the Afghan forces. How do the President and his advisors judge the reluctance of NATO members to send more troops and trainers and combat forces?
MR. GIBBS: Look, we have been pleased with the contributions that have come from NATO to ISAF. This is a threat not just -- what could happen in Afghanistan is not simply a threat to one country, but to countries throughout the world. We’re pleased with the contributions that have been made. And it allows us to continue to do the work that we’re doing.
Q Robert, just two questions.
MR. GIBBS: Should we talk about the Supreme Court for a few minutes? Do you guys have any questions on that?
Q Let me start with --
MR. GIBBS: This thing is going to take like four hours. I don’t -- go ahead, I’m sorry.
Q Is there any plans for Ms. Kagan to step down sooner from her post as Solicitor General to avoid as many recusals as possible, if she gets on the High Court?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, she will continue to -- first and foremost, I think we talked about when we get a schedule for her going to the Hill, which we anticipate will likely be later this week, we will let you all know. She will also obviously begin prepping for very important hearings, which we hope will result, obviously, in her confirmation. And we hope that -- and expect that the timetable is such that that confirmation would happen prior to the Senate leaving for recess in August.
She will continue to do work that she has already been involved in, in the Solicitor General’s Office. And I think that --
Q So if she’s already been involved, she’ll stick with it. But she’ll take on nothing new --
Q She won’t take on additional --
MR. GIBBS: She is not going to take on additional --
Q No new cases?
MR. GIBBS: She’s not going to take on new work. And, obviously, look, the President had to make a decision similar to past Presidents that have tapped Solicitor Generals to serve on the High Court. I think I’ve seen commentators very familiar with the potential caseload that the next Supreme Court term is likely to include. Next year, I think we anticipate recusals in about a dozen cases, and then maybe less than half of that in the year after that.
So obviously there -- if there is work that she’s done on behalf of -- on behalf of the administration and her client, the American people, that come before the Court, she will -- as others have -- recused themselves -- recuse herself.
Q Can I follow on the recusal question? Were any of those cases given any serious consideration in terms of what a factor recusal might have on them?
MR. GIBBS: None that I’m aware of, no.
Q Robert, just a couple questions about Solicitor General Kagan. Could you explain how somebody who has spent almost her entire career, if not her entire career, working in the federal government or at Harvard has an understanding of how the law affects real people?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don’t -- yes, I think if you judge her background, she was -- she has worked in the White House. She has clerked for judges. She has worked for people like Ab Mikva, Thurgood Marshall. I think she has -- is somebody who, as you heard the President say, first and foremost, I think she understands how the law works and how it impacts everyday people. I think she’s somebody who has a diversity of experience -- that is an important plus that the President looked at. She is somebody who currently serves in what some have called the 10th -- as the 10th justice. She represents the American people before the Supreme Court.
So I think she’s -- I think she has a diversity of experience that allows her to understand how the law works and how it impacts the people of this country.
Q I guess the question is, where does she see how the law -- I mean, she -- I don’t mean this sarcastically, but it’s not like she was a community organizer in Chicago. Where did she see how the law directly impacted real people?
MR. GIBBS: As a clerk. As somebody who worked in the Counsel’s Office. As somebody who worked in the policy office here at the White House. As somebody who has argued in front of the Supreme Court on behalf of the interest of this -- of her client now, the American people.
I don’t -- look, Jake, I don’t think there is one thing that you can do that necessarily provides you with the wisdom of what you speak. I think having somebody with a diversity of experience -- look, the President heard from a lot of people. You all asked me about the fact that what does it do to have somebody outside of what may be referred to as the judicial monastery, somebody who comes at things looking at them from a slightly different angle.
Q And then my other question is, she’s been criticized for her position as dean of Harvard when she reinstated a ban on military recruiters using the office of the --
MR. GIBBS: Office of Career Services.
Q -- Office of Career Services, thank you. And I was just wondering, the President is somebody who has both worked in universities and also as Commander-In-Chief tried to balance “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Does he have any compunction about what law schools did when they removed military recruiters, as somebody who is now in charge of the military?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what’s important to understand, Jake, is as you hear people describe this -- these series of activities, I think it is important to understand that there was never a pause in military recruitment at Harvard Law School. They were not afforded access as part of the Office of Career Service, but through the Veteran’s Office they had access to students at Harvard Law School. And in 2005, in fact, more Harvard Law School graduates than in any of the preceding years chose military service, something that the Solicitor General has lauded students for and the military in general for the safety and security that they provide her and all the American people.
Q Does the President want to water down Miranda?
MR. GIBBS: No -- you're referring to what the Attorney General talked about? The Attorney General I believe spoke on Sunday about looking at ways to ensure that Miranda is -- which is an important tenant in our law -- is flexible in the questioning of those involved in terrorism. We think we have --
Q Flexible -- is he caving in on the principle --
MR. GIBBS: No, Helen, we've been lectured by many -- and I'm not implying that of you -- we've been lectured by many on the other side on the political judgments of those not in the room when very experienced terrorism interrogators are speaking with either Abdulmutallab or Shahzad. And I think that --
Q We still have a law.
MR. GIBBS: And the President intends to strongly uphold that.
Q Robert, can you tell us about the oil spill meeting this afternoon? Is the President running out of patience with efforts to plug the leak?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the President will, in the Situation Room in about five to seven minutes, is going to sit down with relevant Cabinet members and senior White House staff to review BP’s efforts to stop the leak, to discuss the next steps that need to be taken to ensure that all is being done both to do that and contain the spread and mitigate the environmental and economic impacts that would ensue from it.
Look, Mark, obviously the President would like any of the actions that have been taken to have thus far worked. We understood -- and I think BP was somewhat out front on the notion that the chances of the containment dome working were, I think they said, a one-in-three chance.
He will be briefed on -- further briefed on where we are on that. As I understand it, the dome now sits several hundred yards away from the active well, as they seek solutions for dealing with the hydrates that have formed inside the containment dome that have made what they had hoped would be something that could cap and vacuum the oil, make it -- that that would be successful.
So he will go through -- the senior administration officials will go through that with him and will talk of a whole host of issues. And time permitting, I'll have a readout of that.
Q Robert, just two questions --
MR. GIBBS: Hold on, Lester. Just calm down.
Q Real quick, what’s the schedule for naming a new Solicitor General if she’s not going to take on new work? Do you have a schedule yet?
MR. GIBBS: None that I'm currently aware of, no.
Q All right -- okay. Following up on Jake, in addition to what happened at Harvard, Elena Kagan also signed a friend of the court brief on a case called FAIR versus Rumsfeld, which was a challenge to the Solomon Amendment, which provided fair access for military recruiters at all U.S. college campuses. The Supreme Court sided with the Solomon Amendment. And the Center for Military Readiness says her -- two things -- what happened at Harvard and her filing as friend of the court brief makes her appointment an affront to the U.S. military.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I would simply -- well, first and foremost, I think it’s important -- and you left out a few things in your series of events: one, a circuit court ruling that was opposite that of the Supreme Court before the case, rightly, came to the Supreme Court -- I just didn’t know if you left that out for some reason. And then, secondly --
Q Making a short question.
MR. GIBBS: Lester will get a chance to comment on the brevity of the question. (Laughter.) I think that -- look, don't take their word for it; take the word of those that have gone to Harvard Law School, that have seen her -- the support that she’s given to those that have joined the military, the brave young men and women that have served our country that have gone to Harvard that speak of the dedication that she had both to the school and to our military. I think they are -- I think they speak of her dedication unlike anybody else can.
Q For the record, I also left out the fact that the Court ruled eight to nothing against her amicus brief. Just to set the record straight.
MR. GIBBS: Again, I'm sure in the --
Q -- interest of a brief question.
MR. GIBBS: -- in deference to the overall brevity of your line of questioning.
Q Robert, one of the things that Republicans have been saying about Elena Kagan is to compare her in terms of lack of judicial experience to Harriet Miers. What do you think of those comparisons?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I would have you look at the full background of her record. Again, clerkships for Ab Mikva; a clerkship for Thurgood Marshall; teaching at the University of Chicago; work in the Counsel’s Office here; work at the Domestic Policy Committee here; nominated for a federal judgeship, which might have happened were it not for a filibuster on her votes. And the notion that a -- she received a strong, bipartisan vote for being the Solicitor General, for being the person that represented the interest of the American people and the government as they argued in front of the Supreme Court. I don’t -- I got to tell you, I don’t understand -- I have a hard time understanding the analogy.
Q They’re suggesting that she’d be a rubber stamp in the same way that Harriet Miers would allegedly have been a rubber stamp.
MR. GIBBS: Well, nothing that we’d ever be able to compare, either I think in the breadth of their resume or, I think, in the impact of the Court.
Q Did the issue of her religion ever come up?
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q Did the President ever look at the --
MR. GIBBS: No. No, the President --
Q -- religious mix on the Court? Does that concern him?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I -- when we did one of the briefings earlier today -- I think it’s important to understand the President -- this is the President’s second pick of the nine that currently serve on the Court. One certainly was confirmed last year that’s his pick. So, again, the President has not chosen all the members of the Supreme Court. I will just say that the President has looked for a diversity of experience, somebody that brings a unique perspective. I am not aware of the notion of her religion coming up at any time.
Q A very brief question -- just two very brief questions.
MR. GIBBS: Hold on, hold on, hold on. I’m not going anywhere.
Q Yes, thank you.
MR. GIBBS: Don’t worry, Lester, despite that sour look on your face, I’m going to get over there.
Q It’s not sour-looking. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Yes, it was. It’s not now, because you’re smiling because everybody is looking. (Laughter.)
Q The Solicitor General was quoted, I think back in ’95, calling the confirmation proceedings hollow and substanceless. I’m wondering, would you like to see her divulge more information during her confirmation hearing? Would you like to see her asked and reveal opinions about places that she’d stand and -- in line with this opinion that she expressed, what was it, 15 years ago?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Sam, I would point you to the answer that’s -- the answers that she gave last year during her own confirmation process to be Solicitor General and -- in which she understood differently, from the perspective of a staffer, the perspective that a nominee can and must take during the confirmation process. So I would point you to what she said there.
Q Robert, on Kagan, how much did the issue of age weigh in on the President’s decision? Because early on before the process even really started, when he talked to the black ministers, they asked about the next Supreme Court pick and he said the issue of age was very important, because it’s hard to find someone in their 40s and 50s who have that Supreme Court pedigree. Could you talk to me about how age weighed in on this?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I would go back and ask those involved more closely than I in the process, the degree to which that came up. April, I think not having the ages of all of those in front of me, I think many of them were within very much the same age range.
Q About 60-somethings.
MR. GIBBS: Yes. Well, no, I think others were in their mid -- I’m talking about the others that the President looked at were all largely in the same age range.
Q Okay, well, wait a minute, I’m not finished. Also, could you define “liberal progressive”? And also, could you tell us if this pick reflects the President’s judiciary philosophy -- judicial philosophy?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the President -- I’m just going to say this, I think the President selected the person that he believes is the best pick available, the person that he would like to see most serve next on the Supreme Court. I’m not going to get into the definition of labels.
Q Robert, on the question of judicial experience again, the lack of, did the administration consider that in viewing the different candidates an asset or a liability for Elena Kagan -- the fact that she has not served on the bench?
MR. GIBBS: I think the President, again, looked for somebody that had served in many different roles. I think -- but I will say this, that the President did not eliminate, as you can tell, anybody that didn’t come from a judgeship. And I think if you look back at the history of judicial selections to the -- I’m sorry, selections to the Supreme Court, there have been notable selections that didn’t rise directly from judgeships, the last being William Rehnquist, who then -- who was ultimately elevated to Chief Justice.
Q I’m getting to the other side, that it may -- was it seen as an asset because without being on the bench she doesn’t have a long paper trail; therefore could be more easily confirmed.
MR. GIBBS: No, I -- again, the President wasn’t -- the President was picking the best candidate, not the best candidate with a small paper trail or the best candidate that had not said anything or the best candidate that did this or that. He just -- his criteria was, “the best candidate.” And that’s what he’s done.
Q Thank you very much. Just two questions. Regarding the Defense Department announcement that our nuclear weapons are now a little over 5,000, compared to 30,000 in 1967, does this mean the President believes other nations with nuclear weapons will reduce their number like we have? And if so, which nations?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I would say, Lester, that this President has followed in a long line of Presidents that have understood the need to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons. One that comes to mind is Ronald Reagan.
Q Does the President believe the majority of the American people believe this number of our nuclear weapons should have been made public?
MR. GIBBS: I’m sorry, what was the first part?
Q Does he believe that the number that we now have should be -- have been made public?
MR. GIBBS: Does he believe it should have been?
MR. GIBBS: He believed it so much that he did. (Laughter.)
Q All right.
MR. GIBBS: Thank you.
2:34 P.M. EDT
January 31, 2015
January 31, 2015
January 30, 2015
January 30, 2015
January 30, 2015
January 29, 2015
January 29, 2015
January 28, 2015