Background Briefing by a Senior Administration Official
1:35 A.M. (local)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I just wanted to give you guys a background readout here. Upon taking off, the President called President Karzai of Afghanistan because they weren’t able to see each other. They discussed progress that’s been made by the Afghan National Security Forces. The President referenced that he’d heard very positive readouts of the progress in his briefings with Ambassador Cunningham and General Dunford. They discussed the success of the first round of the elections and the preparations that are being made for the second round of elections.
The President praised the Afghan electoral institutions for the work that they’re doing, as well as the Afghan National Security Forces’ work in securing those elections. The President also reiterated his continued support for a process of Afghan-led reconciliation that President Karzai is committed to.
With respect to the BSA, the President reiterated his interest in concluding a BSA with President Karzai’s successor and agreed to stay in touch with President Karzai as we make determinations about what potential post-2014 presence could go along with a BSA.
Q What did Karzai say about that -- the BSA?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just that they agreed to stay in touch on it and that President Obama would be in touch before we articulate publicly any decision-making. But I think it’s understood by both of them that [the] BSA is something that his successor would conclude; we crossed that bridge earlier in the year. And again, I think we saw good statements from both Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani in recent days about their interest in signing a BSA.
Q Do you have any more information on how much of a heads up Karzai got? Because it seemed like from the statement you guys had with the offer for him to come to Bagram, it was basically an offer that was made so late that he would never have been able to make it anyways.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I don’t know the exact timing of when he was notified. That’s handled by the embassy. I do think -- look, in the past, President Karzai has not traveled to Bagram when we’ve been there, so it’s not our expectation that he would. He prefers to host President Obama at the palace. Again, the nature of this visit was such that we were really keeping it focused on the troops and not looking to get into Afghan politics at this time. So we weren’t surprised, but we did want to make sure that President Obama could speak to him given his travel to Afghanistan and the briefings he got from his senior [staff].
Q So they spoke after we were wheels up, right?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right after the plane was wheels up, yes.
Q Do you know about how long the call lasted?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I think the call lasted about 15 to 20 minutes.
Q And did he tell him -- I’m sorry, I wasn’t sure if I understood -- did the President tell President Karzai that he will let him know before he makes an announcement whether it’s at West Point or whatever about the plans for residual troop numbers?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, he would, as a matter of course, consult with President Karzai before publicly articulating an announcement like that.
Q And was this call that articulation? Or there will be another --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This call was about having been in Afghanistan and wanting to touch base with him. And actually, the only other thing I left out is they also talked about the recent attack on the Indian Consulate in Afghanistan and the context of President Karzai also traveling to India tomorrow for Prime Minister-designate Modi’s inauguration.
Q When exactly did the President invite Karzai to Bagram?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the embassy extended that invitation sometime before our arrival. I don’t know the exact time.
Q When Obama had his briefing with Dunford and others, what was the conversation like about the post-2014 plan? I mean, are they still in the stage where he’s actually getting guidance and advice? Or was it more him telling the Commander and others what he’s thinking about announcing?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I mean, it’s both. He’s been getting their advice over the last few weeks. He was able to share some of his thinking. I think they really wanted to, given the context of how they see things on the ground. I think the principal message that we heard from General Dunford and Ambassador Cunningham is that there are a number of factors converging here that do make it an opportune moment for the United States to articulate its commitment -- that the Afghan National Security Forces have performed, in some respects better than we anticipated; they have moved into the lead for combat; the elections have created a sense of optimism in Afghanistan.
So there’s an environment in which there are some good strains that are converging that make a potential U.S. articulation of our commitment to Afghanistan worthwhile; also, the commitments from the two leading candidates. So I think their message was that different parts of this puzzle are coming together in Afghanistan in this year of transition and that there is a continued investment that the United States can make that can help the new administration in Afghanistan when it does take power to have a stable beginning.
They also reviewed the ongoing security challenges that we face in Afghanistan -- how we are going about the training mission; how we are helping the Afghan National Security Forces not just build their combat force, but also be able to sustain some of the functions of a national army. So I think they covered in some detail the state of the Afghan National Security Forces and then discussed the challenges of securing the second round of the elections. The Afghans will be in the lead for that as well. We’re simply providing advice and counsel on that.
Q So the progress that they’re making, does that suggest that a smaller force would be fine, like of 5,000?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, it suggests how do we focus on supporting those functions of the Afghan National Security Forces that are going to be necessary for sustainability so that not only can they serve as a combat force in the field, but how are they building out the structures and institutions of a national army, and also how we’re going to coordinate with our allies, some of whom have also indicated a commitment to a post-2014 Afghanistan.
Q But is it fair to say that short of whoever wins the election, not signing the BSA, that the zero option is off the table at this point?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If there’s not a BSA, we will not keep troops in Afghanistan.
Q Right. But if the BSA is signed, you guys will move forward with --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, yes, I think the President has indicated that, and you saw in his comments today that it’s our expectation that if there is a BSA we’d look at how -- what force structure could fulfill those missions. And that’s what he’ll have a chance to speak to in the coming days.
Q Ten thousand has been the high number that we’ve been using. Is there -- we shouldn’t use that number anymore when we talk about the range?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to get into numbers.
Q Has the President called, or is he planning on calling on this flight either anyone in the leadership of Ukraine or in Russia? And can you talk about that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don’t have any current calls scheduled, but I would expect that he will call at the first opportunity the newly elected President. I think, obviously, we want to monitor how they are certifying those results. What I will say is that the President was commenting about how well the election went from his perspective. Clearly, the Ukrainians turned out in significant numbers. Clearly, the message they were sending was one of national unity and a commitment to democracy. Even in some of the more difficult provinces you saw people working to vote.
I think the statements you saw after the election from leaders like Poroshenko, they underscore national unity and send very positive signals about the future of Ukraine, not just its relations with its neighbors, but in reaching out to the east. So again, I think the overarching message from the election was extraordinarily positive when you look at the difficulties of the last several weeks -- for Ukraine it’s a turnout of those numbers and to have such a clear result. And in support of policies of national unity, inclusion, economic stabilization, I think sets a very good groundwork for our relationship with Ukraine going forward.
Q -- was that Poroshenko got more than the 50 percent-plus one, so there’s no run-off and they kind of move ahead, instead of being in limbo for another month or so.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, again, that’s up to the Ukrainians. I do think, though, that the sense of stability in getting to work that comes from a clear election result could be extraordinarily positive. It provides some assurance and legitimacy at a time where Ukraine has been dealing with significant challenges. And again, what we’ve always said is this election will settle the legitimacy question. There were questions raised by Russia and others after the Yanukovych government collapsed and he fled town. Now the people of Ukraine have spoken, and I don’t think there can be any questioning the legitimacy of a result that reflects such a broad cross-section of the Ukrainian public.
So I think we made clear that the United States, our European allies will be there for this new government to help them deal with some very difficult challenges -- stabilizing the economy and trying to calm this conflict. And we hope that Russia will choose to play a constructive role in respecting this result.
Q No calls to Putin expected?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: None expected.
Q Is there anything -- any color from behind the scenes that we couldn’t see, either in the hospital visit or in his interactions with troops that you want to talk about?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Like I said, the only thing I’d say is that he -- or a couple of things. He was able to tour kind of the -- some of the operation centers. And in each place that he went he made a point of going around to each desk and shaking everybody’s hand and thanking them. As he mentioned in his remarks, in the operation center he saw a poster of the Twin Towers, which clearly resonated with him, and he referred to the fact that, in his private remarks to the troops in those operation centers, that it reminded him of why we’re here.
When he finished those briefings and walked towards the hangar, he went through the Hall of Honor that they have there, where they have photos of the fallen from Afghanistan. So he was able to look at photos of many troops who had been lost in Afghanistan and thought that was obviously particularly profound on Memorial Day weekend to see those photos, even as he was then able to go and spend some time with the troops as well.
So I think he was, as always, moved by the visit and inspired by what these troops are doing every single day on behalf of the United States.
Q How many soldiers was he able to meet with at the hospital?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t know. I’ll check that for you. The other thing he did -- he was able to give out some awards. Did we get you the background on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll get that for you. A number of Purple Hearts and other awards. So we’ll get that for you.
Q Were there new awards done tonight that was part of this? We don’t have that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, he -- well get you what he gave out there, yes.