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Obama, Ghani News Conference. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired March 24, 2015 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

Within a minute or so, President Obama and the visiting Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, they're set to take the stage. They'll be holding a joint news conference after a series of meetings over at the White House, meetings for this newly elected Afghan president. He took office in January. The timetable of the planned U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, critical issue on the agenda for both of these leaders. CNN has just confirmed that, at Ashraf Ghani's request, the U.S. will maintain its current troop level of nearly 10,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan, at least through the end of this year. There are almost exactly 9800 U.S. troops providing what's described as training and support in Afghanistan. That number was supposed to be reduced to about 5500 by year's end with a complete withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel by the end of 2016, at least early 2017.

I know the leaders are about to walk in.

Jim Acosta is there in the East Room of the White House.

Jim, set the stage for us.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. As you mentioned just a few moments ago, the White House indicating there will be some news in this news concerns coming up in just a few minutes. The president will announce that he has decided, after meeting with the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, that he will be keeping approximately 9800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That's the number that is currently there right now. The plan had originally been for the president to draw down that number to about 5500 U.S. troops and then totally withdraw nearly all U.S. forces by the end of 2016 as he ends his presidency. What the White House is saying at this point is that now the president will start looking at just how quickly that drawdown will occur in the course of 2016.

The president coming out now. We'll hear other issues coming up, including the issue of the relations between the U.S. and Israel -- Wolf?

BLITZER: The presidents are walking in now, Ashraf Ghani and President Obama.

(BEGIN PRESS CONFERENCE) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon, everybody. Please have a seat. Before I begin, I want to say that our thoughts and our prayers are with our friends in Europe, especially the people of Germany and Spain, following a terrible airplane crash in France.

It's particularly heart-breaking because it apparently includes the loss of so many children, some of the infants. I called German Chancellor Merkel and I hope to speak with President Rajoy of Spain later today to express the condolences of the American people, and to offer whatever assistance that we can as they investigate what has proven to be an awful tragedy.

Our teams are in close contact, and we're working to confirm how many Americans may have been on board. Germany and Spain are among our strongest allies in the world, and our message to them is that as their steadfast friend and ally, America stands with them at this moment of sorrow.

Now, it is a great pleasure to welcome President Ghani to the White House. As many of you know, President Ghani spent time here in the United States as a student and as a scholar. He happened to go to Columbia University where we both studied, and then spent time at the World Bank just down the street from here. And so, his life reflects, in many ways, the friendship and mutual respect between Americans and Afghans.

And in that spirit, Mr. President, I want to extend to you the warmest of welcomes.

President Ghani's presence here today, along with Chief Executive Abdullah underscores Afghan's -- Afghanistan's progress. In last year's election, millions of Afghans defied the threats from the Taliban and bravely cast their ballots.

In the spirit of compromise and putting their interests behind the interests of the nation, President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah ensured the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history. And together they now lead a national unity government that reflects the diversity, the strength, and the determination of the Afghan people.

Their government signed a bilateral security agreement between our two countries, and on December 31st, after more than 13 years, America's combat mission in Afghanistan came to a responsible end.

Afghan forces now have full responsibility for security across their country. Some 330,000 Afghans serve in the police and security forces, and they are making extraordinary sacrifices, fighting and often dying for their country. And the continue to grow stronger month by month.

Today we honor the many Afghans, men, women, and children, who have given their lives for their country. We salute the more than 2,200 Americans, patriots, who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan, and the many more who were wounded. OBAMA: Now, this morning, President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah visited Arlington National Cemetery to pay their respects to our fallen heroes. We are grateful for that gesture of gratitude. And we know it meant a lot to the families, as well. We'll see the bonds, again, between our people on display when President Ghani has an opportunity to address Congress tomorrow.

So with a new government in Afghanistan and with the end of our combat mission, this visit is an opportunity to begin a new chapter between our two nations.

President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah, I thank you both for your strong support of the partnership between our two nations. And yesterday, they had a chance to spend time in Camp David with our respective teams, and had excellent discussions on how we can move forward together.

Today, guided by our strategic partnership, we focused on several areas. First, we agreed to continue to keep in place our close security cooperation. Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place. And insurgents still launch attacks, including cowardly suicide bombings against civilians.

President Ghani is pursuing reforms to further strengthen Afghan security forces, including respect for human rights. And as part of the ongoing NATO mission, the United States will continue to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces.

As we announced yesterday, we'll work with Congress on funding to sustain 352,000 Afghan police and troops through 2017. At the same time, we'll continue to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations. And we agreed to maintain a dialogue on our counterterrorism partnership in the years ahead.

Now, at our peak four years ago, the United States had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. In support of today's narrow missions, we have just under 10,000 troops there. Last year, I announced a timeline for drawing down our forces further, and I made it clear that we're determined to preserve the gains our troops have won.

President Ghani has requested some flexibility on our drawdown timelines. I've consulted with General Campbell in Afghanistan. My national security team, and I've decided that we will maintain our current posture of 9,800 troops through the end of this year.

The specific trajectory of the 2016 drawdown will be established later this year to enable our final consolidation to a Kabul-based embassy presence by the end of 2016.

Now, this flexibility reflects our reinvigorated partnership with Afghanistan, which is aimed at making Afghanistan secure and preventing it from being used to launch terrorist attacks. Reconciliation and a political settlement remain the surest way to achieve the full drawdown of U.S. and foreign troops from Afghanistan in a way that safeguards international interests and peace in Afghanistan, as well as U.S. national security interests. Second, and since the best way to ensure Afghan's progress is a

political settlement, we're going to continue to support an Afghan-led reconciliation process. Now President Ghani, you've shown bold leadership in reaching out to Pakistan, which is critical to the pursuit of peace. Afghanistan and the United States agree on what the Taliban must do, which is break with Al Qaida, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws, including the protections for women and minorities.

Third, we'll continue to support the National Unity Government in its efforts to truly serve the Afghan people. Now we discussed the urgent need, with Parliament's support, to seat a full cabinet.

President Ghani, in your inaugural address, you spoke forcefully about the need to combat corruption, uphold rule of law and strengthen Democratic institutions. And the United States very much commends you for those efforts. And you moved many Afghans with your eloquent tribute to your wife and partner, First Lady Rula Ghani.

America will continue to be your partner in advancing the rights and dignity of all Afghans, including women and girls.

And finally, we'll continue to support the development that underpins stability and improves the lives of the Afghan people. Over the years, there have been major gains, dramatic improvements in public health, life expectancy, literacy, including for millions of girls who are in school.

OBAMA: President Ghani is a leading expert on development, and I've been impressed by the reforms that he's pursuing to make Afghanistan more self-reliant. He want to empower Afghans in these efforts. And that's why under the New Development Partnership that we announced yesterday, U.S. economic assistance will increasingly go through Afghan institutions, in support of Afghan priorities, with an emphasis on accountability, performance and achieving results.

In closing, I'd note that, as many of you know, President Ghani is by training an anthropologist, as was my mother. It's been said that the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences. Afghanistan and our world is marked by incredible diversity and differences of history and culture and faiths. But I believe that the progress that we've made in this visit will help to advance the goal for which so many of your citizens, Mr. President, have sacrificed over the years, of the goal of making our two countries and the world safer.

President Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah, thank you both for your leadership and your partnership. America's combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, but our commitment to the Afghanistan people -- that will endure.

President Ghani?


President Obama, first of all, I'd like to express the deep sympathies of the government and the people of Afghanistan to German and Spanish families and governments. Both of these countries took part in the ISAF coalitions. They have made major commitments, and they've sacrificed in Afghanistan. I'd like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to those common sacrifices, and simultaneously take the opportunity to pay tribute to the 2,215 American service men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice. More than 22,000 American soldiers who have been wounded in action. Civilians, numerous contractors and others.

You stood shoulder to shoulder with us, and I'd like to say thank you. I would also like to thank the American taxpayer for his and her hard- earned dollars that has enabled us.

Yesterday in Pentagon, I saw a young girl. Her name is Reese (ph). And her father came out of retirement, out of reserve to serve again in Afghanistan. She's sending a care package every week to her father. And I want to thank her and the fathers of all other American children for making sure that their parents are helping us and standing next to us.

Reese, I promise now, has 3 million Afghan sisters in school. And those sisters are dreaming of achievement that would have a career perhaps, and hopefully, one day, we will see an Afghan woman president. It should not be soon, as not be too far. Because we soon -- we now have four women in the cabinet. That's 20 percent of our cabinet are women. I hope that some other countries will match us.


That we are intent (ph) -- and thank you for the reference to Afghanistan's first lady. She was delighted that -- to have an opportunity to speak to Mr. Obama. She's devoted her life to the most underprivileged of Afghans (ph). And all of us are committed to make sure that 36 percent of Afghans that live below poverty will have -- will live with dignity and one day, not in the distant future, see prosperity.

(inaudible) are grateful for the reception that you've accorded us, Mr. President. Your national security team has gone out of its way to engage in an intensive comprehensive discussion. And both of us would like to thank Secretary Kerry for the loss of hours of sleep we caused you. And for your very able diplomacy and catalyzing the unity that today is on display. The government of national unity is going to be an enduring phenomena. And both of us stand for the unity against the divisions that our opponents and enemies had hoped for.

This unity is a reflection of the desire of the Afghan public to overcome the last 200 years of our political history, where rarely public figures have chosen the country before themselves. We are committed in this regard to emulate the founding fathers and mothers of the United States, where national interest will stand above personal or tractional (ph) interest.

Often I'm glad that the security transition is completed. You fulfilled your promise to your people, and we've fulfilled our promise to our people. Afghans for a millennia have guarded our homeland and have a

reputation for serving. The last years were an exception when we needed help and we're grateful that help was provided, but we are pleased that the security transition has been met according to the time line that you set. Today, the combat role of the United States in Afghanistan is over, but the train, advice and assist mission is a vital part of our collective interest and collective (inaudible).

Tragedy (ph) brought us together, interest now unite us. And we can assure you that the government of national unity has revitalized the partnership and looks at this partnership with the United States as foundational, not just for Afghanistan's stability, but for regional and global stability. Much Binds us together and the flexibility that has been provided for 2015 will be used to accelerate reforms, to ensure that the Afghan national security forces are much better lead, equipped, trained, and are focused on the fundamental mission. I'm pleased to say that the departure of 120,000 international troops is not brought about the security gap or the collapse that was often anticipated. I'd like to pay tribute at this moment to the continued sacrifice of the Afghan security forces, civilians, and a patriotic nation.

Our patriotism is part of simultaneously our internationalism. We are unique in that we've embraced democratic. We are very proud of our Islamic civilization that (inaudible) Islam. That is truly in dialogue with the world (ph). and we have the capacity to speak truth (ph) to terror.

They do not speak for Islam. We do. It is the genuine Islam that is interested in dialogue with civilizations, and cooperation, and endeavor forward.

On regional cooperation, we've taken both in (inaudible) steps, we do hope that these steps will be reciprocated because the threats (ph) that exist, the changing ecology of terror, are making it imperative that all governments cooperate with each other.

Today, the state system as we've known it is under attack. These are not classic national liberation movements. These are destructive nihilistic movements, and it's essential that we confront them with vigor and determination. But we must differentiate between those and Afghan citizens who desire peace.

Any political difference, anything that divides (ph) us must resolved politically. And we've shown the wisdom and determination that we can arrive at unity of purpose. So, our commitment to peace is clear. What we require is reciprocity so that Afghan patriots will choose their country over themselves and unite in resolving whatever might be that divides us. That we will not get peace with those who use our territory as a proxy for other purposes, as a battleground for alien forces, or as a launching pad for global terrorism.

This trip has provided us an opportunity to have a comprehensive overview, and I'm, again, want to express, thank you for your commitment to submittable (ph) to Congress for support of our security forces 2017. There's much work that lies ahead of us, and the flexibility that has been provided will be used to maximumly effect, to exhilarate reforms, to ensure that our security forces honor human rights, that they internalize the practices that binds an army, a police force, a secret service, to the people.

Violence against our people has no place within our security culture, and we will overcome those types of legacies.

It's, again, a pleasure to be standing next to a graduate of Columbia University. There's much that unites us. And your mother was an inspiration to us. I understand that the President of the World Bank actually got the job because she -- he invoked your mother's teachings to convince you. That's an anthropologist (ph) could lead the world then. So, thank you for affording him that rare opportunity.

OBAMA: He's doing a great job. All right, with that, let's take a couple questions.

Leo Shane, Military Times.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. This is on, right?

OBAMA: Yeah, it's on. I can hear you.

QUESTION: With the increased slowdown and the drawdown here, we're looking at more risk, more danger for U.S. troops that are in Afghanistan. How do you justify that to them? How do you tell them the mission is still worth it? And how do you assure them there is an end coming to this mission?

And for President Ghani, you've talked the last couple days a lot about the sacrifice of U.S. troops. You were at Arlington earlier today. How do you tell them that this continued sacrifice will be worth it to them as well?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, I think it's important, Leo, to remember, the timeline for withdrawal, down to a embassy-centered presence. A normalization of our presence in Afghanistan. Remains the end of 2016. So, that hasn't changed. Our transition out of a combat role has not changed.

Now, I am the first to say that, as long as our men and women in uniform are serving in Afghanistan, there are risks involved. It's a dangerous place. You know, casualties have come down precipitously, as we've engaged in the drawdown. It's been over 90 days since two Americans were killed in Afghanistan. That has occurred precisely because we're not in a combat role.

And I think it is worth noting the significant casualties that the Afghan security services have incurred. As we've drawn down, they've stood up and they're fighting. And, you know, they're fighting with courage and tenacity and they're getting better month by month.

But you can't minimize the sacrifices that our military families make. It means some folks will be rotating back into Afghanistan for a few extra months relative to what otherwise would have been the case.

We're essentially moving the drawdown pace over to the right for several months, in part, to compensate for the lengthy period it took for government formation, in part, because we want to make sure that we're doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces succeed. So, we don't have to go back. So, we don't have to respond in an emergency because counterterrorists -- or because terrorist activities are being launched out of Afghanistan. We're on the path to do that.

And it was my assessment as Commander in Chief that it made sense for us to provide a few extra months for us to be able to help on things like logistics, making sure that equipment is not just in place, but it's also used properly. That the training and advising and strategic input that's been provided continues through this fighting season, in part, so that President Karzai -- who has taken on the mantle of commander in chief in a way that we have not seen in the past from an Afghan president -- can do a serious review and can assess, here's where our strengths are, here's where our weaknesses are, and we can proceed with more effective joint planning going forward.

OBAMA: So, you know, the bottom line is, our men and women in uniform make enormous sacrifices. Their families do, too. They serve alongside them. This will mean that there are going to be some of our folks who are in Afghanistan under the new schedule who would have been home. But it is important to keep in perspective, first of all, that we've gone down from 100,000 down to under 10,000. That they are not on the front lines because they're not in a combat role. We are doing all that we can do to make sure that force protection is a priority for those who are in Afghanistan. And the date for us to have completed our drawdown will not change.

But it is my judgment, it's the judgment of General Campbell and others who are on the ground, that providing this additional time frame during this fighting season for us to be able to help the Afghan security forces succeed, is well worth it.

And in that sense, you know, once again we are asking our men and women in uniform to fight on behalf of our freedom and on behalf of a more orderly world.

It does, perhaps, raise one thought, which is right now there's a debate going up on Capitol Hill about budgets. This would be a good time for my friends up on Capitol Hill, including on the other side of the aisle, to take a look at their budgets.

If we're holding both our defense and nondefense budgets to 2006 levels, it's a lot harder for us to do the job that we need to do, not only on the national security side, but also here at home, making sure that when our men and women come home, and when they potentially go into civilian life, that they've got a strong economy, that their kids have good schools, that they can send their kids to college, that they get the veterans benefits that they have so richly earned and deserved.

You know, that would be a good way for us to express the thanks for the sacrifices they consistently make. GHANI: I met yesterday the widow of General Grady (ph). She would like

the memory of her husband to be preserved by a sustainable Afghanistan that is secure. The 2,215 Americans that have died, must not die in vain. They must leave behind a legacy of a stable Afghanistan.

And it's that preservation of those gains that I think inspires the American service men and women to obey the call of their commander, the order of their commanders. Second, we have taken them out of the harm's way. As the president mentioned, for the past 100 days, because the combat role has ended, the exposure, the number of casualties is really down. There isn't -- you know, my most horrible reading of the day, is my first and middle of the day and end of the day security reports, where I see the casualties of the Afghan figures. But thank God, they're no longer American or European casualties.

General Campbell is making sure that they remain in support role. Their train, advise, assist role, has risks, but they're nowhere comparable to combat role. And end of the combat role is very significant to this.

And, again, the institutional gains that would be achieved through the train, advice and assist role is what will guarantee that the investments of the last 14 years pay off in terms of gains that will ensure.

Last point, Afghanistan is the front line. Because of American engagement in Afghanistan, there have not been attacks on mainland United States. But let's not forget that fortresses cannot be built around countries or continents. We are living in an interconnected world and our security is joined together.