Opinion: A Clinton takes over Obama’s White House briefing again; this time it’s Hillary

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Another strange scene in the White House briefing room Thursday.

President Obama released his administration’s annual review of strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- the unclassified version, not the WikiLeaks documents. This is the review the Democrat promised last year in his West Point troop surge speech that omitted any mention of victory (that Dec. 1, 2009, speech analysis and full text are available here).

These assessments will presumably fuel the discussions on troop withdrawals that Obama also promised would start next July 1. Like the Guantanamo Bay closure, that withdrawal deadline seems to be sliding somewhat into the distance, given that Al Qaeda and the Taliban continue to resist.


The policy review summary (full text below, along with reaction from House Speaker-elect John Boehner) states that the surge in troop strength plus aggressive Special Forces activities have halted the Taliban’s momentum in many areas and reversed it in some. It repeats the withdrawal start deadline but warns, however, that military progress is fragile and that much depends on allied cooperation from improving Afghan security forces and Pakistan.

In his remarks, the president reminded, as he usually does, that the original reason for ...

... entering Afghanistan militarily in 2001 was to press Al Qaeda forces and deny them safe sanctuary to plot and practice attacks on the U.S. homeland. However, after about five minutes of talking (scroll down for tje full Obama transcript), the president departed with Vice President Joe Biden, leaving Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to continue. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was also on hand.

For Clinton’s millions of 2008 Democratic primary supporters, it must be a satisfying sight to see her at the White House podium (see souvenir photo above). The scene was an eerie repeat of last Friday’s briefing scenario when Obama delivered former President Bill Clinton to the podium, as we reported in amazing detail here, ostensibly to help sell the current president’s negotiated cave-in on Bush tax cuts to congressional Republicans.

But the former president seemed to enjoy himself so immensely that Obama soon begged off standing there as a spectator in his own White House, citing a pressing party promise to his wife.

In that case, the White House provided a full transcript of both speakers’ remarks. This time, however, the official transcript ended after Obama stopped talking. We probably shouldn’t read anything into that, though.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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President Obama’s Statement on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review, as provided by the White House
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everybody. When I announced our new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan last December, I directed my national security team to regularly assess our efforts and to review our progress after one year.

That’s what we’ve done consistently over the course of the past 12 months -- in weekly updates from the field, in monthly meetings with my national security team, and in my frequent consultations with our Afghan, Pakistani and coalition partners. And that’s what we’ve done as part of our annual review, which is now complete.

I want to thank Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates for their leadership. Since Joint Chief of Staff Chairman, Admiral Mullen, is in Afghanistan, I’m pleased that we’re joined by Vice Chairman, General Cartwright.

Our efforts also reflect the dedication of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, whose memory we honor and whose work we’ll continue. Indeed, the tributes to Richard that have poured in from around the globe speak to both the enormous impact of his life and to the broad international commitment to our shared efforts in this critical region.

I have spoken with President Karzai of Afghanistan as well as President Zardari of Pakistan and discussed our findings and the way forward together. Today, I want to update the American people on our review -- our assessment of where we stand and areas where we need to do better. I want to be clear. This continues to be a very difficult endeavor. But I can report that thanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and civilians on the ground, we are on track to achieve our goals.

It’s important to remember why we remain in Afghanistan. It was Afghanistan where al Qaeda plotted the 9/11 attacks that murdered 3,000 innocent people. It is the tribal regions along the Afghan-Pakistan border from which terrorists have launched more attacks against our homeland and our allies. And if an even wider insurgency were to engulf Afghanistan, that would give al Qaeda even more space to plan these attacks.


And that’s why, from the start, I’ve been very clear about our core goal. It’s not to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan, because, ultimately, it is Afghans who must secure their country. And it’s not nation-building, because it is Afghans who must build their nation. Rather, we are focused on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and preventing its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.

In pursuit of our core goal we are seeing significant progress. Today, al Qaeda’s senior leadership in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan is under more pressure than at any point since they fled Afghanistan nine years ago. Senior leaders have been killed. It’s harder for them to recruit; it’s harder for them to travel; it’s harder for them to train; it’s harder for them to plot and launch attacks. In short, al Qaeda is hunkered down. It will take time to ultimately defeat al Qaeda, and it remains a ruthless and resilient enemy bent on attacking our country. But make no mistake -- we are going to remain relentless in disrupting and dismantling that terrorist organization.

In Afghanistan, we remain focused on the three areas of our strategy: our military effort to break the Taliban’s momentum and train Afghan forces so they can take the lead; our civilian effort to promote effective governance and development; and regional cooperation, especially with Pakistan, because our strategy has to succeed on both sides of the border.

Indeed, for the first time in years, we’ve put in place the strategy and the resources that our efforts in Afghanistan demand. And because we’ve ended our combat mission in Iraq, and brought home nearly 100,000 of our troops from Iraq, we’re in a better position to give our forces in Afghanistan the support and equipment they need to achieve their missions. And our drawdown in Iraq also means that today there are tens of thousands fewer Americans deployed in harm’s way than when I took office.

With those additional forces in Afghanistan, we are making considerable gains toward our military objectives. The additional military and civilian personnel that I ordered in Afghanistan are now in place, along with additional forces from our coalition, which has grown to 49 nations. Along with our Afghan partners, we’ve gone on the offensive, targeting the Taliban and its leaders and pushing them out of their strongholds.

As I said when I visited our troops in Afghanistan earlier this month, progress comes slowly and at a very high price in the lives of our men and women in uniform. In many places, the gains we’ve made are still fragile and reversible. But there is no question we are clearing more areas from Taliban control and more Afghans are reclaiming their communities.


To ensure Afghans can take responsibility, we continue to focus on training. Targets for the growth of Afghan security forces are being met. And because of the contributions of additional trainers from our coalition partners, I’m confident we will continue to meet our goals.

I would add that much of this progress -- the speed with which our troops deployed this year, the increase in recruits -- in recruiting and training of Afghan forces, and the additional troops and trainers from other nations -- much of this is the result of us having sent a clear signal that we will begin the transition of responsibility to Afghans and start reducing American forces next July.

This sense of urgency also helped galvanize the coalition around the goals that we agreed to at the recent NATO summit in Lisbon -- that we are moving toward a new phase in Afghanistan, a transition to full Afghan lead for security that will begin early next year and will conclude in 2014, even as NATO maintains a long-term commitment to training and advising Afghan forces. Now, our review confirms, however, that for these security gains to be sustained over time, there is an urgent need for political and economic progress in Afghanistan.

Over the past year, we’ve dramatically increased our civilian presence, with more ...

... diplomats and development experts working alongside our troops, risking their lives and partnering with Afghans. Going forward, there must be a continued focus on the delivery of basic services, as well as transparency and accountability.

We will also fully support an Afghan political process that includes reconciliation with those Taliban who break ties with al Qaeda, renounce violence and accept the Afghan constitution. And we will forge a new strategic partnership with Afghanistan next year, so that we make it clear that the United States is committed to the long-term security and development of the Afghan people.

Finally, we will continue to focus on our relationship with Pakistan. Increasingly, the Pakistani government recognizes that terrorist networks in its border regions are a threat to all our countries, especially Pakistan. We’ve welcomed major Pakistani offensives in the tribal regions. We will continue to help strengthen Pakistanis’ capacity to root out terrorists. Nevertheless, progress has not come fast enough. So we will continue to insist to Pakistani leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders must be dealt with.


At the same time, we need to support the economic and political development that is critical to Pakistan’s future. As part of our strategic dialogue with Pakistan, we will work to deepen trust and cooperation. We’ll speed up our investment in civilian institutions and projects that improve the lives of Pakistanis. We’ll intensify our efforts to encourage closer cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And, next year, I look forward to an exchange of visits, including my visit to Pakistan, because the United States is committed to an enduring partnership that helps deliver improved security, development, and justice for the Pakistani people.

Again, none of these challenges that I’ve outlined will be easy. There are more difficult days ahead. But as a nation, we can draw strength from the service of our fellow Americans.

On my recent visit to Afghanistan, I visited a medical unit and pinned Purple Hearts on some of our wounded warriors. I met with a platoon that had just lost six of their teammates. Despite the tough fight, despite all their sacrifice, they continue to stand up for our security and for our values that we hold so dear.

We’re going to have to continue to stand up. We’ll continue to give our brave troops and civilians the strategy and resources they need to succeed. We will never waver from our goal of disrupting, dismantling, and ultimately defeating al Qaeda. We will forge enduring partnerships with people who are committed to progress and to peace. And we will continue to do everything in our power to ensure the security and the safety of the American people.

So, with that, Vice President Biden and myself will depart, and I’m going to turn it over to Secretaries Clinton, Gates, as well as Vice Chairman Cartwright, and they will be able to answer your questions and give you a more detailed briefing.
Thank you very much. ####

Overview of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Annual Review, as provided by the White House


“Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.” -- President Barack Obama, West Point, December 1, 2009
Overall Assessment

The core goal of the U.S. strategy in the Afghanistan and Pakistan theater remains to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al-Qa’ida in the region and to prevent its return to either country.

Specific components of our strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan are working well and there are notable operational gains. Most important, al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001. In Pakistan, we are laying the foundation for a strategic partnership based on mutual respect and trust, through increased dialogue, improved cooperation, and enhanced exchange and assistance programs. And in Afghanistan, the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, although these gains remain fragile and reversible.

While the strategy is showing progress across all three assessed areas of al-Qa’ida, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the challenge remains to make our gains durable and sustainable. With regard to al-Qa’ida’s Pakistan-based leadership and cadre, we must remain focused on making further progress toward our ultimate end state, the eventual strategic defeat of al-Qa’ida in the region, which will require the sustained denial of the group’s safe haven in the tribal areas of western Pakistan, among other factors.

And in Afghanistan, we are confronting the inherent challenges of a war-torn nation working to restore basic stability and security in the face of a resilient insurgency that finds shelter in a neighboring sanctuary. More broadly, we must continue to place the Afghanistan and Pakistan challenges in larger and better integrated political and regional contexts.

The accelerated deployment of U.S. and international military and civilian resources to the region that began in July 2009 and continued after the President’s policy review last fall has enabled progress and heightened the sense of purpose within the United States Government, among our coalition partners, and in the region. As a result, our strategy in Afghanistan is setting the conditions to begin the responsible reduction of U.S. forces in July 2011.

This review also underscores the importance of a sustained long-term commitment to the region – in Pakistan, by way of our growing strategic partnership; and in Afghanistan, as reflected by our own long-term commitment, as well as the NATO Lisbon Summit’s two outcomes: the goal for Afghans to assume the lead for security across the country by 2014, and NATO’s enduring commitment beyond 2014.


Summary of Findings

1. Al-Qa’ida
“Our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al-Qa’ida. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.” -- President Barack Obama, West Point, December 1, 2009.

Our strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is centered on disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qa’ida in the theater and preventing its capacity to threaten America, our citizens, and our allies. While it will take time to eventually defeat al-Qa’ida, we are taking steps to prevent terrorist groups from regenerating over time or reestablishing a safe haven in the region that would pose a strategic threat to the U.S. homeland and to our allies and interests abroad.

There has been significant progress in disrupting and dismantling the Pakistan-based leadership and cadre of al-Qa’ida over the past year. Al Qa’ida’s senior leadership has been depleted, the group’s safe haven is smaller and less secure, and its ability to prepare and conduct terrorist operations has been degraded in important ways.

We remain relentlessly focused on Pakistan-based al-Qa’ida because of the strategic nature of the threat posed by its leadership, and in particular the group’s continued pursuit of large-scale, catastrophic anti-Western attacks and its influence on global terrorism.

We believe core al-Qa’ida continues to view the United States homeland as its principal target, and events over the past year indicate some of its affiliates and allies also are more aggressively pursuing such attacks. Although the global affiliates and allies of al-Qa’ida also threaten the U.S. homeland and interests, Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to be the operational base for the group that attacked us on 9/11. The presence of nuclear weapons in the region also lends to its distinct status, highlighting the importance of working with regional partners to prevent extremists, including core al-Qa’ida, from acquiring such weapons or materials.

The compounding losses of al-Qa’ida’s leadership cadre have diminished – but not halted – the group’s ability to advance ...


... operations against the United States and our allies and partners, or to support and inspire regional affiliates. Indeed, terrorist plotting continues against the United States and our allies and partners. Al-Qa’ida’s eventual strategic defeat will be most effectively achieved through the denial of sanctuaries in the region and the elimination of the group’s remaining leadership cadre.

Even achieving these goals, however, will not completely eliminate the terrorist threat to U.S. interests. There are a range of other groups, including some affiliated with al-Qa’ida, as well as individuals inspired by al-Qa’ida, who aim to do harm to our nation and our allies. Our posture and efforts to counter these threats will continue unabated.

We remain committed to deepening and broadening our partnerships with Pakistan and Afghanistan in a way that brings us closer to the defeat of al-Qa’ida and prevents terrorist groups that pose a strategic threat to our homeland, our allies, and our interests from re-establishing safe havens in the region.

2. Pakistan

“In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust.” -- President Barack Obama, West Point, December 1, 2009.

Pakistan is central to our efforts to defeat al-Qa’ida and prevent its return to the region. We seek to secure these interests through continued, robust counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency cooperation and a long-term partnership anchored by our improved understanding of Pakistan’s strategic priorities, increased civilian and military assistance, and expanded public diplomacy.

Progress in our relationship with Pakistan over the last year has been substantial, but also uneven. We worked jointly in the last year to disrupt the threat posed by al-Qa’ida, and Pakistan has made progress against extremist safe havens, taking action in six of seven agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. These gains came at great cost, as Pakistan has endured thousands of casualties in their military ranks and among their civilian population from terrorist attacks. There was also improvement in our security assistance, with increased training cooperation, more support for Pakistan’s military operations, and greater border coordination.


In 2010, we also improved the United States-Pakistan relationship through the Strategic Dialogue. The Dialogue improved mutual trust, prompted attention to reforms critical to long-term stability, and addressed development objectives important to the people of Pakistan. Civilian assistance increased with more aid flowing through Pakistani institutions, improved civilian stabilization activities, the development of critical energy and other infrastructure, and a robust flood response and recovery effort – which NATO directly assisted.

We believe our renewed bilateral partnership is helping promote stability in Pakistan. It clearly communicates U.S. commitment to a long-term relationship that is supportive of Pakistan’s interests, and underscores that we will not disengage from the region as we have in the past.

The review also highlights particular areas in our strategy for Pakistan that require adjustment. Specific components of the strategy, taken individually, indicate we are headed in the right direction, both in terms of U.S. focus and Pakistani cooperation. However, better balance and integration of the various components of our strategy will be required to reach our objectives.

For instance, the denial of extremist safe havens will require greater cooperation with Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan. Furthermore, the denial of extremist safe havens cannot be achieved through military means alone, but must continue to be advanced by effective development strategies.
In 2011, we must strengthen our dialogue with both Pakistan and Afghanistan on regional stability. Toward that end, Secretary Clinton plans to host foreign ministers from both countries in Washington for another session of the U.S.-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral dialogue in early 2011.

On bilateral issues, we must support the Government of Pakistan’s efforts to strengthen its economy, improve governance and security, and respond to the development needs of the Pakistani people. We will continue the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, and sustain senior level engagement -- including an exchange of visits by Presidents Obama and Zardari.

3. Afghanistan

“We will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al-Qa’ida a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take the lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”
-- President Barack Obama, West Point, December 1, 2009.


The U.S. objectives in Afghanistan are to deny safe haven to al-Qa’ida and to deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government. We seek to achieve these objectives by degrading the Taliban insurgency, thereby providing time and space to build sufficient Afghan capacity.

As a result of our integrated efforts in 2010, we are setting the conditions to begin transition to Afghan security lead in early 2011 and to begin a responsible, conditions-based U.S. troop reduction in July 2011.

Moreover, at the recent NATO Lisbon Summit, we forged a broad Afghan and international consensus, agreeing on a path to complete transition by the end of 2014. Beyond these targets, and even after we draw down our combat forces, the U.S. will continue to support Afghanistan’s development and security as a strategic partner, just as the NATO-Afghanistan partnership affirms the broader and enduring international community support to Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, substantial international resources have been assembled from 49 allied and partner countries to implement a focused, integrated civilian-military approach. International support is evidenced by the growth in the NATO-led coalition, increased Muslim-majority country support in the region, and the continued provision of critical international resources. The UN’s leadership, including on civilian assistance, has helped garner renewed and strengthened support for key institution building efforts. U.S. civilian and military integration has significantly improved, with coordinated efforts now occurring at every level.

The surge in coalition military and civilian resources, along with an expanded special operations forces targeting campaign and expanded local security measures at the village level, has reduced overall Taliban influence and arrested the momentum they had achieved in recent years in key parts of the country. Progress is most evident in the gains Afghan and coalition forces are making in clearing the Taliban heartland of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and in the significantly increased size and improved capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

The Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior, with help from the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, have exceeded ANSF growth targets, implemented an expanded array of programs to improve the quality and institutional capacity of the ANSF, and sharply improved their training effectiveness.


ISAF and the Afghan government have also adopted a robust partnering plan that has accelerated tactical-level development of Afghan forces’ leadership and units, although significant development challenges remain. Efforts are also underway to support and encourage further development of local police forces to promote security and stability across the country, especially in rural areas. Emphasis must continue to be placed on the development of Afghan-led security and governance within areas that have been a focus of military operations.

While the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, these gains remain fragile and reversible. Consolidating those gains will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks. Durability also requires continued work with Afghanistan to transfer cleared areas to their security forces.

We are also supporting Afghanistan’s efforts to better improve national and sub-national governance, and to build institutions with increased transparency and accountability to reduce corruption – key steps in sustaining the Afghan government. And we have supported and focused investments in infrastructure that will give the Afghan government and people the tools to build and sustain a future of stability.

As President Obama emphasized in 2010, our civilian and military efforts must support a durable and favorable political resolution of the conflict. In 2011, we will intensify our regional diplomacy to enable a political process to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan, to include Afghan-led reconciliation, taking advantage of the momentum created by the recent security gains and the international consensus gained in Lisbon. As we shift to transition, a major challenge will be demonstrating that the Afghan government has the capacity to consolidate gains in geographic areas that have been cleared by ISAF and Afghan Security Forces.


The Afghanistan and Pakistan Annual Review was directed by President Obama in December 2009 to be a National Security Staff (NSS)-led assessment of our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The President further directed that the annual review be diagnostic in nature.

The 2010 annual review began with a data collection phase conducted from October 12 through November 10. A series of eight working-group and deputy-level meetings were convened from November 16 through December 1 to discuss various inputs, identify findings, and assess the trajectory and pace of progress. A draft classified report, which took into account significant comments from departments and agencies, was reviewed in a series of formal Deputies, Principals, and NSC meetings held from December 3-14.


Inputs to the review came from across the U.S. government. An interagency team visited Afghanistan and Pakistan from October 25 through November 4 to discuss the situation with key leaders in the field and witness elements of the strategy first-hand. In addition, the review built heavily on the outcomes of the November 20 NATO Summit held in Lisbon. Finally, in coordination with the U.S. Embassies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the U.S. Mission to NATO, and the Department of State, the review included consultation with key allies and partners on the situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ####

Speaker-designate John Boehner’s statement after the President’s speech on the Afghanistan Pakistan annual review

While the conditions are difficult, our troops serving in Afghanistan are making gains in our efforts to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban and prevent them from using the region as a safe haven from which to launch attacks on the U.S. and our allies.

As the Administration’s review notes, the gains are ‘fragile and reversible’ and we must remain steadfast in our commitment to the counterinsurgency strategy our commanders on the ground have put in place and to ensuring its success, rather than focusing on meeting arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal. Any drawdown of U.S. troops must be based on the conditions on the ground, not on political promises.

It is my hope that the President will use his platform to consistently articulate to the American people why engagement in the region is critical to our national security interests and why his strategy is the right one to address those interests.

The cost of war has been high for our nation, but succeeding in Afghanistan is critically important to the safety and security of our country. We sincerely appreciate the sacrifices that our men and women in uniform and their families are making every day on behalf of our nation, and we keep them in our prayers during this holiday season. ####


Photos, from top: Hillary Clinton briefs the White House press corps on the administration’s Afghanistan policy review; credit: Olivier Douliery / MCT. Obama screen grab; credit: C-SPAN. Obama leaves his briefing podium to another Clinton, Dec. 10, 2010; credit: Jim Young / Reuters. Hillary Clinton with Robert Gates, Dec. 16, 2010; credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images.