White House: Afghanistan Strategy Won't Change

Robert Siegel talks with White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes about the challenges for the United States in working with the Afghan government and security forces, following the Quran burning incident. Rhodes says the United States continues its partnership with Afghan security forces. Rhodes adds that while there is concern about the anger the incident has stirred in Afghanistan, the White House believes the majority of the Afghan people still do not support the Taliban.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Ben Rhodes is deputy national security adviser to President Obama, and he joins us from the White House. Welcome to the program once again.

BEN RHODES: Good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Mr. Rhodes, can you tell us how will NATO commanders know that it's safe for advisers to return to Afghan ministries when Afghanistan's own Interior Ministry suspects one of its own in the killing of two U.S. officers who were assigned there?

RHODES: Well, Robert, I'd make two points. First of all, even as we've pulled out our advisers from ministries in Kabul, we are still partnering with Afghan security forces across the country. With respect to the ministries in Kabul, given the sensitive nature of the situation after the Quran burning and the tragic incident that took place in the Ministry of Interior, General Allen pulled out those advisers, but he did so in a temporary basis. And they're going to assess when the security situation calms down and returns to a point that he's confident to put those advisers back into those ministries.

SIEGEL: Does assessing mean, though - does assessing mean asking the Afghan ministry is it OK now? Are you confident now of security more so than you were?

RHODES: Well, I think two things. First of all, even in this interim period, our advisers will be in contact with their counterparts in Afghan ministries, so we have contact. And then I think what it's going to be is a security assessment of how things are in Kabul, whether things are calming down, and General Allen, as the commander, will make that assessment in consultation with the Afghans as to whether it's the right time to put our advisers back in those ministries.

SIEGEL: These events send us back to a May 2011 study conducted by the U.S. Army, which found that murders of Westerners by Afghan national security forces - and I'm quoting right now - do not represent rare and isolated events from July 2010 to May of last year. It found that the trend was worsening; more than 30 NATO personnel killed in 15 incidents during that time. This doesn't sound like a case of rotten apples in the barrel. It (unintelligible) you have a serious issue here with Afghan forces.

RHODES: Well, it's an issue that we take very seriously, and because of that, we've taken a hard look at our partnering with the Afghans. It's important to note that those members who joined the Afghan security forces and ministries do get some degree of vetting, of course, to see that they don't have extremist ties. And the broad majority of missions that we undertake in Afghanistan are joint missions. There have been a disturbing number of incidents in which you've had individuals turn against coalition forces. But we do believe those incidents are isolated in nature, and we do believe we can still partner with Afghan security forces and the Afghan government going forward.

SIEGEL: Isolated, as I said, was one of the words that the Army team cautioned people against. When Americans see news footage, hear stories, read stories about mobs protesting all over Afghanistan, engaging in acts of violence against U.S. and NATO forces all over the country and doing what the Taliban are saying, is it reasonable to infer that the view the Taliban take of our presence in Afghanistan is the view that a great many Afghans have of us there?

RHODES: No. I think what you have to do is separate out these incidents. In the first case, we do not believe that the Taliban has orchestrated a broad range of these attacks. I think that the incident we're faced with right now is a very, very sensitive situation in which Afghans are upset by the Quran burning, which is why there were very clear and direct apologies from the United States government to the Afghan people. That said, we do not believe that the broad majority of the Afghan people associate with or support the Taliban.

SIEGEL: Mr. Rhodes, President Hamid Karzai assured the Afghan people that the soldiers who burnt the Quran would be brought to justice. Do any U.S. military personnel or NATO personnel at Bagram Air Force Base, for that matter, face military discipline or conceivably court-martial for burning the Quran?

RHODES: Well, in the first instance, ISAF has launched an investigation into what took place. We couldn't make determinations about accountability until the investigation has run its course. We have said we are going to make sure that our practices in terms of how we treat religious materials are thoroughly reviewed. We've talked to the Afghans about that.

And I'd also add that President Karzai and a number of Afghan senior leaders have made quite constructive comments and calling for calm and apologizing for what took place and trying to work through this very difficult situation in Afghanistan and do so in a way in which we can continue to achieve our core goal which is, of course, defeating al-Qaida, denying it a safe haven in Afghanistan and leaving Afghanistan to an Afghan government that can stand on its own two feet.

SIEGEL: Mr. Rhodes, thank you very much for talking with us...

RHODES: Thanks very much.

SIEGEL: ...once again. Ben Rhodes is deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. He spoke to us from the White House.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.