Steady Course On Afghanistan, Obama Adviser Says

Steve Inskeep talks with Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough about the White House's strategy on Afghanistan. Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, testifies before Congress this week in the wake of the alleged shooting spree by a U.S. soldier that left 16 Afghans dead.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Obama apologized for the mass killing and promised justice. But this and other incidents, such as the desecration of dead bodies and the Quran, prompted even more tension between the United States and the Afghan government the U.S. is trying to support. This is the moment when commanding General John Allen testifies before Congress today. And we're going to talk about this with Denis McDonough, he is President Obama's deputy national security adviser.

Mr. McDonough, welcome to the program.

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Thanks, Steve, it's good to be with you.

INSKEEP: He's at the White House this morning.

And in what way is the U.S. talking of changing the day-by-day rules for American troops in Afghanistan?

MCDONOUGH: Well, one thing I think we've seen, Steve, as a result of this appalling and tragic incident - and I'll tell you, as a dad, it's hard to listen to the story that you just played. And I think that's exactly what President Obama has said over the last week or so. Which is, we'll get to the bottom of this and hold accountable anybody who's responsible for it.

But as it relates to our strategy, Steve, I think this event and the events of the last several weeks, if anything, underscore that our strategy of a steady and responsible transition to Afghan lead is exactly the right course. And that's exactly what we're going to continue to do on a day-to-day basis, give over more and more territory to trained Afghans so they're in the security lead.

INSKEEP: Is that transition going to include, as some news reports are now suggesting, putting Afghans - in effect, giving Afghans an opportunity to weigh in before U.S. raids are begun? That there would be an Afghan judge that would weigh in on whether U.S. troops could strike in one place or another?

MCDONOUGH: Well, I think you're referring to some of the reports in this morning's newspapers about the ongoing negotiations on a memorandum of understanding, related to special operations in Afghanistan. I really can't get ahead of those negotiations, Steve.

But what I can tell you is that in a strategy that is designed to put Afghans in the lead, to take over responsibility for their country, it would certainly make a lot of sense to establish the kind of institutions and the kind of capabilities among Afghans so that they can take over these efforts rather than leaving them to us.

INSKEEP: Without saying that you're getting ahead of negotiations here in Iraq, if I'm not mistaken, there was a phase in which U.S. troops asked the permission of judges before going out on raids. Is it reasonable to think that that might be one of the phases we're heading for in Afghanistan?

MCDONOUGH: One of the things that we do in our own country is that there is a special FISA court, for example, where we take certain steps to try to get judicial authority to take steps, as it relates to national security. So I think it would reasonable to expect that we try to do the same kind of thing in a country like Afghanistan, where we're trying to develop the kind of institutions on which Afghans can rely for a much more robust national security.

INSKEEP: Dennis McDonough, what about President Hamid Karzai's demand that American forces be confined to their bases next year - by next year?

MCDONOUGH: Well, you know, the president - President Obama and President Karzai had a very good conversation late Thursday night, early Friday morning, in Kabul. And they discussed some of the comments that President Karzai had made. And, frankly, we're able to clarify some of those. I think out of that conversation, they both agreed that they maintain very strong support for what we call the Lisbon Process.

This is a transition process whereby, sometime during 2013, Afghans will be in the lead in every part of their country for security. And then by the end of 2014, they'll be fully responsible for their own security. So that was...

INSKEEP: Well, help...

MCDONOUGH: So that was one thing that got clarified, of course.

INSKEEP: Well, help me clarify this, because President Karzai said I want U.S. troops confined to their bases next year. President Obama did call him. This conversation was reported by White House officials. But then Karzai went on and make more remarks that seemed to reinforce his earlier position. Is he still asking U.S. troops to be confined to their bases in a relatively short order here?

MCDONOUGH: As I said, the presidents agreed that we have to stick to the Lisbon Process. They agree that we'll continue to carry out the kind of steps to put, as we've already done, Afghans in the lead over 50 percent of their country. And depending on how this next transition - this next tranche of transition, as we call it, Steve, goes, Afghans will be in the lead and almost 75 percent of the country. So we'll continue that process.

And the president agreed that we'll continue to talk to President Karzai about his concerns about what's happening in Afghan villages, and that's only reasonable.

INSKEEP: I'm reading that as a no: U.S. troops are not going to confine themselves to bases in that timeframe.

MCDONOUGH: As I said, we'll continue to talk about the concerns that he's raised on the call - and publicly.

INSKEEP: Now, going ahead here, Mr. McDonough, if we look after the year 2014 - which is when Afghanistan is supposed to be completely in the lead - should we presume at that point that thousands of U.S. troops are going to have to remain, to train and support and advise the hundreds of thousands of Afghan troops who will be responsible for security in the country at that point?

MCDONOUGH: Well, I wouldn't presume any decisions for the Afghans. But I would say that one of the lessons we learned in the late '80s and early '90s, Steve, is that the way we ended our efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan at that time left Afghans and Pakistanis very confused about whether we thought we had enduring interest in the region. And as a result...

INSKEEP: Oh, when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, right.

MCDONOUGH: That's correct. And that's correct and as a result, I think we lost a lot of ground. And I think eventually we saw what happened whereby, over the course of time, not only was there continued fighting, but the Taliban ended up taking over power. So, we are going to maintain a capability to make sure that people understand we have enduring interests in the region.

Whether that includes troops, whether that includes domestic advisers in - of the such - and such, things that will work out with the Afghans in the context of the security partnership that we're negotiating with them now.

INSKEEP: OK. Mr. McDonough, thanks very much.

MCDONOUGH: Thanks so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: Denis McDonough is at the White House this morning. He is the deputy national security advisor for President Obama. He's talking with us this day when the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, is expected to testify before Congress after a series of deadly incidents there. We'll have more through the day. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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