U.S. Will Have Significant Presence In Afghanistan

President Obama's trip to Capitol Hill to fight for health care legislation was only one lobbying effort by his administration over the weekend. Key cabinet members and military officers fanned out over the airwaves to sell the president's policy toward Afghanistan as well. They tried to make it clear that the pace of a U.S. troop withdrawal will depend on conditions on the ground.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

President Obama visit to the Capitol was just one of the lobbying efforts by his administration over the weekend. Key cabinet members and military officers fanned out over the airwaves to sell the president's policy toward Afghanistan.

Joining us now, as she does most Mondays, is NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts. Cokie, Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Secretaries of state and defense, both, together on TV talk show, after TV talk show, after TV talk show over the weekend.

ROBERTS: A highly unusual move. I don't think we've ever seen that before. But they were addressing what they see as an upset over - they would call a misunderstanding of the President's pledge to start pulling troops out of Afghanistan in July 2011. Not only the Secretaries, but also the military counterparts - were on Capitol Hill all last week trying to explain the president hadn't set that as a firm withdrawal date for all American forces. But apparently, the Afghans and the Pakistanis were very upset, not to mention Republicans here at home, so Secretary Gates was at pains yesterday to explain exactly what the president meant. Let's give a listen.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): Let's be clear. The date in July 2011, to begin transferring security responsibility and thinning our troops and bringing them home, is firm. What is conditions-based is the pacing at which our troops will come home and the pace at which we will turn over responsibility to the Afghans, and that will be based on conditions on the ground.

ROBERTS: Secretary Gates was speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation."

INSKEEP: And you talk about conditions on the ground there, or Gates does, Cokie, and that raises another question that I've been trying to figure out. The administration says they've narrowed the goals here; they don't want to get into nation building - that's too expansive. But rather than nation building, all they want to is establish security, improve the economy, improve the government and establish rule of law. What's the difference?

ROBERTS: Well, they're saying it's not full scale nation building. But they were getting into the weeds, yesterday, of various Afghan ministries saying that some were behaving well and would get U.S. aid; other not doing well and they wouldn't be helped.

Both Secretaries, Gates and Clinton, talked about a civilian surge, tripling the number of civilians in Afghanistan, doing development work. They were on the same page there. But in order to do that work, of course, those civilians need security. I talked to a U.S. intelligence person this week who had been in Afghanistan a few months ago and then just got back from another deployment, and she said the situation had deteriorated so much that it was almost impossible for the civilians to do their work.

But Gates is very committed to what he calls soft power. And now there are military people all around the world assigned to doing development work. And that's somewhat to the upset of the people whose job that actually is. But Secretary Gates is determined that you do more good building schools and hospitals than sending in combat soldiers.

INSKEEP: Although, of course, he is going to be sending in combat soldiers -about 30,000 - and they expect to get some NATO forces as well.

ROBERTS: And the president will be meeting, today, with the Turkish Prime Minister, to try to bring home that request for more NATO forces. Gates said yesterday, that if other countries come through at all of their pledged levels, there would be 50,000 non-U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan. And, as he said, that's not insignificant.

That also helps here at home, that it's not just a U.S. war, that others are in it with us. But, still, despite all of these efforts by the administration -appearances on the Hill, on radio, television, long newspaper stories describing how the president made the decision he did - there are still lots of upset in this country, especially in the president's own party. And not only about the strategy itself, but also the cost of this war.

And, of course, it comes at a time when there, our jobs are still a huge problem and the president is expected to address that, tomorrow, in a major speech at the Brookings Institution. Some talk about using that TARP money, Steve, to create jobs, to be a jobs program one way or another.

INSKEEP: Use the bailout money, the stimulus money.

ROBERTS: There's a lot going on here. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Is it awkward at all, Cokie Roberts, that the president one week escalates the war in Afghanistan and the next week goes off to accept the Nobel Peace Prize?

ROBERTS: Well, I suspect he'll have to at least subtly address that. But at least it is a bright moment for him in the middle of all of the rest of this. I mean, he then does come back to the health care debate, demands for the jobs bill, and then goes back to Europe for a climate summit. I think his children won't be the only ones who are happy when Christmas comes this year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: All right. Thanks very much. That's NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Monday mornings.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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