Latest from Afghanistan

Subject: Travel Pool #! – POTUS in Afghanistan

Air Force One touched down under cover of darkness at Bagram Air Field at 8:17 pm local time.

The visit is scheduled to last only a few hours and will be confined to Bagram. POTUS will meet with Ambassador James Cunningham and Gen. Joseph F. Dumford Jr. on arrival to get a battlefield update and to discuss post-war plans – i.e., troops levels beyond this year.

POTUS will also visit wounded troops in the military hospital here. The public event will be remake to troops who will be entertained ahead of time by country star Brad Paisley, who accompanied POTUS on AF1 for the 13-hour flight. Paisley is a supporter of POTUS and has performed previously at the White House for troops and their families. He came back to chat with the pool off the record on the way and may be able to get you some on the record stuff on the way back.

AF1 departed Andrews just before 11 pm, following the security protocols Secret Service implements for these trips. This POTUS’s fourth trip as president to Afghanistan, and his first in two years.

Also along are National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Sr Director NSC for Afghanistan Jeff Eggers, senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, and counselor to the president John Podesta, who has a son serving in Afghanistan.

Ben Rhodes, dep national security adviser for strategic communications, gaggled on the way. Here, thanks to excellent colleague Steve Collinson, are some highlights:

Ben Rhodes gaggled towards the end of the flight. There will be a transcript.

He said that the administration saw the trip as “an opportunity for the president to thank American troops and civilians for their service.” He noted that President Obama has not been to Afghanistan for two years and had been looking for an opportunity to get to the country for some time.

He said that the president will get a briefing from the US ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham and General Joseph Dunford, the commander of ISAF and US forces in the country. He will tour an operations center and get a briefing from top ISAF personnel on the base. He will make remarks to the troops and civilians on the base and visit a hospital visit.

There are no meetings scheduled with either President Hamid Karzai or the two candidates in the run-off elections in Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani. Rhodes said that the White House wanted to make the trip purely focused on the troops and not to get involved in internal Afghan politics.

“We have been looking for some period of time to come to Afghanistan. After the first round of the election, we thought it would be a good time to come for a troop focused visit,” he said.

Explaining the decision to purely focus on the troops, Rhodes said “we didn’t want to get in the middle of election season.”

“This is the president’s fourth visit to Afghanistan,” Rhodes said, adding that given the focus on the troops, Obama thought it would be good to bring some entertainment for them, so asked Country star Brad Paisley (SPELL) to join the trip.

He also noted that the visit comes at an important time, as Obama considers the size of the post-combat US force for Afghanistan to train Afghan forces and support anti-terrorism operations.

“We also of course are making some decisions about the future of our commitment to Afghanistan,” Rhodes said, adding that it would be appropriate for the president to hear from his commander on the ground and ambassador to get their read on the security and political situation.

“It is important for him to come before he articulates a decision.” Rhodes said a decision on a post-Afghan force had not been made yet, but that the White House held a recent NSC meeting on the issue.

He underlined that there still needed to be a bilateral security agreement in place before there could be a post 2014 force in Afghanistan. He noted that though Karzai had failed to sign the deal, the two candidates in the run off have said they would be ready to sign it.

Rhodes allowed that Afghanistan was still a violent place, and said that there had been a shift in Taliban tactics from large scale military operations to terrorism in recent times. But he also argued that there were some successes to report – noting that Afghan security forces had been in the lead in combat for months, that the first phase of the presidential election had been a success and that there was the prospect of the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s history.

He said we could expect to hear “additional clarity” about the president’s thinking in Afghanistan over the coming days, noting the West Point speech, and a NATO defense ministerial meeting on June 14.

Rhodes said the flap over the VA did not “factor into the planning for the trip,” but he said the president would stress the underlying general message of support in his administration for troops and veterans once they return home.

He said the Afghan political calendar also explained the decision not to meet Karzai. But said the president had spoke to Karzai several times recently including after a deadly landslide in Afghanistan

Rhodes also spoke a little about the challenge of extricating the president from the White House for this kind of covert trip. “It is difficult but we have done it several times before. The Secret Service is very capable,” he said.

“It is not the same motorcade, it is not the same footprint,” he said, noting that Obama’s schedule was more constrained than those of other senior US officials owing to the unique security concerns surrounding a president of the United States.

“We just don’t want to take any risks with the president’s security,” he said.

Rhodes also spoke a little about the West Point speech.

He said that to some extent US foreign policy was at a turning point because the president has spent much of his time in office dealing with the drawdown from Iraq, going after Al-Qaeda in South Asia and planning a transition in Afghanistan. He said that there had also been a number of recent events like the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the Snowden revelations that Obama wanted to discuss in the context of US foreign policy and how the United States should pursue its interests while not getting “overextended” abroad. He said this would be a rolling conversation over the next few weeks and would include the West Point speech, a speech by the president during his visit to Poland and the D-Day 70th anniversary celebrations in Normandy on June 6.

Scott Wilson
White House Bureau Chief
The Washington Post