Obama, Cameron defend Afghan timetable

David Cameron and Barack Obama held a joint press conference Wednesday. David Cameron and Barack Obama held a joint press conference Wednesday. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted on Wednesday that neither bad news from Afghanistan nor declining public support for the decadelong war in both their countries would change the pace of the allied withdrawal, which they said will remain targeted on 2014.

The two leaders spoke in the Rose Garden after the initial round of talks of a two-day summit that had been expected to be dominated by Iran’s refusal to abandon its nuclear program. Instead, the tragic shooting of Afghan civilians, allegedly by one American soldier over the weekend and new polls showing eroding political support for their stewardship of the war, moved Afghanistan to the top of their agenda and dominated their brief White House press conference.

Iran still was discussed, as was the continuing bloodshed and instability in Syria. But finding themselves on the defensive over the war, the two leaders pushed back hard against suggestions that they should accelerate the pace of their withdrawal. “Today, the prime minister and I reaffirmed the transition plan,” Obama said, while acknowledging that “the tragic events of recent days are a reminder that this continues to be a very difficult mission.”

Echoing comments by Cameron, the president called it “undeniable” that “our forces are making very real progress dismantling al-Qaida, breaking the Taliban's momentum and training Afghan forces so that they can take the lead and our troops can come home.” He said the withdrawal plan will be discussed at the spring NATO summit in Chicago but said he saw no need to alter the plans that call for the allied forces to shift to a role supporting Afghan troops next year, followed by a full takeover by the Afghans in 2014.

“We’re going to complete this mission, and we’re going to do it responsibly,” he stated, adding: “And NATO will maintain an enduring commitment, so that Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for al-Qaida to attack our countries.” Cameron struck a similar note, proclaiming, “We will not give up on this mission.” He also referred to the weekend’s tragedy, acknowledging that “recent days have reminded us just how difficult our mission is and how high the cost of this war has been for Britain, for America, and for Afghans themselves.” He contended that the allied war is “now in the final phases.”

The leaders were pressed by a British reporter, who bluntly suggested that their publics were not buying their arguments for the war's continuation. Just this week, an ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 60 percent of Americans say the war has not been worth fighting, and that only 30 percent support the allied mission there. A majority--54 percent--said that the United States should withdraw its forces regardless of whether the training of Afghan troops is complete. Similar results were found in a new poll of the British public. A ComRes survey for ITV news that was released this week found that almost three-quarters of Brits--73 percent--now believe that the war cannot be won. Fully 55 percent said they want British troops pulled out of Afghanistan immediately.

Obama said he is not surprised at such findings. “Why is it that poll numbers indicate people are interested in ending the war in Afghanistan? It's because we've been there for 10 years, and people get weary,” he said. “No one wants war. Anybody who answers a poll question about war saying enthusiastically, ‘We want war,’ probably hasn't been involved in a war.” But Obama contended that “the vast majority of the American people and British understand why we went there.” And, even while acknowledging that the war is “a hard slog,” Obama credited the war there with severely diminishing the ability of terrorists to strike Western targets. “There is a reason why al-Qaida is on its heels and has been decimated,” he said. “There's a reason why Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants are not in a position to be able to execute plots against the United States or Great Britain.”

Cameron similarly argued that “the situation is considerably improved” over what it was two years ago. “The level of insurgent attacks are right down. The level of security is right up,” he said. “It's a still a very difficult situation. There are many challenges we have to overcome. But what's happening in Afghanistan today is quite different to the situation we had three, four, five years ago.” Cameron said it is important for leaders to “keep explaining to people, but I think what we're trying to do by the end of 2014 is achievable and doable.”

On Iran, Cameron credited Obama with mobilizing the world community against that nation's nuclear program. “The president's tough, reasonable approach has united the world behind unprecedented sanctions pressure on Iran,” he said. “And Britain has played a leading role in helping to deliver an E.U.-wide oil embargo. Alongside the financial sanctions being led by America, this embargo is dramatically increasing the pressure on the regime.” He warned Tehran that if it refuses to relent, “then Britain and America, along with our international partners, will continue to increase the political and economic pressure to achieve a peaceful outcome to this crisis. As the president and I have said, nothing is off the table.”

Obama said that the allies “are fully united. We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” As he has before, though, he championed using diplomacy to achieve Washington's goal. “We believe there is still time and space to pursue a diplomatic solution,” he said. At the same though, Obama added, “We're going to keep up the pressure with the strongest U.S. sanctions to date and the European Union preparing to impose an embargo on Iranian oil. Tehran must understand that it cannot escape or evade the choice before it. Meet your international obligations, or face the consequences.”

Both men were cautious talking about Syria, demanding an end to the government violence there but refusing to pledge the use of either American or British military force.

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