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Roundtable on Obama's Trip to Afghanistan

Roundtable on Obama's Trip to Afghanistan

By Special Report With Bret Baier - March 29, 2010

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If I thought for a minute that America's vital interest were not served, were not at stake here in Afghanistan, I would order all of you home right away.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: The general notion that Afghanistan in 2010 could be twice as deadly as it was in 2009 is not unreasonable. We could lose 500 or 600 people this year. We lost 300 last year. We have lost about a thousand overall, as most people know. And in the worst of the Iraq wars, we were losing about 800 people a year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRET BAIER, "SPECIAL REPORT" HOST: President Obama making a surprise visit to Afghanistan, visiting with the troops there, thanking them for their service, also delivering a message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

In the meantime, as you heard there, the stats are going up - 79 combat-related deaths so far this year, double the total from this time last year. The number of U.S. wounded rose from 85 in the first two months of last year to 381 this year. That is the backdrop in which this visit took place. Let's bring in our panel about Afghanistan, Fred Barnes, Executive Editor of The Weekly Standard, Juan Williams, news analyst for National Public Radio, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. Fred, first the visit and the overall situation in Afghanistan.

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, I think the situation is better in Afghanistan. Otherwise, the president might not have gone. I'm glad he did go.

He gave a great speech, I think one of the best speeches of his presidency, and certainly an expression of his - not only America's, but his own personal commitment to winning the war in Afghanistan.

And he used what I counted up, the d's, the five d's he said we will - I wrote them down here - "disrupt, dismantle, defeat, destroy, and deny" Al Qaeda any sanctuaries, any safe havens, five d's. It was very strong language.

But you know what got the biggest cheer when he spoke to the soldiers and others, but mainly I think it was 2,500 of our troops over there, when he said we will persevere. America doesn't quit. You don't quit. We don't quit. We're not going to. We will - he never uses the word "victory," but we will finish the job. It was a terrific speech and a very strong commitment.

On casualties, on combat deaths, look, when you have so many more troops in combat, you will have more of them killed. And, you know, there are tens of thousands more in combat which are there because that's what - that's how process go being made.

BAIER: Juan, he also described what was a stern message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

JUAN WILLIAMS, NEWS ANALYST, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: He has got to stop the corruption. I think the corruption works against U.S. interest because it makes it harder for the Afghan people to trust not only in the Afghan government but by extension in U.S. forces that are moving.

And remember, the key to so much of the military strategy now is winning the hearts and minds, winning the confidence of the Afghan people, that the United States is going to be there and there is going to be a legitimate government in Afghanistan to conduct local domestic affairs.

I would add one thing to what Fred said, which is the United States has had success, first in Helmand province and I think that's a tremendous sign of success, what's happened there, even though we have seen the spike in deaths but, as Fred said, we have more people on the ground and we are really making - having incursions against the Taliban.

But the second thing is that we are getting ready to go into Kandahar, to Kandahar city. And we're telling the Taliban we are coming. So there is going to be another major fight. So I think this was a critical moment for the president to reaffirm that this is a mission that he is thoroughly committed to.

BAIER: Charles?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: I think this was a statement on his part. Afghanistan is arguably the single most important foreign interest we have. It overshadows the Middle East. It overshadows the arms agreement we had with the Russians, overshadows almost everything that's an act of war. We have high casualties.

And I think the president is saying that he has been distracted, if you will, for the last year by health care. He was not - he was a domestic president. He still is, of course, but he wanted to pivot out of his triumph on health care to show Afghanistan it is number one. I think that's very important.

And I am encouraged by the words he used in his speech. Nonetheless, he repeated the idea that starting the summer of next year, July or August, we're going to start withdrawing.

Now, I understand his intent, but when you send that message, you have got to ask yourself, the people in Kandahar, people in the peasantry in Afghanistan. They know we are coming in June. We're giving them advance warning as a way of saying if you have been hedging your bets, the Americans are coming, you better help us give us information. You will be on the right side.

But if they hear Americans are going to be leaving or begin leaving in a little over a year, they are going to have second thoughts.

The key here is can the Afghans when we take Kandahar, which we will this summer, can they stay behind? The idea is clear-and-hold. We can do the clearing. They have to do the holding.

And it's really an open question whether the Karzai government has the authority and, if you like, the cleanliness to run this country. We're going to be seeing the number one test of that right there in Kandahar.

BAIER: Fred, just coming across now, President Obama in an interview with NBC talking about his meeting with Hamid Karzai says this, "I think he is listening, but I think that the process is too slow. We have been trying to emphasize the fierce urgency of now."

BARNES: Well, there is a cliche for you, but I don't think that helped much.

Karzai, look, the most important thing is to win militarily to secure cities, to make the Afghan people safe, and then - and then there will be a possibility of solving the political problem.

But you have to have military success first, and obviously Karzai can help on that by ending some of the corruption, and so on. But the main thing is the military success. Without that, nothing else works.

BAIER: And Juan, did this speech this weekend push back some the critics on the left for - the Dennis Kuciniches of the world who have called for complete withdrawal from Afghanistan? There are others.

WILLIAMS: They are not pushed back. There are people that just don't believe that the United States should be at war and shouldn't have sent additional forces into Afghanistan. This has marked a real departure from the Obama administration from the left.

And it's a grounds on which, you know, in the aftermath of what's going on in Iraq is just, you know, war is not a popular thing. But if you look at the polls right now, most Americans support what the president is doing on Afghanistan.

I don't think that those polls necessarily reflect the hard left. The hard left remains antiwar in this country.

And that's why I think it's part of his equation was to say we still intend to return sovereignty to the Afghan people. We're not here as an occupier, to speak to Charles' point.

And, secondly, I think it's really important to the - for domestic politics for the left in this country, but for everyone, to say you know what, we have a horizon. Here is our goal. We intend to achieve and it be able to leave. We are not there indefinitely.

BAIER: You talked about the polls. Really quickly, "The Washington Post" has a new poll out about approval, disapproval of the way the president is handling Afghanistan - 53 percent approve, 35 percent disapprove.

Go ahead, Charles.

KRAUTHAMMER: That's in part because of our success up until now. It's because we haven't had quite the wave of casualties that we had in Iraq, also because we haven't seen a downward spiral.

But let me just add one point here, the idea that we are occupiers in Afghanistan. There is not a sentient person on earth who thinks America wants to occupy Afghanistan. There is nothing in Afghanistan. There is nothing anybody would want, and we don't.

Everybody understands it's a defensive operation. It's a way to protect ourselves against jihadists. So the idea of America heavy-handedly walking in and planting the flag I think is not an issue we need to worry about.

BARNES: Can I say something really quickly? What President Obama was emphasizing was winning, persevering, not quitting. He wasn't emphasizing when we are going to depart.

 

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