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President Obama Delivers Remarks to Soldiers During Surprise Afghanistan Trip

Aired March 28, 2010 - 14:29   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fredricka Whitfield at the CNN headquarters in Atlanta. Looking at our top stories right now, we're awaiting President Obama's address to U.S. troops in Afghanistan at any moment. You're looking at some pictures there on the right side of your screen. We understand that is the room at the Bagram Air Base where the President momentarily will be emerging. And you see all the troops there that are poised at the ready with their cameras, awaiting to get that first glimpse of the president.

This is his first visit to Afghanistan as president. Just -- while he was on the presidential campaign trail, he was in Afghanistan, but this is officially his first visit to that region, to that country as commander in chief.

This was a surprise departure from Washington. He was at Camp David over the weekend, and then in the middle of the night, took the plane to Afghanistan, where he made this surprise visit. He has already had a one-on-one meeting with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. And apparently, cabinet members of both the Obama administration and Karzai's administration have also met. And now we understand after that meeting, he's made his way over to Bagram there, where he will be meeting with U.S. troops there. Always an exciting visit when the president meets troops, especially in a war-torn area. This Afghanistan war going now into its eighth year, and there had been a lot of angst expressed by some U.S. troops, according to some of our reporting from Barbara Starr, Pentagon correspondent, that many troops were kind of feeling like when is the president going to be visiting us here in Afghanistan. And this is kind of a real shot in the arm in terms of boosting morale to see the commander in chief there in Afghanistan, and visiting face to face with the U.S. troops.

We're going to continue to watch this image here out of Bagram as they await the president's arrival. And as soon as he does enter the room, we will be taking that live.

And momentarily, we are also hoping that once we see these images out of Bagram, in terms of the president emerging -- we're also hoping to be able to bring you some taped comments that came from Presidents Karzai and Obama around the time of their meeting earlier today in Afghanistan. And when we have those, we'll bring those to you and turn that around.

But hopefully, you'll be able to see these live comments coming from the president there at Bagram momentarily. All right, White House correspondent Dan Lothian is also joining us now. He, too, is waiting to see what's to take place here at Bagram. Dan, if you can -- there we go. We see you now. Dan, give us an idea, while this was a surprise visit to Afghanistan, we heard some of the commitments that the president was likely -- or that conversation with Karzai was likely to have. What do we understand he might be saying to the troops here?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, really thanking them for their efforts in, you know, fighting and this war on terror Afghanistan. As you know, this really has been the focal point for the United States in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban, and that is Afghanistan, the shift away from Iraq to Afghanistan.

And so the troop ramp-up, as one official said, has reached about 80,000, expected to get to 100,000. So the president getting a chance to thank the troops for the work that they're doing on the ground there.

But this is really a remarkable trip, as you pointed out. We did not know about this. The president leaving Washington shortly after 10:00 last night, and then making this trip to Bagram and then into Kabul. A couple of the things that the United States really wants to see happen there on the ground; first of all, they want to see President Karzai really crack down on what is seen as sort of the money-line for the insurgency, and that is going after the poppy growers. That really has been sort of the fueling a lot of the insurgency. So that's one of the things they're attacking there.

And the second thing is they want to see President Karzai really go after corruption. They need these things really to be nailed down in order for there to be a really solid strategic partnership there in that country. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: No real promises are expected to be made, correct, in terms of the on-going relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan? We know that the president had committed 30,000 more U.S. troops. We heard that there were many people in Afghanistan who were feeling a little uneasy about that, hoping that they would get more in terms of jobs, more stability in their country and less of the U.S. Presence.

LOTHIAN: That's right. They do want that stability and you heard that coming from the recent offensive in Marja, where the focus was on rooting out the Taliban. And there's been concern there on the ground that perhaps not enough is being done to sort of put together the infrastructure to make sure that once the Taliban is rooted out that they don't return. So that is a concern there on the ground.

But in addition to what we've seen this recent offensive in Marja, also the U.S. planning this big offensive in Kandahar City. I was at a background briefing where officials were talking about that. Again, the target being the Taliban.

What the U.S. really wants to do is make sure that Afghanistan is not a place that can harbor terrorists. That's why there is this offensive that's taking place now. But one of the things that the U.S. really wants to make sure is that the Afghan government is able to, with its own military presence and forces -- able to contain when the U.S. eventually pulls out from there. So that's the big thing, to make sure that the training takes place, so the Afghan forces can continue to provide security in that region.

WHITFIELD: Do you know whether or not the White House is willing to say that his visit signals perhaps that a new approach would be taken militarily, even though those U.S. troops have already been committed?

LOTHIAN: Not necessarily that there will be a new approach, but it's signaling the resolve of this government to make sure that what needs to be done on the ground there does get done. And this is just sort of the beginning of what the U.S. hopes will be a very strong relationship, as Robert Gibbs on the ground there with the president pointed out, that they have invited President Karzai to come to Washington, and that date has been set for May 12th.

So the discussions that have begun today will continue during that meeting and going forward as well.

WHITFIELD: Live pictures now there at Bagram Air Base, as those U.S. troops await the president's rival. Dan, can I ask you about the timing of this? Clearly, the president has been very committed -- now we've lost the signal again. The president has been very committed toward health care and other domestic issues, especially in the last couple of weeks. Is this is the White House's way -- the president's way of saying, we haven't forgotten about this either?

LOTHIAN: Certainly, yes. The administration wants to let everybody know that this does remain on the radar. And, you know, one of the things that keeps getting asked of this White House, time and again, is the president not focusing enough on some of these other issues, whether it be foreign policy, because he's been spending so much time on health care and getting this health care bill passed into law.

And what the White House will say, time and time again, is that the president should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. A lot of people don't believe that he's been able to do that. But, nonetheless, they say even though he hasn't been every day out there talking about Afghanistan or talking about Iran or talking about North Korea, that his team is fully engaged in all of these issues.

But certainly now that they have health care reform essentially under their belt -- there's still a lot of selling going on about there about how this will be implemented and what it will mean to Americans. But the president really now sort of turning the page. You'll hear more from this White House about jobs, about the economy. And you'll continue to hear more about some of these foreign policy issues, like Iran and also Afghanistan.

WHITFIELD: And I know we haven't -- we have yet to hear the president. I don't want to rush his journey there to Afghanistan. But is his week expected to look like.

LOTHIAN: Sorry, what was the question?

WHITFIELD: The president's week, this coming week, what is on tap for him?

LOTHIAN: Right, well, a couple of things. First of all, the president will be signing that fix-it will bill. That's those changes that were made to the health care bill. That will happen on Tuesday. Thursday, the president then will be going to New England. He'll be, again, talking about health care and the health care law, some of the immediate and long-term benefits of the health care law. That will happen in Portland, Maine. And then he goes to a fund-raiser in Boston. And then on Friday, the president goes out to North Carolina, where he'll be talking about jobs and the economy, what the administration is doing to continue the turn around.

WHITFIELD: Is the White House letting you know that -- what his itinerary is while he's there in Afghanistan after Bagram? Is it, you know, back on the plane, wheels up, back to Washington? Or is there yet another stop?

LOTHIAN: It's my understanding it's back on the plane and back to Washington, although all the guidance we're getting is from the pool reports on the ground. As you know, these missions, if you will, are very secretive. We did not know that they were going. We did not know when they took off, until they got there. And not even when they the landed in Bagram, but finally when they went by helicopter from Bagram over to Kabul. That's the first indication we got this had taken place.

So any thing terms of what other stops maybe occurring during this trip we'll find out perhaps after the fact, from the pool reporters traveling with the president.

WHITFIELD: Dan, if you will, explain the secrecy, why when we see a president making his way to -- whether it be Iraq or Afghanistan -- for obvious reasons, for the security and the safety of the president upon arrival, correct?

LOTHIAN: That's right. I mean, the bottom line is that it's all about security. Earlier this year, I took one of these trips with the vice president when he went to Iraq. And they call it a VIP pool. It's a smaller group of reporter who go along with either the president or the vice president. You find out at the very last minute. You're told to meet at Andrews Air Force Base. You're not told where you're going.

Typically, once you get there, you have to surrender all communication devices, like your phone or your blackberries. You get onto the plane. The door is closed and, at that point, they'll tell you, OK, here is where we're going.

The bottom line, again, is that it's a war zone that they're going into. Always a dangerous situation, in particular, if anyone finds out that the president of the united states or the vice president will be making that trip. So they want to make sure that they keep it very low key, so that anyone who might be trying to do something doesn't get a heads-up.

WHITFIELD: The president has been very outspoken about his commitment to Afghanistan from the very start, and then very quick committing those 30,000 U.S. troops. However, has the president received a lot of criticism for waiting this long, waiting a year before making his first visit as commander in chief?

LOTHIAN: Well, you've heard a lot -- heard a lot of talk about that, and, in fact, every time he takes an overseas trip, there will always be that guessing game whether or not this is going to be the time when the president will be making that side trip. There's also been some heat from the left because, you know, the president had campaigned talking about pulling troops out of Iraq, winding down that operation, winding things up in Afghanistan. But those on the left not looking for such a big commitment in Afghanistan.

So there's been criticism all around. But clearly, as you pointed out, this is something that the president telegraphed early on, when he was running for president. He said that he wanted to bring an end to the conflict in Iraq, and that he really wanted to shift the focus to Afghanistan, because that is where the attack on the United States was launched from. He felt that the former administration had dropped the ball, and so he wanted to put not only the resources on the ground, but also train the local military there so they could continue operations once the U.S. pulled out.

WHITFIELD: And how was the White House responding to the fact that there have been discussions that perhaps the president was not happy with Karzai and questioned whether Karzai was doing enough to offer stability in that country at that -- that his visit comes now because there have been some signs that perhaps there is some progress in Karzai's administration.

LOTHIAN: You're right. The White House has been very clear about that. And you've heard others here in Washington as well who have been critical of the Karzai government, a lot of questions about the elections there, concerns that he was not really doing enough, as I pointed out earlier, to really go at the root of the financial backing for these insurgency. That is going after the poppy growers.

And so yes, there has been from this administration a clear admission that more needs to be done over there. And, in fact, in some of those briefings that officials here at the White House gave earlier today, they describe Karzai as being, quote, "adequate strategic partner," another official saying that he's, quote, "fine."

So we're not talking about a glowing endorsement here of President Karzai. But they do believe that there is some progress being made on the ground. The president pointed out in his remarks of that today. He also said, as he looked around, he saw some electricity, more electricity than had been in there in the region in the past, and so that there was progress being done in the infrastructure there, as well.

So another official pointing out that there is a long way to go, that it's not a perfect situation, but they do believe that on the ground progress is being made.

WHITFIELD: OK. Dan Lothian, thanks so much. I know you're not going to go far. We're going to listen in right now to these perhaps opening remarks, maybe even an introduction to the President's arrival there at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SGT MAJ ERIC JOHNSON, US ARMY: And for that, I know I am deeply grateful and extremely proud. Soldiers of our command and our nation, this evening we are honored with a special guest who understands our nation's appreciation better than anyone, who understands the significance of our mission and service, and who is focused on investigating -- a strong, well trained, well equipped U.S. military that can fight and win our nation's wars.

On behalf of Combined Joint Task Force 82, Region Command East, and all members of this incredible team, I'd like you all to rise and give a warm welcome to our distinguished guests. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure and honor to welcome our commander in chief, the 44th president of the United States, President Barack Obama.

(CHEERING)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: How's it going Bagram?

Well, you know, it turns out that the American people, they let me use this plane called Air Force One, and so I thought I'd come over and say hello.

A couple of people I want to thank, in addition to Sergeant Major Eric Johnson for the outstanding introduction and his great service. I want to thank Major General Mike Scaparetti (ph). Thank you for your great work as commanding general.

I want to thank Ms. Dawn Liberi (ph), who's the senior civilian representative for regional command east for her outstanding work.

And Brigadier General Stephen Quoss (ph), commander -- commander 455th Air Expeditionary Wing. Thank you all for your outstanding service.

Give them a big round after applause.

Thank you for the unbelievable welcome. I know this was on a little bit of short notice.

Say no worries? It is great to be here at Bagram. And it's great to see all the services. We've got Air Force. We've got Army.

We've got Navy. We've got some Marines in the house.

And we've got a lot of civilians here, too, who are making an outstanding contribution to this effort. And I'm honored to be joined by America's outstanding civilian military leadership team here in Afghanistan. Ambassador Carl Eikenberry, who's doing outstanding work, and the commander of our 43-nation coalition, General Stanley McChrystal.

The two of them, together, have paired up to do an extraordinarily difficult task, but they are doing it extraordinarily well. And we are proud of them. Please give your outstanding team a big round of applause. They've got my full confidence and my full support.

We're also joined by troops from some of our coalition partners, because this is not simply an American mission or even just a NATO mission. Al Qaeda and their extremist allies are a threat to the people of Afghanistan and a threat to the people of America, but they're also a threat to people all around the world. And that's why we're so proud to have our coalition partners here with us. Thank you very much for the great work that you do. We salute you and we honor you for all the sacrifices you make. And are you a true friend of the United States of America. Thank you very much.

And we also salute the members of the Afghan National Army who are fighting alongside all of you. They're risking their lives to protect their country. As I told President Karzai today, the United States is a partner, but our intent is to make sure that the Afghans have the capacity to provide for their own security. That is core to our mission. And we are proud of the work that they are doing and the continuing increased capacity that we're seeing out of Afghan national security forces. So thank you very much for the great work you're doing to take responsibility for security here in your own country.

And to the Afghan people, I want to say that I'm honored to be a guest in your country. Now, the Afghans have suffered for decades, decades of war. But we are here to help Afghans forge a hard-won peace, while realizing the extraordinary potential of the Afghan people, Afghanistan's sons and daughters, from the soldiers and the police to the farmers and the young students. And we want to build a lasting partnership, founded upon mutual interests and mutual respect. And I'm looking forward to returning to Afghanistan many times in the years to come.

Now, I know for most of you, you didn't get a lot of notice that I was coming. But I wanted you to understand there's no visit that I considered more important than this visit I'm making right now, because I have no greater honor than serving as your commander in chief. And it is a privilege to look out and see the extraordinary efforts of America's sons and daughters here in Afghanistan. So my main job here today is to say thank you on behalf of the entire American people.

You are part of the finest military in the history of the world. And we are proud of you. And so I want you to know that everybody back home is proud of you. Everybody back home is grateful. And everybody understands the sacrifices that you have made and your families have made to keep America safe and to keep America secure in this vital mission. And I know it's not easy. You're far away from home. You miss your kids. You miss your spouses, your family, your friends. Some of you, this is your second or your third or your fourth tour of duty. I'll tell you right now the same thing that I said at West Point last December: if I thought for a minute that America's vital interests were not served, were not at stake here in Afghanistan, I would order all of you home right away.

So I want you to know, I want every American serving in Afghanistan, military and civilian, to know, whether you're working the flight line here at Bagram or patrolling a village down in Helmand, whether you're standing watch at a forward operating base, or training our Afghan partners, or working with the Afghan government, your services are absolutely necessary, absolutely essential to America's safety and security.

Those folks back home are relying on you. We can't forget why we're here. We did not choose this war. This was not an act of America wanting to expand its influence, of us wanting to meddle in somebody else's business.

We were attacked viciously on 9/11. Thousands of our fellow countrymen and women were killed. And this is a region where the perpetrators of that crime, al Qaeda, still base their leadership. Plots against our homeland, plots against our allies, plots against the Afghan and Pakistani people are taking place as we speak right here. And if this region slides backwards, if the Taliban retakes this country and al Qaeda can operate with impunity, then more American lives will be at stake, the Afghan people will lose their chance at progress and prosperity, and the world will be significantly less secure.

And as long as I'm your commander in chief, I am not going to let that happen. That's why you are here. I've made a promise to all of you who serve, I will never send you into harm's way unless it's absolutely necessary. I anguish in thinking about the sacrifices that so many of you make. That's why I promise I will never send you out unless it is necessary. But that's only part of the promise, because the other part of the promise is that when it is absolutely necessary, you will be backed up by a clear mission and the right strategy, and you will have the support to finish the job, to get the job done. And I am confident all of you are going to get the job done right here in Afghanistan. I am confident of that.

That's why I ordered more troops and civilians here into Afghanistan shortly after taking office. That's why we took a hard look and forged a new strategy and committed more resources in December. That's why we've pushed our friends and allies and partners to pony up more resources themselves, more commitments of aid and additional forces and trainers.

Our broad mission is clear. We are going to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al Qaeda and its extremist allies. That is our mission. And to accomplish that goal, our objectives here in Afghanistan are also clear. We're going to deny al Qaeda safe haven. We're going to reverse the Taliban's momentum. We're going to strengthen the capacity of Afghan security forces and the Afghan government, so that they can begin taking responsibility and gain confidence of the Afghan people.

Our strategy includes a military effort that takes the fight to the Taliban, while creating the conditions for greater security and a transition to the Afghans, but also a civilian effort that improves the daily lives of the Afghan people, and combats corruption, and a partnership with Pakistan and its people, because we can't uproot extremists and advance security and opportunity unless we succeed on both sides of the border. Most of you understand that.

Many of the troops that I ordered to Afghanistan have begun to arrive. And more are on the way. And we'll continue to work with Congress to make sure that you've got the equipment that you need, particularly as we complete our draw-down in Iraq. We're providing more helicopters. We're providing more intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities, more special operations forces, more armored vehicles that can save lives.

And here in Afghanistan, you've gone on the offensive. And the American people back home are noticing. We have seen a huge increase in support in -- stateside because people understand the kinds of sacrifices that you guys are making, and the clarity of mission that you're bringing to bear. And together with our coalition and Afghan partners, our troops have pushed the Taliban out of their stronghold in Marja. We've changed the way we operate and interact with the Afghan people. We see Afghans reclaiming their communities. And we see new partnerships that will help them build their own future and increase their security.

And across the boarder, Pakistan is mounting is major offenses. We've seen violent extremists pushed out of their sanctuaries. We've struck major blows against al Qaeda leadership, as well as the Taliban's. They are hunkered down. They're worried about their own safety. It's harder for them to move. It's harder for them to train, and to plot, and to attack. And all of that makes America safer. And we are going to keep them on the run, because that is what's going to be required in order to assure that our families back home have the security that they need. That's the work that you are doing.

So thanks to you, there's been progress these last several months. But we know there are going to be some difficult days ahead. There's going to be setbacks. We face a determined enemy. But we also know this: the United States of America does not quit once it starts on something. You don't quit. The American armed services does not quit. We keep at it. We persevere. And together with our partners, we will prevail. I am absolutely confident of that.

And I also want you to know that as you are doing your duty here, we're going to do right by you back home. We're going to help take care of your families. That's why the First Lady, Michelle Obama, visited with military families and makes sure that their needs are met. That's why she stays after me once she gets home, when I'm at the White House. And we're going to make sure that we are keeping to improve your pay and your benefits, but also things like child care and support, that ensure that you've got a little bit of security, knowing your family is being looked after back home.

And we'll be there for you when you come home. That's why we're improving care for our wounded warriors, especially those with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. We're moving forward with the post-9/11 GI Bill, so you and your families can pursue your dreams. And we've made the biggest increase in the VA budget in 30 years, because we're going to keep our sacred trust with all those who serve.

You've been there for us, tour after tour, year after year. At a time when too many American institutions have let us down, when too many institutions have put short-term gain in front of a commitment to duty and a commitment to what's right, you've met your responsibilities. You've done your duty. Not just when it's easy, but when it's hard.

That's why you've inspired your fellow Americans. That's why you inspire me. That's why you've earned your place next to the very greatest of American generations. And all of you represent the virtues and the values that America so desperately needs right now: sacrifice and selflessness, honor and decency. That's what I see here today. That's what you represent.

I see your sense of purpose and your willingness to step forward and serve at a time of danger. I've seen it from the Marines I met at Camp Lejeune to the cadets at West Point, from the midshipmen at Annapolis to the troops I have met in Iraq and at bases across America, and here in Afghanistan.

I've seen your courage and your heroism in the story of a young sergeant first class named Jared Monty (ph), who gave his life here in Afghanistan to save his fellow soldiers, and whose parents I was proud to present with our nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor. I've seen your tenacity --

I've seen your tenacity and determination in our wounded warriors in Lanceville and Walter Reed, Americans fighting to stand again, and to walk again, and to get back with you, get back with their units. Incredible dedication, incredible focus, incredible pride.

And I've been humbled by your sacrifice in the solemn home-coming of flag-draped coffins at Dover, to the headstones in section 60 at Arlington, where the fallen from this war rest in peace alongside the fellow heroes of America's story.

So here in Afghanistan, each one of you is part of an unbroken line of American service members who have sacrificed for over two centuries. You're protecting your fellow citizens from danger. You're serving alongside old allies and new friends. You're bringing hope and opportunity to a people who have known a lot of pain and a lot of suffering.

And I know that sometimes when you're watching TV, the politics back home may look a little messy and people are yelling and hollering, and Democrats this and Republicans that. I want you to understand this: there's no daylight when it comes to support of all of you. There's no daylight when it comes to supporting our troops. That brings us together. We are all incredibly proud. We all honor what you do. And all of you show all of America what's possible when people come together, not based on color or creed, not based on faith or station, but based on a commitment to serve together, to bleed together and to succeed together as one people, as Americans.

Make no mistake, this fight matters to us. It matter to us. It matters to our allies. It matters to the Afghan people. Al Qaeda and the violent extremists who you're fighting against want to destroy, but all of you want to build. And that is something essential about America.

They've got no respect for human life. You see dignity in every human being. That's part of what we value as Americans.

They want to drive races and regions and religions apart. You want to bring people together and see the world move forward together. They offer fear, in other words, and you offer hope. And that's why it is so important that you know that the entire country stands behind you.

That's why you put on that uniform, because in an uncertain world, the United States of America will always stand up for the security of nations and the dignity of human beings. That's who we are. That is what we do.

Much has happened to our country and to the world since 9/11. But I'm confident that so long as brave men and women like you, Americans who are willing to serve selflessly, half a world away, on behalf of their fellow citizens and the dreams of people they've never met -- so long as there are folks like you, then I'm confident that our nation will endure and hope will overcome fear, and I am confident that better days lie ahead.

So thank you very much, everybody. God bless you. God bless the United States Armed Forces. And God bless the United States of America.

(END OF COVERAGE)

WHITFIELD: All right, the president of the United States there in Bagram Air Base there in Afghanistan, during what was a surprise visit to that region. He met earlier with President Hamid Karzai and now this, meeting here with the U.S. troops there, promising to support troops abroad and, of course, at home.

Mr. Obama said that he was praising of U.S. troops for their extraordinary efforts and said, quote, "my main job is to say thank you," and he reminded them of why they are in that region, saying that if this region slips back, quoting him now, "al Qaeda can work with impunity and the world would be significantly less secure."

So the President there making his first visit to Afghanistan in this eighth year of the war there in Afghanistan, the first time as commander in chief. He was there while he was there a candidate for president of the United States. Now he's there as commander in chief. We're going to have much more of the president's visit there to Afghanistan later on today in the 4:00 Eastern hour. I'm Fredricka Whitefield. We want to take you now to "YOUR MONEY," already in progress.