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Obama calls Afghanistan troop decision his toughest yet

In a CBS '60 Minutes' interview, the president rejects criticism that the plan is confusing. He also discusses jobs, healthcare and the White House gate-crashers.

December 14, 2009|By Sebastian Rotella
  • President Obama addresses cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., on Dec. 1, where he announced his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. "There is not a speech that I've made that hit me in the gut as much as that speech," he told CBS' "60 Minutes."
President Obama addresses cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point,… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — Discussing in strikingly personal terms his order to escalate the war in Afghanistan, President Obama said Sunday that sending 30,000 new combat troops was the hardest decision of his presidency so far.

Obama called his Dec. 1 speech at West Point announcing the deployment the "most emotional speech I've made."

"I was looking out over a group of cadets, some of whom were going to be deployed in Afghanistan," Obama said in a "60 Minutes" interview taped Dec. 7 and broadcast Sunday night, for which CBS provided a transcript. "And potentially some might not come back. There is not a speech that I've made that hit me in the gut as much as that speech."

Critics have said his plan is confusing and contradictory because although it calls for the new deployment, it also sets a July 2011 date to start withdrawing troops.

Obama disagreed.

"Forty million people watched" the speech, he said. "And I think a whole bunch of people understood what we intend to do. . . . There shouldn't be anything confusing about that. . . . That's something that we executed over the last two years in Iraq. So I think the American people are familiar with the idea of a surge."

The idea is to better train the Afghan army, make it responsible for the nation's security, and persuade less committed members of the Taliban to defect. But experts warn that Afghanistan is far different than Iraq, where the Bush administration's troop surge helped reduce violence.

In the "60 Minutes" interview with Steve Kroft, Obama also discussed jobs, the economy and the healthcare overhaul.

He spoke frankly about the struggle to craft a strategy in South Asia. Asked about the tone of his West Point speech, which some saw as detached, Obama said: "One of the mistakes that was made over the last eight years is for us to have a triumphant sense about war. There was a tendency to say: 'We can go in. We can kick some tail. This is some glorious exercise.' When in fact, this is a tough business."

While planning the Afghan buildup, the administration wrestled with the fact that though the goal is to defeat Al Qaeda, most of the terrorist network is in Pakistan. The "epicenter of violent extremism" is in the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and must be fought on both sides of the border, Obama said.

"This is the heart of it," Obama said. "This is where [Osama] bin Laden is. . . . Half of this territory is in Afghanistan, half of it is in Pakistan. Ultimately, in order for us to eradicate the problem, to really go after Al Qaeda in an effective way, we are going to need more cooperation from Pakistan. There is no doubt about that."

Acknowledging that many Americans are fed up with the Afghan war, Obama defended the withdrawal date as a stern message to an Afghan government beset by corruption and disarray.

"Very frankly, there are, I think, elements in Afghanistan who would be perfectly satisfied to make Afghanistan a permanent protectorate of the United States," Obama said, adding: "That's not what the American people signed up for when they went into Afghanistan in 2001. They signed up to go after Al Qaeda."

On the economy, Obama discussed his plan to spur hiring with $200 billion left over from the multibillion-dollar bailout of banks and financial firms. The $700-billion Troubled Asset Relief Program was created under the Bush administration to prevent a banking collapse. Several banks have already repaid the funds, at least in part to escape accompanying restrictions on executive pay.

Obama scolded "fat-cat bankers on Wall Street" who have resumed paying huge bonuses while battling new financial regulations on Capitol Hill.

"The people on Wall Street still don't get it," he said. "They're still puzzled why is it that people are mad at the banks. Well, let's see. You guys are drawing down $10-, $20-million bonuses after America went through the worst economic year that it's gone through in -- in decades, and you guys caused the problem. And we've got 10% unemployment. Why do you think people might be a little frustrated?"

Obama will meet today with a group of banking executives to discuss issues, including the administration's push for expanded lending to small businesses and tough new regulations on the financial sector.

Earlier Sunday, the president's top economic advisor predicted good job news by April. "I believe that, as do most professional forecasters, that by spring, employment growth will start to be turning positive," Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council, said during an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union."

In the CBS interview, Obama predicted that the healthcare overhaul would pass the Senate before Christmas. The House has already passed a plan; the two versions would have to be reconciled before legislation would go to Obama.

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