January 19th, 2012
04:25 PM ET

Obama: "We have severely degraded al Qaeda's capacity"

I spent the last few weeks working on an essay for TIME Magazine on Barack Obama's foreign policy and, in association with that piece, I interviewed the president on Wednesday in the Oval Office. Here's an excerpt of that interview where we talk about Afghanistan and counterterrorism. 

Fareed Zakaria: When you look at Afghanistan over the past three years — the policies you’ve adopted — would it be fair to say that the counterterrorism part of the policy, the killing bad guys, has been a lot more successful than the counterinsurgency, the stabilizing of vast aspects of the country, and that going forward, you should really focus in on that first set of policies?

Barack Obama: Well, what is fair to say is that the counterterrorism strategy as applied to al Qaeda has been extremely successful. The job is not finished, but there’s no doubt that we have severely degraded al Qaeda’s capacity.

When it comes to stabilizing Afghanistan, that was always going to be a more difficult and messy task, because it’s not just military — it’s economic, it’s political, it’s dealing with the capacity of an Afghan government that doesn’t have a history of projecting itself into all parts of the country, tribal and ethnic conflicts that date back centuries. So we always recognized that was going to be more difficult.

Now, we’ve made significant progress in places like Helmand province and in the southern portions of the country. And because of the cohesion and effectiveness of coalition forces, there are big chunks of Afghanistan where the Taliban do not rule, there is increasingly effective local governance, the Afghan security forces are beginning to take the lead. And that’s all real progress.

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But what is absolutely true is that there are portions of the country where that’s not the case, where local governance is weak, where local populations still have deep mistrust of the central government. And part of our challenge over the next two years as we transition to Afghan forces is to continue to work with the Afghan government so that it recognizes its responsibilities not only to provide security for those local populations but also to give them some credible sense that the local government — or the national government is looking out for them, and that they’re going to be able to make a living and they’re not going to be shaken down by corrupt police officials and that they can get products to market. And that’s a long-term process.

I never believed that America could essentially deliver peace and prosperity to all of Afghanistan in a three-, four-, five-year time frame. And I think anybody who believed that didn’t know the history and the challenges facing Afghanistan. I mean, this is the third poorest country in the world, with one of the lowest literacy rates and no significant history of a strong civil service or an economy that was deeply integrated with the world economy. It’s going to take decades for Afghanistan to fully achieve its potential.

What we can do, and what we are doing, is providing the Afghan government the time and space it needs to become more effective, to serve its people better, to provide better security, to avoid a repetition of all-out civil war that we saw back in the ’90s. And what we’ve also been able to do, I think, is to maintain a international coalition to invest in Afghanistan long beyond the point when it was politically popular to do so.

But ultimately, the Afghans are going to have to take on these responsibilities and these challenges, and there will be, no doubt, bumps in the road along the way.

From the perspective of our security interests, I think we can accomplish our goal, which is to make sure that Afghanistan is not a safe haven from which to launch attacks against the United States or its allies. But the international community — not just us; the Russians and the Chinese and the Indians and the Pakistanis and the Iranians and others — I think all have an interest in making sure that Afghanistan is not engulfed in constant strife, and I think that’s an achievable goal.

Read the full transcript here.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Iraq • President Obama • Terrorism

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Onesmallvoice

    With all the blood on his hands, I honestly can't see how in the world Barack Obama can sleep at night. I know that I couldn't and I'm glad that I'm not that cold-blooded and heartless. I cannot understand his callousness. I wonder if he realizes the fact that 70% of the people being killed are civilians caught up in the middle of this useless war!

    January 19, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Reply
    • MrJs1G

      Yes, and 75-80% of those civilian casualties stem from Muslim-on-Muslim violence - mostly the Taliban. And perhaps before you (or any readers of this comment) accuse me of reading / watching too much Glenn Beck, I draw these figures from a 2010 UN report.

      January 19, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Reply
      • Marine5484

        Wrong, MrJs1G. The majority of those people are being slaughtered by our ungodly drones and don't let anybody kid you otherwise!!! I bet that this killer Obama must be quite proud of himself by now!

        January 20, 2012 at 10:08 am |
      • Emperor Norton

        MrJs1G posted a source, Marine5484. It's now up to you to post a source that confirms your statement, or you're just shouting at clouds. I know you really *want* Obama to be a multiple murderer, but cite evidence and you've got a better chance.

        January 20, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  2. johnnyUtah

    The blood is on Bush's hands. Obama is cleaning, sweeping and closing shop over there.

    January 19, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Reply
  3. Amarjyoti Acharya

    Sometimes I wonder and (I do hope that it is not so) if I may not be confused for the Al-Qaeda or its allied services. They have not confused me since 2003 though. But one can have very intelligent US actors via the other varieties in India (the Hindu radical or the Christian radical or the plain Left Extremism – they do rather well in neanderthal democracies as India) give one that impression over plain egos. Thankfully the globe is larger and has actors that aren't as dumb as some US actors seemed – though I can not read the thoughts of others nor hear others though they do seem to be doing so since 2004 rather well. The other actors in the globe at least know how to balance certain illnesses. But I sometimes do wonder – why would one person's private life be made non-existent since 2003 and yet be a subject for such actors? Apart from that, the changing global order and power equations mean that stupidities – even if nuke-armed as the USA or the UK via their agencies/actors/slaves/servants in India & South Asia – are seen clearer as indications of the abilities of particular actors as well as their IQ levels and what they mean for the globe. Mr. Zakaria again is mistaken about India's emergence as the largest economy – in another of his articles – since it takes much more than just selective data. Guess that I shall rather be silent and let time tell its own stories! I can't afford a Blackberry or a Porsche (since 2003 I guess it has been turned into an impossibility to even afford a rented place that can be called hospitable) so obviously I can't be talking or making sense.

    January 20, 2012 at 3:58 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    True, progresses are made in Helmand and the southern parts of the Afghanistan, but in the mountainous regions in the Hindukush livelihood is tough and tribal and the literacy is low. Live in Kabul doesn't reflect the rest of the backward region. It will take generations of Afghans to develope the sense of a nation-wide solidarity.

    January 20, 2012 at 4:53 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      please read: LIFE in the more liberal Kabul......

      January 20, 2012 at 4:58 am | Reply
  5. Hahahahahahahahaha

    Who is Al Kida! Hahahahahahahahaha

    January 20, 2012 at 9:44 am | Reply
  6. hahaha

    Why? Did the US stop sending money to its arab allies?

    January 20, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  7. Obama yes we can speech

    Despression symptoms is a express of psychological sickness, in which the outcome is which you feel you are the unluckiest person on earth. Having issues is really a portion of being individual, however ...fishing lures

    February 7, 2012 at 11:32 am | Reply

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