Public Opposition to the War in Afghanistan and Security Issues There: Today’s Q’s for O’s WH -- 12/16/2010

TAPPER: I have a question for Secretary Clinton and one for Secretary Gates. Secretary Clinton, in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, 60 percent of the American people say the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting anymore. That's a high. Considering that the U.S. withdrawal date is not until 2014, how can the Obama administration continue to wage this war with so little public support? And then I'll have -- I guess after she answers it, I'll ask Secretary Gates.

CLINTON: First, Jake, I think it's important to remember, as the president reminded us once again, why we're fighting this war. We all understand the stresses that this war causes, first and foremost on the men and women of the military and our civilian forces who are there, and their families. And we certainly understand the budgetary demands that are called for. But it is our assessment, backed up by 49 other nations that are also committing their troops, their civilians, their taxpayer dollars, that this is critical to our national security. Obviously, if we had concluded otherwise we would have made different decisions. But having inherited what we did and having spent an intensive period of time in 2009 reviewing every possible approach, and -- and, frankly, listening to quite contrasting points of view about the way forward, the president and we agreed that this was a commitment that we had to not only continue, but we had to adopt a new strategy, we had to resource it more, and we had to pursue it. And the diagnostic review that we have just undertaken, that we've described to you, has concluded that we are making gains on that strategy. I'm well aware of the popular concern, and I -- I understand it. But I don't think leaders and certainly this president will not make decisions that are matters of life and death and the future security of our nation based on polling. That would not be something that you will see him or any of us deciding. We're trying to do the very best we can with the leadership that we've all been entrusted with to avoid making the mistakes that were made in previous years where we did not develop the kind of relationship and understanding and coordination with either Afghanistan or Pakistan that would enable us to have a better way of interacting with them and perhaps preventing some of what came to pass, and where, frankly, we walked away at some critical moments in the last 25, 30 years. That created conditions that we had a hand in, unfortunately, contributing to. So, I think it's understandable, and I'm very respectful of the feelings of the American people, but the question I would ask is how do you feel about a continuing American commitment that is aimed at protecting you and your family now and into the future, because that's the question that we've asked, and this is how we've answered it. TAPPER: Secretary Gates, I was wondering if you could comment on reports from our reporters in Afghanistan, first of all, that conditions in the west and the north of Afghanistan are actually worse now than they were a year ago, as the U.S. has focused on it now, and also the fact that, even in Kandahar, which is cited in this report as a place where there has been some success, two-thirds of the municipal jobs there are unfilled because the local population is afraid to join the government. They're afraid of the repercussions. And that's an area that you're citing as a success. I was wondering if you could comment on that?

GATES: First of all, let me just add to Secretary Clinton's response to you that I think, if you look at polling in almost all of our 49 coalition partners, countries, public opinion is -- is in doubt. Public opinion would be majority -- in terms of majority, against their participation. I would just say that it's -- it's obviously the responsibility of leaders to pay attention to public opinion, but at the end of the day, their responsibility is to look out for the public interest and to look to the long term.

What I would say is that one of the -- first of all, the security gains, what I was talking about in my remarks, really had to do with the security gains in terms of clearing the Taliban out of areas that they've controlled for years. And what we're seeing is, as the security environment improves in places like Nawa and places like Marjah and so on, more people are willing to sign up. But it -- there's a lag time, and General Petraeus has briefed this, in terms of the lag between greater violence, greater military success and then the quality of governance and having people come in behind. This is something that we're focused on. Ambassador Eikenberry is focused on it. We are all focused on it -- Secretary Clinton, obviously -- in terms of doing what we can to increase the number of Afghans who can come in behind our security forces to provide the circumstances for governance. There's no doubt that the Taliban has a very targeted assassination program against people who are working with the coalition and people who are associated with the Afghan government, even at local levels. And -- but as we deny them safe havens within Afghanistan, their ability to carry out these kind of terrorist acts will be diminished, and that's why we talk in terms of 18 to 24 months.

-Jake Tapper

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