Obama Defends Afghanistan Timetable Plan

Gives His First Extensive Interview Since the Announcement of His Troop Build-Up in Afghanistan

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Kroft: Right. What does happen?

Obama: And what I've said is that we then start transitioning into a draw down phase. How many U.S. troops are coming out, how quickly will be determined by conditions on the ground.

Kroft: So, if the situation is not going well in July of 2011, you can decide - and I'm not making light of this - to send home the band and a couple of civil affairs units and non-essential units and keep as many combat people on the ground as are necessary to perform the mission.

Obama: Well look, as commander in chief, obviously, I reserve the option to do what I think is gonna be best for the American people at that point in time. And our national security. But we will know, I think, by the end of December 2010 whether or not the approach that General McChrystal has discussed in terms of securing population centers is meeting its objectives. And if the approach that's been recommended doesn't work, then yes, we're gonna be changing approaches.

Kroft: Why set a deadline? I mean, Senator McCain, most prominent.

Obama: Right. And the answer is that in the absence of a deadline, the message we are sending to the Afghans is, "It's business as usual. This is an open-ended commitment." And very frankly there are I think elements in Afghanistan who would be perfectly satisfied to make Afghanistan a permanent protectorate of the United States. In which they carry no burden. In which we're paying for a military in Afghanistan that preserves their security and their prerogatives. That's not what the American people signed off for when they went into Afghanistan in 2001. They signed up to go after al Qaeda.

Kroft: The main reason we're doing this is al Qaeda, why send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, because according to your government's own estimates, there may be fewer than 100 al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. That the rest are in Pakistan and the tribal territories.

Obama: What you have here between the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan is the epicenter of violent extremism directed against the West and directed against the United States. This is the heart of it. This is where Bin Laden is. This is where its allies are. It's from here that you see attacks launched not just against the United States, but against London, against Bali, against a whole host of countries.

Kroft: And half of this territory is in Afghanistan-

Obama: 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.

Kroft: You're a student of history. The British lost the Revolutionary War, and the Americans lost the Vietnam War, in spite of the fact that they won almost all the major battles. They lost it because it got to be too expensive, it was too far away, and not enough people cared about it. Aren't you facing some of those same problems right now?

Obama: I think what is true is that if we have an open-ended commitment in a place like Afghanistan with no clear benchmarks for what success means, that the American people who have just gone through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, who've already endured eight years of war at some point are gonna say "enough." And rightly so.

Kroft: In Afghanistan, you can make the argument that it's not really even a country, that it is a collection of tribes. That and it is run really by a very corrupt government, some of whose major figures are alleged to be involved in the drug business, including the brother of the president. How are you gonna deal with this?

Obama: (LAUGHS) Look, I -

Kroft: I mean, how are you gonna do this?

Obama: Look, Steve, I mean the reason I laugh is because this is really hard. And there's not a question that you asked that I haven't asked in meetings, and that I don't ask myself. I don't have the luxury of choosing between the ideal and what exists on the ground. I have to make decisions based on how, given where we are right now, how do we get to the best possible place.

Kroft: Okay. Let's change the subject.

Obama: Okay, why not.

Kroft: Jobs.

Obama: We can talk about Afghanistan some more.