Obama, Cameron vow to stay the course in Afghanistan

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 14, 2012 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday that they didn't see a need to accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, regardless of violent outbreaks abroad or war weariness at home.

"I don't anticipate at this stage that we're going to be making any sudden additional changes to the plan that we currently have," Obama said in a White House news conference with Cameron at his side.

"We will not give up on this mission," added Cameron, who was making an official visit to the White House, capped by a state dinner Wednesday evening.

The two leaders met amid new calls to get allied troops out of Afghanistan now, rather than gradually over the next two and half years as planned. Recent polls found that a majority of Americans want to get out even before allied troops can train Afghan security forces to secure their own country.

The calls were prompted by Afghan violence against U.S. troops after the burning of some Qurans, a shooting rampage allegedly by a U.S. soldier that killed 16 Afghan civilians and a roadside bomb that killed six British troops, the worst loss of life for the British since 2006.

"People get weary," Obama said. "And they know friends and neighbors who have lost loved ones as a consequence of war."

Making a long-planned visit to Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta echoed the commitment to stay the course.

"We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve," he told Marines at Camp Leatherneck. "We will be tested. We will be challenged. We'll be challenged by our enemy. We'll be challenged by ourselves. We'll be challenged by the hell of war itself. But none of that, none of that, must ever deter us from the mission that we must achieve."

At the White House, the two leaders strove to assure their countries that the effort has been worth the cost.

"If you compare where we are today with where we've been two, three years ago, the situation is considerably improved. I think the U.S. surge and the additional U.K. troops we put in, particularly into Helmand province, had a transformative effect," Cameron said.

"The level of insurgent attacks are right down. The level of security is right up. The capital of Helmand province, Lashkar Gah, is now fully transitioned over to Afghan-led control. The markets are open. You're able to do and take part in economic activity in that town, which simply wasn't possible when I first visited it several years ago."

That said, they reaffirmed their commitment to continue drawing out troops.

"We have already taken out 10,000 of our troops," Obama said. "We're slated to draw down an additional 23,000 by this summer. There will be a robust coalition presence inside of Afghanistan during this fighting season to make sure that the Taliban understand that they're not going to be able to regain momentum.

"After the fighting season, in conjunction with all our allies, we will continue to look at how do we effectuate this transition in a way that doesn't result in a steep cliff at the end of 2014, but rather is a gradual pace that accommodates the developing capacities of the Afghan national security forces."

On other issues, the two leaders said they still hoped that sanctions would drive Iran to abandon its nuclear program, and that they couldn't take military action in Syria in part because they lacked international support from China and Russia.

"We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. We believe there is still time and space to pursue a diplomatic solution," Obama said. He added, however, that, "the window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking."

Cameron's visit was marked by pomp and pageantry, including a state dinner in a tent on the South Lawn of the White House.

At an arrival ceremony earlier Wednesday on the lawn, Obama and Cameron lauded the special relationship between their countries and joked about the time it wasn't as cordial. British troops burned the White House during the War of 1812.

"It's now been 200 years since the British came here, to the White House, under somewhat different circumstances," Obama said to laughter. "They really lit up the place. But we moved on."

"I am a little embarrassed," Cameron responded, "to think that 200 years ago my ancestors tried to burn this place down. Now, looking around me, I can see you've got the place a little better defended today."

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