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White House Balances Money, Security In Afghanistan


So as we just heard, this NATO summit will be crucial when it comes to working out who's going to put up the money needed to support and train Afghan security forces in the years to come. The White House is leading the charge, so next we go to Ben Rhodes, White House spokesman on national security issues. Ben Rhodes, thanks so much for joining us.

BEN RHODES: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So, I'd like to start out by laying some figures out on the table. It's going to cost billions of dollars to fund and train Afghan security forces to take over responsibility for security in their country. And the administration has already gotten key financial commitments from allies like the U.K., Germany and Poland, Australia. But you're nowhere near the final price tag of what it's going to cost. Where are you going to get that money?

RHODES: Well, we have already had commitments from the Afghan government themselves, who, of course, are going to be kicking in a share of this. But I think we'll be looking to NATO to help bear the burdens of that cost. We'll be looking to other donor nations around the world.

MARTIN: Like who?

RHODES: The Japanese have been, for instance, significant supporters of the Afghans, as have the South Koreans. We believe the French will be a part of this. The French have a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghans that commits France to supporting Afghanistan beyond 2014. The United States, of course, will have our share of this as well. But I think what the American people will know is that supporting Afghan national security forces is significantly less expensive than waging the war ourselves, and, of course, there's significantly less risk to our men and women in uniform.

MARTIN: Our understanding is that Afghan security forces currently number at around 350,000. Can the U.S. and NATO afford to support that many Afghan troops going forward, or are there any plans to scale that number down?

RHODES: We're not going to support the 350,000 number. What we want to do is get to a place where there's a smaller, more sustainable force in place several years from now. And it will certainly be less than 350,000.

MARTIN: Ben Rhodes, there is a real fear among Afghans that the U.S. is going to pull out, and there's a desire to keep a strong U.S. presence there. How does the administration deliver two conflicting messages? On the one hand, telling the American public, yes, the U.S. is getting out of Afghanistan in two years' time, withdrawing most troops, at the same time reassuring the Afghan government and the Afghan people that the U.S. is actually staying beyond 2014.

RHODES: Well, I think the balance is, we want to make sure that Afghans are responsible for their country. However, we're not simply abandoning them. We can do things like continue to equip their security forces, to provide training to the security forces on Afghan bases. So, the United States can remain present but we won't be out front. And I think the Afghan people want that 'cause they want to have a sense of sovereignty and ownership of their own country.

MARTIN: Just last week, an Associated Press poll showed backing for the Afghan war has hit a new low - on par with support for the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. Only 27 percent of Americans say they support the war; 66 percent oppose it. How do you talk about this? Why should American taxpayers continue to subsidize the Afghan government at this point?

RHODES: We understand that Americans are weary of this conflict. What we want to do is end the war in a way that preserves the gains that we've made, that doesn't further endanger the United States by enabling al-Qaida to reestablish a safe haven, and then allows Afghanistan to stand on its own two feet.

MARTIN: But what does the end of the war look like? Does this look like an Afghan government with a significant Taliban contingent, some kind of power-sharing arrangement?

RHODES: There will be some type of political resolution within Afghanistan that works out a power-sharing agreement among the different factions within the country.

MARTIN: Including the Taliban.

RHODES: Certainly could include elements of the Taliban. We've been in discussions with the Taliban along with the Afghan government and made clear to them that they are free to be a part of the future of Afghanistan, provided that they break with al-Qaida and don't engage in violence but rather abide by Afghanistan's laws.

MARTIN: Ben Rhodes is the White House spokesman on national security. Thanks so much for talking with us. We appreciate it.

RHODES: Thanks. Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.