WASHINGTON -- The president's decision to reverse course and remain in Afghanistan through 2016 is a sign that the U.S. strategy is working there, senior White House officials argued in a conference call with reporters Thursday.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest added, however, that "even when it comes to counterterrorism," there is no "military solution" in Afghanistan.
The call came shortly after President Barack Obama briefed the press on his decision. The advisers said that the remaining troops, some 5,500 service members, would be focused on counterterrorism operations and training Afghan forces.
A reporter from Agence France-Presse asked whether those tasks could really be accomplished in the next few years, if the last 14 years hadn't been enough time to get it done.
"I would not agree with the premise," said Deputy National Security Adviser Lisa Monaco. "I don't think anyone ever intended that the job, so to speak, would be finished."
Earnest argued that the president's continued focus on counterterrorism and training Afghan forces is in fact a good sign.
"The fact that the president wants to expand those operations and continue that strategy is actually an indication that it's working and that we're seeing progress," he said. "If the president had come out today and announced a dramatic change to our policy, I think you would have a stronger argument to make in questioning whether we're seeing the kind of progress we'd like to see."
Of course, the president had, in fact, just come out and announced a dramatic change to U.S. policy -- which previously had been to withdraw from Afghanistan and hunker down in the embassy in Kabul.
The aides dismissed the suggestion, made by The New York Times' Peter Baker, that the U.S. decision was a reflection of lessons learned from the aftermath of the Iraq withdrawal. The difference, said the aides, is that there was no friendly and capable government to work with in Iraq, and the government there did not invite the U.S. to stay, as the one in Afghanistan has.
How exactly the counterterrorism program will be executed wasn't spelled out. Citing an Intercept investigation from Thursday morning that found the collateral casualties in drone strikes often far outweigh the intended deaths, fueling blowback, a Huffington Post reporter asked how much of a role the drone program will play going forward.
"The president has obviously made a policy decision to try to be as transparent as possible about our counterterrorism operations all around the world, and the fact is, all those counterterrorism operations go to great lengths to limit civilian casualties," Earnest said, not exactly answering the question.
He went on to say that the more progress the U.S. can make training Afghan forces, the less it will have to fight in Afghanistan itself.
"That does have a corresponding impact on the ability to reduce the military -- U.S. and NATO -- military presence inside of Afghanistan, to reduce the instances in which that U.S. military comes into contact with civilians in any sort of setting," Earnest said.
And that's a good thing, he added, because counterterrorism doesn't work in the long run anyway.
"The final thing is, the president also acknowledged in his prepared remarks today that the United States or anybody else will not be successful in imposing a military solution on the problems that plague Afghanistan -- even when it comes to counterterrorism," Earnest said. "And that's why the president made the explicit reference to the need for progress in the ongoing reconciliation process."
The Intercept investigation includes the saga of Operation Haymarket, a sophisticated, extensive counterterrorism operation in northeast Afghanistan that more often than not killed people who were not the intended targets. During one particular five-month period, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not direct targets of the United States. Three years after the operation, the Taliban briefly took over Kunduz, a key city in northeast Afghanistan. Afghan forces have since retaken it, but the joint U.S.-Afghan bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital there has raised international outrage.