MR. GREGORY: This Sunday -- the fight over health care reform; the president's approval ratings fall as opposition to his plan grows; and Democrats question whether the White House is now backing away from a public plan.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) What we've said is we think that's a good idea, but we haven't said that that's the only aspect of health care.
MR. GREGORY: Can there be a compromise or will Democrats let it go it alone? This morning, the debate -- we'll hear from both sides of the aisle with two key members of the Senate Finance Committee -- Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah and Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York.
Then -- selling the plan. Has the president lost the PR war and political support from his base? And what about the biggest question of all -- how will reform impact you? PBS's Tavis Smiley and MSNBC's Joe Scarborough weigh in.
Finally, our "Meet the Press Minute," remembering noted political columnist Robert Novak -- a look back and some highlights from his more than 200 appearances on this program over the past 45 years.
But, first, in addition to waging political battles at home, the president is faced with two ongoing wars abroad. This week Afghans went to the polls as Americans expressed fresh skepticism about the U.S. war there now entering its ninth year. And, in Iraq, new threats of sectarian violence after bombers strike inside Baghdad's green zone.
Two men charged with coordinating the U.S. military and diplomatic mission in that region join us now -- Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and from Afghanistan this morning, our U.S. ambassador, retired Lt. Gen. Carl Eikenberry. Welcome to both of you.
Let me start with you, Admiral Mullen, on the question of U.S. resolve. This was a poll taken by the Washington Post and ABC News this week, and these were the results: Is the war in Afghanistan worth the fight? "No," 51 percent. Have the American people lost that will to fight this war?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I'm a Vietnam veteran myself. I'm certainly aware of the criticality of support of the American people for this war and, in fact, any war. And so, certainly, the numbers are of concern.
That said, the president has given me and the American military a mission, and that focuses on a new strategy, new leadership, and we are moving very much in that direction. I am very mindful and concerned about the threat that's there; the strategy really focuses on defeating al Qaeda and their extremist allies. That's where the original 911 attacks came from that region. They have now moved to Pakistan. Afghanistan is very vulnerable in terms of Taliban and extremists taking over again, and I don't think that threat is going to go away. They still plot against us. They see us as something they want to kill in terms of as many American lives as possible in that regard. We are very focused on executing that mission.
MR. GREGORY: Well, let's talk about that focus. General McChrystal, our commander on the ground, is expected to release his report, his assessment of what's happening on the ground. Will he request of this president more troops to fight in Afghanistan?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, McChrystal's assessment will come in here, I think, in the next two weeks, and his guidance was go out as a new commander, put a new team together and come back and tell us exactly how you assess conditions on the ground, take into consideration the president's strategy. He is going to do that. His assessment will come in and won't speak specifically to resources. There is an expectation we will deal with resources after that assessment.
MR. GREGORY: Well, but Senator McCain is saying in an interview this morning it will deal with resources; that he'll come back with high, medium, and low threat assessments in terms of how many more troops you need -- whether you need 15,000, 25,000, or 45,000 additional troops. Will he come in with a specific troop request and will that increase in troop requests meet skepticism from the White House?
ADM. MULLEN: The assessment that he will submit here in the next couple of weeks won't specifically deal with requirements for additional resources. We'll deal with whatever additional resources might be required subsequent to that in the normal process.
MR. GREGORY: But this question that Senator McCain raises, which is he's afraid that there is going to be skepticism in the White House about any requests for more troops and that more troops are vital if you're going to carry out this mission. Where do you fall down on that?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think when we look at the strategy the president has laid out, look what General McChrystal says he needs in order to carry out that strategy, my recommendation to the president will be based on getting the resource strategy match absolutely correct. And so we'll see where that goes once the assessment is in here.
And I've had this conversation with the president who understands that whatever the mission is it needs to be resourced correctly. That said, it will be the initial assessment that will be important, and then the risks that are associated with that assessment, and then we'll figure out where we go from there.
MR. GREGORY: But can you carry out this mission with the troops you've got?
ADM. MULLEN: That's really something that we will evaluate over the next few weeks after we get the assessment from General McChrystal.
MR. GREGORY: Ambassador Eikenberry, let me bring you in here and talk about the elections this week. Already there are claims of irregularities and fraud, voter turnout much lower than expected in the south, particularly low among women, and we don't have a clear result yet of the election. To what extent does this election, this presidential election in Afghanistan, highlight the challenges that the U.S. faces there? AMB. EIKENBERRY: Well, David, let's talk about what we do know about the election. First of all, it's a very historic election. It's the first presidential provincial council election led by the Afghan people that's taken place in this country in over 30 years. And the second point, it's a very important election.
This is an election in which, as in all democracies at this point in time now with the presidential election, with the provincial council election, which the people are going to the polls, and it's an opportunity for them to renew their ties with their government. And that's important to this process to remember.
If we look back over the history of Afghanistan over the last 30 years, we have civil war, we have occupation, we've got a complete collapse of governance and rule of law, which sets the conditions, then, for Afghanistan to be a state controlled by international terrorism. Those were the conditions that led to 11 September of 2001.
So this election that's just been completed -- yes, it was a very difficult election, but it's an opportunity, then, for renewal of the trust and the bonds between the people of Afghanistan and their government.
MR. GREGORY: Let me jump in here -- there's the question of the Taliban. The Taliban is really Enemy 1 for U.S. forces there. It's stronger, it's resurgent from the period after 9/11. What does this election show -- the level of intimidation by the Taliban, about the Taliban's strength and the challenge to U.S. forces?
AMB. EIKENBERRY: Well, I think it shows, David, that there is great excitement within this country for the Afghans to regain control of their country for sovereignty. We had a two-month extraordinary election campaign that we just got through; a very exciting time in which there was unprecedented political activity that occurred. TV debates, rallies throughout the country, it was a very civil kind of debate that occurred, and it was all national. Candidates, for the first time in Afghanistan's history, crossing ethnic lines and campaigning around the country.
MR. GREGORY: I want to bring Admiral Mullen back in here. We're talking about the threat of the Taliban, and ultimately a lot of Americans are wanting to see in that poll what it is we're fighting to do there.
The president, this week, told Veterans of Foreign Wars, Afghanistan is a war of necessity. But other people have said, "No, it's not. It's actually a war of choice." Richard Haass, who was around in the Bush administration when this war was started in Afghanistan wrote this in the New York Times this week: "In the wake of 9/11 invading Afghanistan was a war of necessity. The U.S. needed to act in self-defense to oust the Taliban. There was no viable alternative. Now, however, with a friendly government in Kabul, is our military presence still a necessity?" My question -- if the central mission was fighting al Qaeda, are we fulfilling that central mission still?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, David, this is the war we're in and, in fact, the mission the president has given us is to defeat and disrupt al Qaeda and its extremist allies. And that's very specific, and that includes the Taliban, which has grown to be much more sophisticated in the last two to three years and is a much tougher enemy in that regard. And they really are linked.
Across that border in Pakistan, they provide the safe haven for al Qaeda. They also feed fires into Afghanistan. Al Qaeda would very much like to see Kabul become the capital that it was before essentially run by extremists. So, in that regard, it's very much linked and, again, it's the mission that the military has right now to focus -- and General McChrystal is doing this -- focus on the security for the people, focus on the Afghan people. And that's a significant change from where we were just a few months ago. And it is in that focus that both understand what they feel about their security, which is pretty bad right now and getting worse, and moving in a direction that provides security. So then we can develop governance, so then we can develop an economy, and they can take over their own destiny.
MR. GREGORY: We're rebuilding this nation?
ADM. MULLEN: To a certain degree, there is some of that going on.
MR. GREGORY: Is that what the American people signed up for?
ADM. MULLEN: No, right now, the American people signed up, I think, for support of getting at those who threaten us and, to the degree that the Afghan people's security and the ability to ensure that a safe haven doesn't recur in Afghanistan, there is focus on some degree of making sure security is okay, making sure governance moves in the right direction, and developing an economy, which will underpin their future.
MR. GREGORY: But there seems to be a fundamental problem here. You know, in the Vietnam era, there was talk about mission creep; the idea of, you know, gradually surging up forces, having nation-building goals, and running into challenges all along the way. You're not going to commit to this this morning, it doesn't seem, but the reality is that it appears to fulfill this mission, to beat the Taliban, which is stronger than it ever was, to also fight al Qaeda. There needs to be more troops in addition to this goal of trying to secure the population. ADM. MULLEN: The focus on the people certainly is going to come by way of having -- creating security for them so their future can be brighter than it is right now. But it isn't just that. I mean, part of the president's strategy is to bring in a significant civilian capacity. Ambassador Holbrooke was just there on his fifth or sixth trip, and he was in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. So this is a civilian military approach. It's a new strategy. It's the first one -- and I recognize we've been there over eight years. But I also want to say that this is the first time we've really resourced a strategy on both the civilian and military side. So in certain ways, we are starting anew.
MR. GREGORY: The question for both of you is about exit strategy. This is what the president said back in March so the American people know when this is going to come to an end. He said, "There's got to be an exit strategy. There has got to be a sense that it is not perpetual drift." And just a couple of weeks ago -- you mentioned Richard Holbrooke, envoy to the region -- he was at a forum here in Washington. He was asked how he would define success in Afghanistan. This is what he would say: "I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the simplest sense, the Supreme Court test for another issue. We'll know it when we see it."
"We'll know it when we see it?" Is that supposed to provide solace to the American people, that we're not getting into drift when it comes to an exit strategy?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I've said, from the military perspective, I believe we've got to start to turn this thing around from a security standpoint in the next 12 to 18 months. And I think after that we'd have a better view of how long it's going to take and what we need to do. Again, we are just getting the pieces in place from the president's new strategy in March on the ground now both on the military side -- we've put forces there, and we will add more this year -- and on the civilian side. So it's going to take us a while to understand that.
I don't see this as a mission of endless drift. I think we know what to do. We've learned a lot of lessons from Iraq focusing on the Afghan people. It's a counter-insurgency effort right now. It's not just what was a counterterrorism effort several years ago, and that's why we've got to focus on the Afghan people, their security, and creating forces, Afghan forces, to provide for their own security.
MR. GREGORY: Ambassador Eikenberry, you are a former military man as well. What does your gut tell you? How long is it going to take to succeed in Afghanistan?
AMB. EIKENBERRY: David, let's talk about progress and what we would see as progress is over the next several years that the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police are much more in front, much more capable, and they are able to provide for the security of their own population. That's a several-year process and beyond. What else does progress look like? Progress looks like the government of Afghanistan that's able to tend much more to the needs of their people; to provide reasonable services to them; to provide security for them. And progress looks like a region in which there is more cooperation.
Can we see outlines of what progress might look like over the next several years consistent with our strategy, ready to partner with the next Afghan administration that emerges after the winner of this election has occurred? Yeah, sure we can.
MR. GREGORY: It's just interesting, Admiral Mullen, that he talks about progress and not victory.
Is victory possible in Afghanistan?
ADM. MULLEN: I try to focus this on what it's going to take to succeed there given the mission that we've gotten, and would just re- emphasize not just on top of the progress, it's the focus on the people and giving them a future that allows them to take care of their own country and doesn't create an environment in which al Qaeda and its extremist allies can threaten us as they have and execute a threat as they did in the past.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you quickly about Iraq. The violence playing out this week in the green zone -- 95 people killed, an attack on the foreign and finance military -- this is Baghdad, where the Iraqis are now in control. You have warned about the threat of sectarian violence that could ultimately doom Iraq. What troubles you about what you saw this week?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I still think that is probably the most significant threat is if sectarian violence breaks out in large measure. And so these attacks last week certainly are of great concern not just to me but General Odierno, Ambassador Hill, and many others, and we're watching that very carefully. That has been addressed very quickly with Prime Minister Maliki and his leadership.
In addition to that, I've been concerned about the politics of it all, in fact, resolving the issues, particularly up north around Kirkuk. Those are probably the two biggest threats to the future security and progress. But I have also said we're leaving. I mean, we're -- in the next several months, they're going to have an election beginning next year. After that, we're going to start a fairly rapid drawdown of our forces, and so it's really important that the political and military leadership of Iraq take control and generate positive conditions for them as a country.
MR. GREGORY: Finally, here, we are just days away from the eighth anniversary of 9/11. What is your assessment of al Qaeda's capability of striking the U.S. again?
ADM. MULLEN: Still very capable, very focused on it, the leadership is. They also are able to both train and support and finance, and so that capability is still significant and one which we are very focused on making sure that doesn't happen again. MR. GREGORY: All right, we're going to leave it there. Ambassador Eikenberry in Afghanistan -- thank you very much for being with us this morning. And Admiral Mullen, always nice to have a couple of San Fernando Valley guys together on a Sunday morning. Thank you very much, I appreciate it.
ADM. MULLEN: Thank you, David.