Press Briefing on Afghanistan

Press Availability
James F. Dobbins
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 
Kabul, Afghanistan
July 22, 2014

Ambassador Dobbins: Thank you all for coming.

I’m here this week to look and see how progress is being made at implementing the agreement that was reached between the two candidates during Secretary Kerry’s visit here the weekend before this. I’ve had a chance over the last several days to meet twice actually with Dr. Ghani, with Dr. Abdullah. I also met with Jan Kubis, the head of the UN. I had a couple of meetings with President Karzai. I met with the general commanding ISAF, with Vice President Yunus Qanuni. In a little while when we’re finished here I’m going to meet with the head of the Independent Election Commission, Dr. Nuristani. I’m also going to visit the warehouses where the actual auditing process is taking place.

The auditing process started six days ago. It was intended to begin gradually because there were any number of kinks and issues that had to be resolved for the process to move slowly. It’s been gathering steam, each day increasing the number of boxes and ballots that are being examined, and we anticipate that the pace will continue to pick up.

At the moment the audit is being conducted in two five-hour shifts, from 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and then from 1:00 to 6:00 p.m. We anticipate that after the end of Ramadan they’ll actually add a third shift, a shift that will be in the night, so there will be three shifts with up to 100 tables looking at up to a thousand ballot boxes a day.

I think those of you who have had a chance to go out to the audit floor have seen a scene of a great deal of enthusiasm, a very busy area. You have large numbers of people participating in this process. It includes candidate agents from both candidates. It includes international observers. It includes officials from the Independent Electoral Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission and it includes experts from the United Nations. All of these individuals are operating at a series of tables at which boxes are being opened and ballots are being examined.

As of Sunday, as of this last Sunday, 42 percent of the ballots had been delivered to Kabul. These ballots are being brought from all over the country. This itself is a pretty massive exercise with almost eight million or about eight million ballots that have to be transported safely and without any possibility of tampering from the provincial centers where they are to Kabul where they can be audited.

The whole operation is really unprecedented. The UN tells me they’ve never been involved in such a large-scale operation in such a compressed period of time in which you’re actually re-examining every single ballot in an election. So I think a lot of credit needs to go to the Independent Electoral Commission, the United Nations, the observers, and the candidate agents, all of whom have been mobilized on very short notice for an unfamiliar process in order to get this moving with an expectation that it can be completed in the next few weeks in order to allow the presidential election to be completed and a new government of national unity to take office.

I also had a chance yesterday, I had my initial meetings the day before yesterday, on Sunday, with the candidates, the President. I then spent several hours yesterday in Pakistan where I had an opportunity to meet with the Chief of the Army Staff General Rahil Sharif; with Sartaj Aziz, the National Security Advisor; and with the Interior Minister; where most of the discussion revolved around the large military operation that Pakistan is undertaking in North Waziristan to clear that area of both domestic Pakistani and foreign militants.

I’ve also had, as I noted, a chance to talk a couple of times with both of the candidates. They are talking to each other. They’ve had a couple of meetings last week after Secretary Kerry left, and they will continue to meet in the future in order both to ensure that the auditing process goes forward and also to begin to discuss the modalities for forming a government of national unity as the two committed to do during Secretary Kerry’s visit.

I think I’ll stop there and I’ll be glad to take questions.

Wall Street Journal: A couple of days ago it seems there wasn’t too much of a consensus between the two camps on how to disqualify votes. Has that been addressed? Are you helping the two camps find a solution to that?

Ambassador Dobbins: This was a task for the UN. There are two stages to that process. One is looking at the criteria by which a ballot should be judged. The UN with the cooperation of the IEC and both of the candidates agreed to a 16 point uniform checklist that will be the basis of IEC decisions on the validity of the vote.

So when you go through a box there are a certain number of things you check off, and that checklist has been agreed between all of the parties.

There’s also a question of the criteria for then determining whether, depending on the contents of that checklist, whether votes will be disqualified or not. Those discussions are still underway but having talked to both of the candidates today and to the United Nations, it appears there are only a couple of relatively small issues left.

BBC: Mr. Ambassador, what is your definition of a national unity government? I think there’s been a lot of confusion on both the candidates what exactly that means. Where do you see President Karzai’s role in all of this? And on the Pakistani operation, are you content the Pakistanis are going after the Haqqani Network as the Afghan government continues to show their concern in that regard.

Ambassador Dobbins: I’ll almost certainly forget the second half of the question by the time I finish answering the first half, so you can remind me. Remind me of the first half, actually.

BBC: Mr. Ambassador, what is your definition of --

Ambassador Dobbins: Okay, national unity government. I think to a certain degree this is up to the two candidates themselves to define. But the concept is that there will be a president, there will be a chief executive officer who will be nominated by the loser, if you will, and appointed by the president. They’ll have to obviously agree on that. There will be discussion between them about the distribution of portfolios. Again, there will be agreement. There will be participation from elements of both camps, and probably independent individuals based on expertise and merit in the government. The government will be one in which both camps and perhaps both individuals will participate, and they will work together to advance national interest in a collaborative fashion.

The second half?

BBC: President Karzai’s role.

Ambassador Dobbins: President Karzai will be the former president. I don’t know that he expects or anticipates or wants to have any former role --

BBC: No, what is his role in the current --

Ambassador Dobbins: He, as you know, has encouraged the UN and the United States to help advance this process. He welcomed Secretary Kerry’s visit. He’s very pleased that the visit resulted in an agreement between the two candidates. He’s encouraged the Independent Electoral Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission to cooperate with the United Nations. And he’s encouraging the candidates to meet with each other regularly and begin discussing the issues that they’ll need to address if they’re to collaborate in a government of national unity.

I think the operation in North Waziristan seems to be quite a massive operation. You’ve had almost 800,000 people who are refugees or displaced persons who have left North Waziristan, which is actually 200,000 more than they actually thought lived in North Waziristan, so it’s essentially the entire population. The army has taken a number of casualties; it’s inflicted an even larger number of casualties on both the domestic and foreign militants in the area. Domestic meaning Pakistani; foreign meaning other nationalities including Afghan. It’s seized huge amounts of ammunition, of IED precursor material and bomb-making facilities particularly in Miranshah.

The operation is continuing. It’s begun in the population centers and the lowlands and it will expand into the highlands in the coming weeks. There are important issues of assistance to the displaced persons which we want to be helpful with. And of course there will also be issues of reconstruction when the operation is over which again, the United States wants to be helpful.

As regards the Haqqani Network, we believe that they, like other militants, have in fact been pushed out of North Waziristan and our concern is whether they would come back or be allowed to operate elsewhere in Pakistan. We’ve been assured by the Pakistani government that they will not be allowed back into North Waziristan and they will not be allowed to operate from elsewhere in Pakistan. We will, of course, be observing that carefully.

AFP: Obviously the United States is very keen not to get involved in an independent country’s elections. What are the risks of being so closely involved now?

Ambassador Dobbins: Of course the risk of being involved in anything is you assume some degree of responsibility for it. I think we made an effort to avoid any role in the period before the election because we didn’t want to suggest that we supported one candidate or another and because we wanted to demonstrate that Afghan institutions had matured and were capable of addressing the complex issues resulting in an election, which largely they were. This is the fifth Afghan election, it’s the first one that ever occurred on time, and technically most of the preparations were superior to those that had been done during previous elections where the international community had a more formal role.

It’s clear, however, that in the end, despite this, that there was a degree of fraud. Both sides agree that there was fraud. How it’s distributed is yet to be determined, but the issue appeared significantly serious enough so that both candidates and President Karzai all asked for U.S. and international assistance in order to ensure that the process of adjudicating the disputes, addressing the quality of the ballots and determining the winner should have full legitimacy within Afghanistan, and of course the Afghan institutions are fully participating and are legally responsible for the outcome, but also that it would have full legitimacy internationally.

So we’ve responded to a clear request from the candidates and from the President of Afghanistan. At this point, I think it’s no longer a case of whether or not we favor one candidate or another. Clearly, both candidates believe we’re impartial in that regard. And both candidates, I believe, I’m sure, believe the UN is also impartial in that regard.

Media: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

You have talked about the unity government. The main concern among the Afghan people, for example, the corrupt people or those people who are not the good [inaudible], they are again joining a unity government. Do you think that such a government would be a legitimate government for the U.S.? What is your position?

Ambassador Dobbins: I don’t have any reason to believe that the candidates will agree on appointing of people who have been involved in corruption. I believe they both had campaigns in which they committed themselves to reform and campaigns against corruption. But I think it’s also important to believe that nobody is going to be appointed unless both the president, and in some cases, the opposition or the person who’s not the president, the leader of the second largest winner, agrees. So nobody’s going to be appointed over the firm objection of the other. It’s going to be a collaborative process.

The Guardian: We’ve got an audit going on without any criteria for the invalidation of ballots. It’s going [Inaudible] on at a pace that would take over three months to get a result. The two candidates do feel quite strongly behind the scenes that they’re unhappy with aspects of the unity government. How realistic is it do you think that or how nervous are you that this process is going to derail? Also what would the time line we are looking at? Is Afghanistan going to have a president by September, October, if it doesn’t go ok?

Ambassador Dobbins: I think President Karzai has determined that Afghanistan will have a new president by the end of August and both candidates are committed to that deadline, as are we.

Media: With all due respect, do you expect [inaudible] a president by August second? He was so confident that that inauguration was going to happen. [Inaudible] What’s to say I’s not going to happen again.

Ambassador Dobbins: Right.

Media: They talk about [inaudible] great havoc. He was very very [adamant]. So what does that [inaudible] even the fact that you have huge disagreements about the shape of the government and [inaudible] validation criteria, and incredibly slow pace. So that [inaudible].

Ambassador Dobbins: I guess I just don’t accept all of those premises. I think the pace is picking up very smartly. I think there is full agreement on the criteria for evaluating each ballot. The criteria for invalidation is nearly agreed. And as I said, 42 percent of the ballots are already here. You’re opening a third warehouse. You’ve now got hundreds of observers, hundreds of party candidates, dozens of UN experts, hundreds of both Afghan observers and international observers, all of whom are working feverishly.

I think any of you who have visited the area will note that there’s a sense of enthusiasm; that they’re working very hard, and under difficult conditions, obviously, in the midst of Ramadan, and at the end of Ramadan that should pick up very smartly.

Media: Do you think there is a big challenge for --

Ambassador Dobbins: I might also say that having talked to both candidates, at this point I also don’t detect any disagreement about the basic framework for the unity government. There’s obviously a lot of work to do to fill out that framework, but neither of them have expressed any reservations about what they’ve already agreed.

Media: Do you think there is a big challenge that can be solved without your interference or U.S. interference?

Ambassador Dobbins: I don’t think what we’re doing now is interfering. We’re here at the invitation of both candidates, the president of the country. I think the public reaction to the agreement that was reached last week was one of relief. I think that there’s widespread support for the process. I think the Afghan people will be relieved to know that the election will produce a legitimate, clear-cut, clean result. And I think they’ll also be relieved that it will also result in a government which will include all important elements of Afghan society, including losers as well as winners, in the presidential contest.

Media: For some time during the [inaudible] candidates have supported [inaudible]. What do you [inaudible] for candidates [inaudible] and also guarantee IEC and [inaudible]?

Ambassador Dobbins: The audits are going forward. They’ve occasionally been stopped. We anticipated that given the complexity of the process in the first few days there were going to be questions that arose that needed to be addressed. Those questions have arose, they’ve been largely addressed. The pace is picking up, the number of ballots being audited is increasing, and we anticipate that that will continue to be the case.

For instance, in the first few days one had to operate with international observers that were drawn from local embassies. These are people who had not observed elections before. They’re inexperienced. Experienced observers who have done this before are coming in from abroad, from the United States and from Europe. So you’ll have not only more international observers, but you’ll have international observers with a greater background and experience in the coming days.

I think the candidate observers who are key to the process are becoming more sophisticated. It’s not something they’d ever done before. And they’re learning the process, they’re beginning to understand the framework and the best practices that are being promulgated by the United Nations, and the United Nations itself is bringing in additional people.

NPR: Would U.S. support both candidates if there will be something that one of the candidates would not be accepting the result of the vote and this process? What will be U.S. position? Will they help them or what will you do?

Ambassador Dobbins: Both candidates have explicitly and unqualifiedly agreed to accept the results of the audit. We anticipate that they will do so. They’ve repeated to me and they’ve repeated to Secretary Kerry that they would respect the results of this audit and we fully expect them to do so.

Thank you.