Remarks at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

Dan Feldman
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 
Washington, DC
November 6, 2014

Thanks very much Dean Nasr for the warm welcome and the invitation to come here today. I’ve had the privilege of following in Vali’s footsteps at many points in my career - first at university, then within the foreign policy community, at the State Department, and I’ve benefited very much from his counsel and advice and from his books.

Though I’ve been the Special Representative since the summer I haven’t actually been in DC long enough to actually speak on Afghanistan since taking over the position. So this was really the first opportunity I had had to collect my thoughts a bit about where we stand after this really quite remarkable and historic democratic transition of power in Afghanistan and the inauguration of late September. We’re now entering a new phase of our engagement given the military drawdown, but we remain extremely engaged through a variety of instruments. We continue to work very closely not only with the Afghans but with a broad swath of the international community to achieve our collective objectives, and this will continue to be a central component of our foreign policy for many years to come.

So let me start first with just a bit of stock taking in terms of where we are, and then I’ll head into kind of where we find ourselves now and the challenges ahead.

This moment, the end of the transition process in Afghanistan, is the culmination of all of the careful planning and strategizing that the SRAP office and so many others spent time on since the very first days of this administration, including such things as orchestrating and then implementing the most significant civilian surge in our nation’s history to ensure that this was a true civilian/military operation which helped contribute to the very significant gains that we witnessed in Afghanistan over the course of the past decade. I think many of you are probably familiar with them. One example is that there were just a million boys in school ten years ago, and there are now eight million children in school, 40 percent of whom are girls. There also has been a remarkable increase in life expectancy, up an estimated 20 years. More roads have been built in the last ten years than in Afghanistan’s entire history combined. 71 percent of Afghans now have access to a phone. GDP has nearly tripled since 2001. Independent media has flourished, and there are now over 800 newspapers and periodicals. The basic rights and freedoms of citizens, including the rights to free expression, assembly, and political participation, are guaranteed by the Afghan constitution. And perhaps most notably, Afghan women have truly come out of the seclusion they were in during the Taliban rule to take their rightful place in society – they make up 20 percent of the civil service right now, 27 percent of parliament, and 40 percent of students as I noted. So the civilian surge and our role in it was a key to some of these successes.

These successes are a demonstration of the SRAP office’s whole-of-government approach in action. At one point, we had detailees from over a dozen agencies in our office, and we continue to have many of those, including general officer from the Pentagon to help coordinate our security assistance to Afghanistan and a USAID detailee to ensure that we’re best coordinated on assistance. So for those of you in this audience who are studying policy, this office has been a real model, I believe, of a creative and entrepreneurial approach to complex crises that should be used in the future.

Another success of the SRAP office has been vastly expanding the coalition of nations that support Afghanistan. This was something that Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the first SRAP, was particularly focused on and a priority we still retain. We created an international contact group which is now over 50 countries - over a third of them Muslim majority countries - who are involved in key aspects of Afghanistan both on the security and the economic side. We just met last week in Beijing and an even broader group will meet about a month from now in London to discuss next steps.

It is partially this series of international engagements that has really helped the Afghans navigate a transition period fraught with risks while keeping the international focus squarely on Afghanistan. One of the most important international formats for these meetings has been the Heart of Asia process, the fourth meeting of which was this meeting in Beijing last week. Significantly, the next meeting in that format will be held in Pakistan in 2015.

The 2012 Chicago NATO Summit was also significant for garnering international troop commitments many of which were reaffirmed at the 2014 NATO Summit in Cardiff. The Tokyo meeting two years ago focused on economic and civilian assistance, and many of those commitments to be reaffirmed at the upcoming London conference in about a month.

Alongside our participation in these international meetings to support Afghanistan, we also work to ensure that we maintain close cooperation within the U.S. government, both within the executive branch with all the agencies involved and then very importantly in our outreach to Congress given the critical role that they’ve played.

So all those efforts over the course of the last five and a half years have now led to a new phase. This transition is not and was never intended as an exit strategy. But now that the transition is effectively concluded we’re entering this new phase of commitment by the U.S. and international engagement in Afghanistan.

For obvious reasons there’s a great focus on troop numbers. The importance of the sacrifices our men and women have made cannot be overstated. You’ve all probably read the articles about the departure of the 10th Mountain Division this week, the losses they have sustained, the repeated deployments. But I also think about the real successes they have achieved and the very real opportunities that their efforts have made possible for Afghans and for the region moving forward.

So I want to make the case, and I know there may be many skeptics in this audience, that the U.S. and our partners are laying the ground work now for a more sustainable, durable outcome in Afghanistan, one that fundamentally recognizes and achieves the basic U.S. national security interests to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a safe haven for terrorists who can threaten international security. And it is in our interest for Afghanistan to remain politically cohesive and to achieve a growth trajectory that is stabilizing. And this is the best means of ensuring our national security interest is achieved.

Transition is not about us. It’s about the Afghan government, Afghan institutions, and most importantly the Afghan people.

Which brings me to kind of a brief - but I think important - diversion before I get into the challenges ahead. Namely, the recent electoral process revealed all the centrifugal forces that threaten Afghanistan’s cohesion but also all the centripetal forces that provide hope for the future. This has been a case study in the importance of diplomacy and the hard, very nitty-gritty work that it entails, the perseverance, bringing not just substantive recommendations to the table but building relationships, acting nimbly and creatively, listening intently, and building coalitions that ultimately allow success.

I’m sure that many of you recognize that the process of choosing a successor to President Karzai had a range of risks associated with it. Karzai, for all his flaws, did a masterful job of orchestrating an Afghan political consensus and building a coalition within his government.

The process of electing a successor had many, many challenges. These included security challenges, new voters to be registered, and the legacy of alleged fraud from 2009.

The first round of the 2014 electoral process in April went pretty well. Seven million Afghans voted - more than a third of them women - defying Taliban threats and bad weather, and notably, these elections were very well secured by the Afghan National Security Forces.

Per the electoral law, the top two finishers - Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ghani - then had a second round election.

Despite the considerable achievements of Afghanistan’s electoral and security institutions, there were credible allegations in the second round of serious fraud. The fact that the Chair of the Afghan Independent Electoral Commission was implicated complicated the matter.

The U.S. role in supporting a path out of the ensuing crisis has been well reported. Perhaps the details aren’t nearly as well known, but certainly Secretary Kerry was an integral piece of this. He visited Kabul twice in July and again in August. I was with him on both of those trips. President Obama made several important calls to the candidates. I think between the two of them there were over 30 phone calls and video conference calls in about a month and a half long period. One particularly memorable moment in these calls when I was out in Kabul always reminded me of the ‘80s movie, “Say Anything” with John Cusack holding a boom box up. This was an evening when Abdullah’s entire senior leadership team was gathered in one room for a call with Secretary Kerry. The Secretary had called in to someone’s iPhone, which they were holding up next to a microphone, and the Secretary spoke over that iPhone for about half an hour about the importance of reaching a political solution to the elections crisis. For the whole duration of that call, everyone just stared in rapt attention as this guy was holding the iPhone up for everyone else to hear the Secretary and listen to him about why a unity government was so critically important.

I was effectively resident in Kabul for much of this period, almost the entire month of September. And as someone who witnessed virtually every step in this I can say that the role of the United States was to facilitate Afghan negotiations and support the audit process, not to impose any sort of decision. In fact, when Secretary Kerry first went there, he arrived with absolutely no agenda and ended up brokering only the broad principles, in the form of a two-page outline. One page was on the technical piece of this, and one was on the political piece. He went and just listened to Dr. Abdullah, Dr. Ghani, and their key supporters. He did it with them one-on-one, he did it in broader groups, and he asked them, “What are the things that you need to get out of this process? Where are you and how can there be a structured resolution to this?” And at the end of the first day he described the parameters that exist now and that we ultimately nailed down into the political agreement that was signed a week before the inauguration. But everything that was actually in this document originated from the Ghani and Abduallah campaigns initially.

We served as the facilitators of the process and our role was getting the two sides to communicate more effectively, to help them see common ground. We pointed out where there was disagreement. We helped them identify workable solutions. And we shuttled back and forth between their residences and offices over the course of these final few weeks, ultimately conducting proximity talks.

I think it’s quite notable what they have actually achieved in this government of national unity. At the end of the day both these men, President Ghani, Dr. Abdullah, were truly committed to the best and most stable and sustainable resolution for Afghanistan. There were many other more dire scenarios that were proposed. Anything from an extra-constitutional extension of President Karzai’s term, some other leader filling in in some other extra-constitutional manner, a state of having two parallel governments. So there is broad recognition that this national unity government was the best way to deliver results and honor the votes of all the Afghans who voted.

As you know, President Ghani was inaugurated as President. One of his first acts was to create the office of the Chief Executive of Afghanistan, a CEO. Dr. Abdullah, whom he appointed to this office, basically enjoys many of the functions of a prime minister in other democracies. He leads the Council of Ministers. He has responsibility for areas of policy, execution and implementation. He participates in the National Security Council. And both candidates campaigned on platforms of broad inclusivity and a reform agenda, and that’s exactly what this government has already started working on in a very robust manner. Their initial steps included reopening the Kabul Bank investigation, appointing a new Attorney General, and trying to deal with their economic shortfalls. A whole range of initiatives in these first few weeks have demonstrated their commitment to this reform agenda, and certainly one of the key reform aspects which the whole international community - not to mention the Afghans - will be looking at very closely is the commitment to electoral reform. This is the way that we ultimately address the institutionalized issues that went so awry in the past few election cycles.

Even in countries that have a record of democratic transfers of power, the transition process is extremely difficult, so no one is being unrealistic about what can be achieved and how long it will take. I have the dubious honor of being perhaps the only person who is an alum of both our own Florida recount effort in 2000 and the Afghan audit process. But even in well-developed democracies this doesn’t always go smoothly.

So in countries with a record of managing democratic transitions of power, even those in their own neighborhood, in India, in Iran, in Pakistan, transitions tend to be difficult. But both President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah are committed to making this work. And they will have the full support of the U.S. and the international community in ensuring that it works.

So what comes next now that this government of national unity is formed? We’re at an important but new moment. Transition is effectively complete. The unity government is finding its sea legs.

First and foremost on the agenda obviously is managing the security situation. As one of the Ghani administration’s first acts, it signed the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States and the NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), confirming the Afghans’ desire for continued cooperation with the international community. This was the invitation, as we said, for U.S. and NATO forces to stay in Afghanistan and that had long been in doubt. It had been completely negotiated over a year ago when President Karzai refused to sign these. But these troops will remain in Afghanistan as part of the new Resolute Support Mission for two limited purposes: To train, advise and assist Afghan forces; and to continue a limited counterterrorism mission.

As President Obama has noted, by the end of this year the U.S. military presence will be reduced to about 9,800 men and women as part of the overarching Resolute Support Mission, but we will be joined by a coalition of other nations in that effort for an ultimate force in the realm of 12,000 to 13,000 range.

Secondly, the Afghans face a series of economic challenges that will be very difficult to manage. President Ghani and his team have moved quickly to implement austerity and have pledged to reform Afghanistan’s budget process, implement structural changes to bolster revenue collection, and undertake banking sector reform. They have re-engaged the IMF for the first time in well over a year. When I met with President Ghani in Beijing last Friday, he was extremely focused on crafting a way out of the current crisis that puts Afghanistan back on a more stable growth path, and he said himself, it’s time for Afghanistan to “put its house in order.”

This will be the key theme of this major international conference on Afghanistan in London next month. I spent the morning on the phone with my British counterpart and others talking about what we envision from that process. It will be an effort that the U.S. and our international partners will be very focused on because continuing progress is critical to ensuring the sustainability of the gains of the past decade.

A third critical challenge is to maintain if not improve the vital role of civil society and of women in Afghan society. The electoral reform process and preparations for a constitutional Loya Jirga in 2016 will take a significant amount of effort. But just as critical to the situation is ensuring access to the rule of law for all, promoting policies that ensure political and economic inclusion and fairness. A particularly interesting thing to watch in this next period will be the role of the new First Lady, Rula Ghani. As many of you may have seen, President Ghani cited her specifically in his inaugural address, and I expect that she will be an unusually vocal advocate for inclusion and fairness.

This is a critical focus obviously for our Congress which sees the growth of the role of women as a key success of the past decade, as well as for the international community. Secretary Clinton used to say that in Afghanistan women’s empowerment is a national security issue. It is absolutely essential to preserving international support for Afghanistan and it also has the benefit of being the right thing to do.

So in about three weeks another high-level event focused on Afghanistan and on Afghan women in particular will be held in Oslo, and it’s something that President Ghani is closely watching.

Fourth on the agenda is reconciliation. Reconciliation fundamentally has to be a process designed and led by the Afghans. We continue to support an Afghan-led political process by which all political groups, including various opposition groups and even the Taliban, enter a dialogue in which Afghans can talk to other Afghans about the future of Afghanistan.

I don’t think anyone really knows truly what the prospects for reconciliation are. We learned some things this summer about the Taliban’s interest in and ability to make and implement deals when we secured the freedom of Sergeant Bergdahl, but we still have more questions than answers.

Despite the inherent uncertainty in the reconciliation process, it remains the surest way to ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region. We have long said that there is no exclusively military solution to this conflict, that there has to be a negotiated political settlement. And that is why we particularly welcomed President Ghani’s invitation to the Taliban last week to join talks and why we will continue to offer our full support to his efforts.

Fifth and finally, I know that both President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah are really seized with a desire to renew Afghanistan’s relationships with its key neighbors. So regional diplomacy is at the very top of the unity government’s foreign policy agenda. Two weeks ago President Ghani welcomed President Erdogan to Kabul. Last week President Ghani visited Saudi Arabia and then China. And in a few weeks he’ll visit Pakistan for the first time. We expect that he’ll likely visit India, and we certainly look forward to welcoming him to the U.S. when he’s able.

I think the engagement with China as Secretary Kerry noted is a particularly interesting case in point of Afghanistan’s new situation. President Ghani is attempting to strengthen and broaden the web of support for Afghanistan at a time when Afghan confidence has been challenged, and it has increasingly become an area of convergence between the U.S. and China.

China’s engagement in Afghanistan is not about us, just as our engagement in Afghanistan was never about China. They have their own strategic objectives, we have ours. But it’s quite clear that on a range of interests those have converged, and Afghanistan will certainly be a subject of discussion between President Obama and President Xi next week in Beijing.

And a last but very important development on the regional side is the Afghanistan/Pakistan relationship. This is an extremely broad and complicated relationship, but my very strong belief after spending dozens of hours with President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah and being in Islamabad just last week, is that both leaderships, in Islamabad and in Kabul, are committed to turning a page in their historic relationship and create a new chapter in their bilateral relationships. We’ll see what happens in the exchange of high-level visitors, ultimately leading to President Ghani’s visit to Islamabad shortly. But we’ve looked at continuing to facilitate a range of cooperative measures on the security side, standard operating procedures for cross-border issues on the economic side, implementing the promise of the Afghan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement and other economic and trade initiatives that we’ve worked on for the last number of years.

But Afghanistan and Pakistan increasingly face a common nexus of violent extremism and it will take joint efforts to reduce the risks that each face.

So in conclusion, before we get to an actual discussion, I wanted to highlight just a few core themes that have been involved, that have been a kind of centerpiece of this office and will continue to be in our efforts moving forward.

First, Afghanistan’s fortunes must ultimately be determined by Afghanistan. There are no external solutions to the challenges that face Afghanistan, as we heard Chinese Premier Li say last week. Ultimately Afghans will need to find their own path. We and others can provide help and assist in shaping that path, but ultimately if the Afghans don’t own the priorities and the process, they won’t own the results and it won’t ultimately be sustainable.

Second, the U.S. and our allies will continue to play a critical role in Afghanistan. We have to continue to work to cultivate support Congress will play a critical role going forward. Our funding levels, together with our footprint on the ground, enhance our capabilities and influence to achieve our national security interests in Afghanistan.

Lastly, Afghanistan’s trajectory is deeply tied to the fortunes of the entire region. I think another particularly interesting development occurred two or three weeks ago at the World Bank-IMF meetings where again after many years of effort by our office and the State Department and others, the Afghans and the Pakistanis signed a pricing agreement on CASA 1000, bringing surplus energy from Central Asia through Afghanistan to Pakistan. But increasingly, this was something that we had been negotiating for almost a decade, in earnest the past few years, but increasingly demonstrating how the region has to be knitted together, both on the economic and security side.

And we’re not the only ones who see this. China, India, Russia, and Iran also see the opportunities and risks to their region and can play constructive roles in ensuring that those risks are not realized.

It must be understood in this context our enduring presence in Afghanistan is not aimed at or a threat to any other country. It’s something that will help advance our common objective of peace and stability in Afghanistan.