Remarks at Center for American Progress
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan
Thanks very much for the warm welcome and the invitation to come here today.
The last six months have set the stage for positive changes in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has just finished a historic, democratic transfer of power to what CAP’s Ariella Viehe and colleagues accurately described in a forthcoming article I just read as a “deeply engaged and visionary national unity government.” We are in the midst of a significant realignment of our military partnership with Afghanistan as Afghans take full security responsibility for their country January 1. World leaders have gathered in Cardiff, Beijing, Brussels and London over the last three months to reaffirm the international community’s long-term support, based on mutual accountability and sustainability, for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan. For its part, the government of national unity has acknowledged the many challenges it faces and exhibited a sincere desire to improve the lives of its citizens—not to satisfy international donors, but because it is in the best interest of Afghanistan. Cumulatively, these changes provide some sorely needed breathing room to work through the many problems still confronting Afghanistan.
There is a good deal of hard work in front of us, and Afghanistan is going to require significant nurturing and engagement over the coming decade. We should not lose sight, however, that Afghanistan is in much better shape than many would have thought possible, even a few months ago.
The changes that have taken place over the last two years, and particularly over the last six months, represent an inflection point. Afghanistan is at the end of a period of transition that many in this administration, the SRAP office included, have been working towards for years. I can’t emphasize enough, however, that the transition is not and was never intended to be an end to our partnership with Afghanistan. The international community, including the United States, will continue to play a major role in Afghanistan over the coming decade. And we will approach that role as partners with the Afghans in the lead.
London/Brussels and Reform Commitments
Now, I think recent conferences in Brussels and London were very useful for showing the government of national unity’s proactive approach to leadership. In London, President Ghani proclaimed to donors his intention to provide a reliable and credible partner to the world, and I take him at his word. I have spent significant time with both Ghani and Abdullah over the past few months, and both understand the importance of changing Afghanistan from within and from the top down. The government of national unity is not looking to the international community to chart a path to sustainability. Ghani and Abdullah want Afghans to guide their own narrative.
The government’s reform paper, “Realizing Self Reliance” is a concrete and laudable example of the new government proposing Afghan solutions for Afghan problems. The platform focuses on the need to increase domestic revenue and mobilize domestic resources to support growth. It reflects a sober self-assessment done by the Afghans and underscores that "what look like economic and social problems have at their root failures of governance and a lack of serious commitment to fixing problems."
We take these commitments seriously, in part, because the new government has already begun moving to address these problems. In the wake of an immediate fiscal crisis inherited from the outgoing administration, President Ghani and his team have moved quickly to implement austerity measures and have pledged to reform Afghanistan’s budget process, implement structural changes to bolster revenue collection, and undertake banking sector reform. They have also re-engaged the IMF and are very close to finalizing terms for a new Staff Monitored Program, which will help Afghanistan to manage long overdue macroeconomic reforms. When I met with President Ghani in London last Wednesday, 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 is the same sort of ethos that pervades the reform agenda. Eliminating corruption and improving governance provide the foundation for reforming the Afghan state, and I expect to the government to develop a series of concrete actions to prioritize and implement the ideas in the reform agenda. These are the ideas that will form the basis for Afghanistan’s piece of mutual accountability under the Tokyo Framework. Donors, and the legislatures that approve assistance, will be looking for tangible examples of the government’s commitment to enduring reform.
In the social sphere, the government of national unity understands the vital role of civil society and of women in Afghan society. President Ghani has promised to put a woman on the Afghan Supreme Court, to appoint women to cabinet positions, and to improve educational opportunities. The Afghan reform agenda declares, “This government believes that investing in a girl’s education is an investment for the next five generations of Afghans.” CEO Abdullah, in his address to the civil society symposium in London, acknowledged that Afghanistan’s energetic civil society was among its most inspiring and important of achievements of the last decade. These ideals run contrary to some deeply ingrained social currents that will remain difficult to change, but a vocal commitment to human rights and equality is reason for cautious optimism.
We are also pleased that both President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah recognize electoral reform as a key priority for the new government. Afghan electoral institutions, along with international and national observer groups, will need to parse out the weaknesses of the Afghan electoral system and identify reforms needed to strengthen the system. Moreover, they must undertake this emotionally charged task in a timely manner to help make the parliamentary and district council elections a success.
Ultimately, success in Afghanistan is going to hinge on security. Earlier this week, ISAF’s combat command center closed down – and ISAF itself will be officially replaced by the train, advise and assist mission at the end of the year. Under the Resolute Support Mission (RSM), Afghan forces, who took over the lead for security in Afghanistan in June 2013, will take full security responsibility for the country. The combined NATO force under RSM will be a little over 12,000 military personnel. We will also maintain our counterterrorism capabilities, in close partnership with the Afghans, to target the remnants of al-Qa’ida and prevent an al-Qa’ida resurgence.
The forthcoming CAP article that Ariella and colleagues wrote recommended continued financial and tactical support to the ANSF beyond the timeframe announced by the President. I have two responses to that. First, I want to underscore that Afghan forces have proven themselves throughout the past year, including during the presidential elections this summer. But it is true that the road ahead will be onerous and often deadly, as evidenced by the recent wave of Taliban attacks.
We are executing the President’s plan to hand over full responsibility to Afghan forces, and so far that plan is working. The ANSF took a leading role for security throughout the country in June 2013. Not surprisingly, the Taliban have tried to test them, and they have inflicted casualties, but the ANSF has held. The train advise and assist mission is designed to fill some of the remaining gaps in ANSF capacity by 2017. We’re doing this in the context of President Ghani’s own review of Afghanistan’s security strategy and threat environment, and we will stay in close coordination with President Ghani and the Afghan security leadership.
But just as the Taliban sought to thwart the elections, they are also trying to challenge the relationship that Afghanistan will have with the international community going forward. But the new Afghan administration and international partners have reaffirmed that our relationship remains strong, and I do think there is reason for constrained optimism. In Brussels, both Ghani and Abdullah reiterated their intention to professionalize the army. President Ghani highlights security as his number one priority, and he has backed those words with action, taking a fundamentally more active role coordinating with and managing the armed forces—both domestic ANSF and international forces.
Ghani, Abdullah, and a host of other Afghan statesmen have also recommitted to reconciliation. Reconciliation has to be a process designed and led by the Afghans, and we continue to support an Afghan-led political process where all political groups, including the Taliban, can participate in the political process so long as they accept the Afghan constitution, renounce violence, and break ties with international terrorism.
I don’t think anyone really knows truly what the prospects for reconciliation are. All the same, it remains the surest way to ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region.
Finally, President Ghani’s visible dedication to develop better ties with Afghanistan’s neighbors is heartening. Extremism thrives in isolation, and it is in the interest of Afghanistan, its neighbors and the surrounding region to maintain strong, open relationships. President Ghani has already visited Saudi Arabia, China, and Pakistan. He participated in the SAARC Summit in Nepal, and personally orchestrated an event focused on regional integration on the sidelines of the London Conference.
Regional diplomacy is at the very top of the unity government’s foreign policy agenda, and insofar as we can supplement the new administration’s efforts through our various engagements and the New Silk Road initiative we will. In fact, I think it is notable that Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan met last week and finalized a master agreement and power purchase agreement for the CASA-1000 electricity transmission line, a key step to help move the project forward.
We should pay particular attention to Afghanistan’s engagement with Pakistan. This is an extremely broad and complicated relationship, but my very strong belief after spending hours with President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah and having repeatedly discussed the relationship with Prime Minister Sharif over the past month, is that both leaderships are committed to turning a page in their historic relationship and creating a new chapter in their bilateral relationships. And here’s the point I underscore in my dialogue with them: Afghanistan and Pakistan increasingly face a common nexus of violent extremism and it will take joint efforts to reduce the risks that each face.
Expectations for the Coming Year
With these priorities in mind, I think it is worthwhile to consider expectations for the coming year. It is imperative that the international community remain engaged in Afghanistan, but there is understandable trepidation among donor countries that Afghan reforms will continue to stall. President Ghani understands this and understands the need to build a renewed constellation of support for Afghanistan. Moreover, as clearly articulated at the London Conference and in private with Secretary Kerry and me, Ghani and Abdullah understand the moral imperative of self-reliance.
Looking into the immediate future, I expect the government’s desire to rebrand Afghanistan will take many forms. Providing the Afghan people a stable and effective government will be the first priority. I find it noteworthy that even without a cabinet, the government has proven its ability to function—Kabul Bank, FATF Laws, Mining Law Amendments, BSA/SOFA. President Ghani will continue his charm offensive in the region, and our hope is that it will engender closer ties with India, China and the Central Asians, but most of all with Pakistan, where I see an opening for détente.
I would anticipate that 2015 will be a challenging year on the security side. The insurgency has every motivation to test the resolve of Afghan forces and the government of national unity. This is going to be something we continue to closely watch in the months ahead—and it is an area that we will continue to support under RSM.
While Ghani and Abdullah continue to balance these challenges, I expect they will want to focus the government’s efforts toward advancing a reform agenda. These efforts will be difficult, but necessary. Moreover, the government is likely to take additional steps to increase revenue, eliminate the pervasive culture of corruption, reform land and property rights, and improve access to the rule of law. At the same time, the government will need to move forward on the deeper political agenda, envisaged by the political agreement in September, that will set the stage for the Loya Jirga two years from now and a peaceful reformation of the governing system.
I’ll wrap up my remarks now, so we get to an actual discussion. But I do want to highlight a few takeaways. The situation in Afghanistan has fundamentally changed in the last six months. Now, more than ever, Afghans must determine Afghanistan’s fortunes. There are no external solutions to the challenges that face Afghanistan, and ultimately Afghans will need to find their own path for it to be sustainable.
For our part, the Administration aims to find avenues to reorient our assistance in support of Afghan priorities. Some of this alignment will include finding areas where we can safely put more money on-budget, which helps build the Afghan capacity to manage its own future. We will also look to incentivize more assistance, linking conditions to the new government’s own reform agenda.
We expect to discuss these opportunities in detail when Ghani and Abdullah visit the United States in early 2015 to engage in a strategic dialogue. And through these engagements and subtle changes to the way we deliver assistance, we hope that the Afghan government can begin to exert greater control over its own destiny as Western assistance gradually declines over the coming decade.
The visit to Washington will also be about marking a new moment in U.S.-Afghan relations. In all of my interactions with Ghani and Abdullah, and in their public comments both in Afghanistan and at the various international events they have attended in the past two months, the two men have publicly thanked the United States and our NATO partners with our engagement in Afghanistan. I expect that they will seek opportunities while here to engage with the Congress and with the U.S. media to convey this message of appreciation.
Ghani and Abdullah want to change the tone of engagement with the United States because they want to achieve a durable and sustainable partnership – the kind of partnership that was anticipated by the Strategic Partnership Agreement we signed in 2012. The frame for that partnership will be at the center of their discussions in Washington.