Background Briefing: Secretary Clinton's Upcoming Trip To Istanbul and a Look Ahead to Bonn for Conferences on Afghanistan

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official
Via Teleconference
October 31, 2011

MR. TONER: Thank you very much, and thanks to everyone who’s on this call this morning. We’re joined this morning by [Senior Administration Official], who’s going to discuss with us all the Secretary’s upcoming trip to Istanbul as well as provide a look ahead to the conference in Bonn. Both obviously are focused on Afghanistan.

Just a reminder, this is an on background call, and [Senior Administration Official] will henceforth be known as a senior Administration official. So without further ado, I’ll hand off to [Senior Administration Official]. Go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks very much, Mark, and thanks to all for being on the call. We just want to provide a little bit of background on the circumstances that have led up to Istanbul, and then where we hope to take this process in the months ahead of us.

This is the culmination of several months of significant diplomacy which the U.S. has supported to help organize both Istanbul, which is going to be on Wednesday, obviously, and then the December 5th Bonn conference, with the goal of strengthening commitments by the region and the international community to Afghanistan beyond 2014.

It comes – I’d say the first kind of significant multilateral event that helped lead into this was the event on New Silk Road, the particular economic issue, which was co-chaired by the foreign ministers of Germany, Afghanistan, and then by Secretary Clinton at the UNGA about – in late September and was very well attended by other foreign ministers of the region talking about the – kind of the economic strategy and plans for Afghanistan.

This was then followed by several weeks of very intensive diplomacy which Ambassador Grossman had over the last few weeks, spending several weeks based in Central Asia visiting all the – virtually all the neighboring countries, and then, obviously, spending time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was augmented by the Secretary’s trip about 10 days ago to both Kabul and Islamabad. And now we’re coming up on Istanbul itself.

As Afghanistan assumes lead responsibility for its own security, it’s really critical that the international community remain engaged to ensure that the progress we’ve all worked to achieve over the last 10 years is really preserved and has the momentum to continue. So Istanbul is seen as an opportunity for Afghanistan’s neighbors to reiterate their commitment to a stable, secure economically viable Afghanistan and to supporting Afghan-led reconciliation, the transition to Afghan security leadership, and then a shared regional economic vision.

The – this is – it’s a gathering of regional foreign ministers. The U.S. is actually there just as a supporter, which is critical. This is – I think one of the things that makes this truly unique is that this is an organic effort by the region, and the 14 participants are the – this is the first time that they’ve ever met in this particular configuration. For those of you who aren’t aware of the actual participants, in addition to the co-chairs – so this is being co-chaired by both Afghanistan and Turkey – the regional partners who will be there – who will be represented there are China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan – so all the “stans” – Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, and then Saudi Arabia and the UAE from the Gulf. So it’s those 14 key partners.

And then many of the international partners, including the U.S., other Europeans, Japan, will participate as supporters. So we want to welcome the regional efforts, but this is not our process. This is a process organized by the region.

In Istanbul, we hope – and we’re still in the process of drafting the declaration which will emerge from it. We won’t have finality on that, probably, until late tomorrow night going into the meetings on Wednesday. But we are urging all of Afghanistan’s neighbors to commit to a set of principles based on documents you’ve seen before, particularly the 2002 Kabul – the Neighborly Relations Declaration, but that underscore full respect and – for Afghan sovereignty and territory.

So from our perspective, the neighbors and their neighbors will use this as an opportunity to do probably four things in the declaration like that: reiterate a shared commitment to sovereignty, as I just noted; second, endorse a transition to Afghan security leadership; also endorse Afghan efforts for a political solution; and then fourth, to build towards a sustainable Afghan economy that can help to achieve the New Silk Road regional economic vision.

Coming out of Istanbul, we will then have the third this year meeting of the International Contact Group. This was the group that Ambassador Holbrooke helped launch, which now has 50 members – member countries, all with SRAPs, and we will be meeting in Astana in mid-March. All three of these meetings have been held in OIC countries this year, I think quite significantly, and will serve as a preparatory meeting for Bonn.

And then in Bonn, whereas Istanbul is quite focused on the regional security piece – and indeed, the title of it is Security and Cooperation in the Heart of Asia – Bonn will have a broader theme of both the economic regional integration as well as the political integration, and it will obviously be attended by many, many participants. We’re expecting 85 countries, 15 international organizations to be in Bonn for the 10th anniversary of the Bonn Agreement in 2001. And what we expect in Bonn, fairly briefly, is, in addition to anything that may be done on the specifics of civilian transition or reintegration process, we hope that we will be able – the international community will be able to welcome the regional initiatives, and particularly whatever is achieved in Istanbul on the security side. And then also to get into more specifics about Afghanistan’s own vision for sustained economic growth and how it will continue to be viable with reduced dependence on foreign assistance. We expect that that will be through private sector-led growth and increased regional economic integration. And then they’ll also report on progress it’s making and pursuing its priorities to achieve a political solution to the conflict. And then we hope that the international community, as it did in London and Kabul and Lisbon, will continue to offer broad support to an Afghan-led reconciliation process. Bonn will notably be the first time the Afghan Government will chair a major international conference on its own.

And then emerging from Bonn – and we see these series of conferences as building on each other – one, allowing us – allowing the international community to get more specific and more focused per each conference. And then, again, as part of this continuum, we see it paving the way for international events in 2012, some of which have not yet been defined and nailed down but will likely be over the course of the next month, but certainly including the next RECCA conference, the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan, which will be held in Dushanbe in March, and then most notably the NATO summit in Chicago in May. So anyway, I wanted to make sure that we painted the overall picture for you from roughly this summer through next spring, But the importance of Istanbul and Bonn within that, and then also where we’re headed both on the specifics of the economic and political regional integration and also the relative roles for the neighbors versus the rest of the international community. That’s all I’ll say, and then welcome questions.

MR. TONER: Great. Thanks a lot, [Senior Administration Official]. We’re ready for questions. Just a reminder to state your name and media affiliation. Ed?

OPERATOR: Thank you, sir. At this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1. That’s *1 to ask a question, *2 to withdraw your question, and one moment please.

The first one comes from Ilhan Tanir. Your line is open. State your affiliation, please.

QUESTION: Hi. This is Ilhan Tanir from Turkish daily Vatan. Sir, thanks for your insight for elaboration on the visit. Quick question: As I understand, Afghanistan and Turkey are the co-chairs now. Is there any way you can give us more information about how the working of the conference is going to be – means are – right now the countries, do you ask commitments, specific commitments, whether on economic side or the security side, and is all the offers come from the countries? Just basic, the working relationship within the conference. And second question is: Turkey specifically – I hope that you can answer this question as – since Secretary is going to be in Turkey, we were assuming that there will be other bilateral issues on the table, for example PKK attacks or what is going to be done with Syria. Is there any way you can give us some information on these two issues as well?

MR. TONER: Ilhan, just to jump in, on the last part, we can talk about that separately. But the focus of this call is on the Istanbul conference. [Senior Administration Official], do you want to answer his question?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Regarding the actual schedule, I can just make sure that everyone knows what’s been publicly available. The conference that starts on Wednesday morning, it will be opened by President Gul, President Karzai, Foreign Minister Davutoglu, Foreign Minister Rassoul. And the morning will be reserved for comments from just other regional countries participating. Then there will be a lunch, and in the afternoon, the other kind of international supporters, including the U.S., will use the opportunity to make addresses. And then it will close with the presentation of the declaration, and that’s obviously what I was referencing in terms of there’s been quite a bit of work and negotiation that’s already been going on, including a drafting session in Kabul about a week ago, and those senior officials will continue to be meeting tomorrow to hammer this out. But in terms of the specific commitments that come from this, while it’s rooted in these various precedent documents, including the 2002 declaration I noted, it’s – everything is still being hammered out in terms of what the particular commitments will be. So we just don’t have that information yet. As Mark noted, obviously, the Secretary will take the opportunity to have bilats with other participants there, and I can’t speak to the other issue that will come up.

The one thing I would like to note, though, particularly since this is a question from the Turkish press, is that the other thing that’s of significant importance in Istanbul tonight and tomorrow is that there is a trilateral meeting of the Turks, the Afghans, and the Pakistanis. And so I know in the Secretary’s conversations with counterparts from all three of those countries on Wednesday, she will be closely following the – kind of the nature of the conversation and how that trilateral process has unfolded. And we’re looking forward to the Afghans and Pakistanis being able to speak in such a constructive environment, and we’re very thankful to the Turks for hosting not only the trilateral but the opportunity for the conference on the second.

MR. TONER: Next question?

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Arshad Mohammed. Your line is open. State your affiliation, please.

QUESTION: Yeah, I’m a reporter for Reuters. Two things: First, the first point that you listed that you hope will be in the declaration was the neighbors committing to Afghanistan’s sovereignty, or to respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty. What is a conference like this and such a declaration going to do to help resolve a problem like the U.S. belief that elements of the ISI in Pakistan directly support and direct attacks on Afghan soil? I mean, that’s the nub of the – of – is at least part of the security problem. What’s the conference going to do, if anything, to address that problem?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think there are several different issues entwined here, which – to try to disentangle a little bit. First of all, the conference is significant in that it has, again, all the neighbors and their neighbors. And obviously, Pakistan will be attending in addition to President Zardari, who will be in town for the trilateral. Pakistan, I believe, will be represented by its foreign minister at the conference on Wednesday. And so obviously, given the importance that Pakistan plays in helping to resolve Afghanistan, we’ve been working very closely with the Pakistani delegation on finding language that all parties can uphold and promote on the recognition of sovereignty. And so that process continues.

In terms of what the U.S. has said bilaterally on the Haqqani Network, it would certainly echo the Secretary’s comments from last week in her testimony and while she was actually in Islamabad on the role that we hope the Pakistanis will continue to play in terms of squeezing the Haqqani Network, helping to support the reconciliation process. And we see them as a critical player here and continue to work quite closely with them to ensure that we address the issues there as best as possible, both through our military efforts, as the Secretary noted, squeezing on the Afghan side of the border as we’ve been doing the past few weeks, and what we hope to see the Pakistanis do on the Pakistani side of the border, even though much of that does not necessarily need to be militarily at this point, and then also diplomatically, what we’re all seeking to do in ensuring that the right parties are at the table for – or have the opportunity to come to the table at some point to seek a political resolution to the crisis.

QUESTION: But what do you mean that it’s not necessarily militarily what they need to do on their side of the border? Does that mean providing intelligence? Because if it’s – if you’re not squeezing them militarily, how are you squeezing them?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the Secretary’s actually responded to this in public quite a bit, giving a few examples of things that the Pakistanis can do to help ensure that they are squeezed short of military action. And yes, that includes ensuring that intelligence doesn’t go to the Haqqani Network, that they address IED issues, that they don’t benefit from financial resources or flow of finances, that we deal specifically with areas where we know the Haqqani Network and the Taliban are based, including kind of key cities along the border.

So there’s a range of issues that could help to facilitate this squeeze, and that would be very complementary to our efforts on the Afghan side of the border.

QUESTION: And have you seen him doing any of that yet, post her trip?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We continue to work very, very closely with them, and General Kayani and the civilian leadership have committed themselves to doing – to undertaking actions and assisting in squeezing. And the Secretary, I think, was quite clear that we all need to see visible signs of progress as a matter of some urgency in days and weeks, as she noted, as opposed to months and years. And given that, we had a very kind of open and frank conversation on very specific, concrete steps that could be taken, and we’re continuing to follow up through all her channels of communication on the military, intelligence, and diplomatic fronts.

QUESTION: And last one – and sorry I’ve gone on – but can you – in a certain sense, one might argue that both China and India have been able to play a – much more of a backseat role on Afghanistan given the vast American economic, military, and political engagement with the country over the last decade. What tangibly – beyond just words on paper, what tangibly do you hope to see out of those two countries as the United States draws down and begins to diminish its – obviously its military, but possibly other commitments to Afghanistan? What do you tangibly hope to see out of India and China?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’ve continued to talk with both countries, obviously, very, very – through a series of diplomatic engagements. Ambassador Grossman was in both Beijing and New Delhi on his most recent trip to the region over the last few weeks, and this continues in a range of other settings.

So we’ve talked with both capitals about very constructive roles that they can play. Certainly when the Secretary was in India over the summer, she talked in particular about the vision of the New Silk Road, which would ideally extend not just through Central Asia, to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but ultimately through India. And I think we’ve seen some very positive steps from both the Indians and the Pakistanis over the past few months on facilitating more trade between the countries, which is in the national security and economic interest of both countries.

And similarly, we’ve talked with China about kind of key roles that they can play, and obviously both countries recognize the enormous interest that they have in stability in the region and the ways that they would benefit from that. So we will continue those conversations with them.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Lachlan Carmichael. Your line is open. State your affiliation, please.

QUESTION: Hi. Yes, I’m with AFP News Agency, and this follows up a little bit on Arshad’s first point regarding your declaration about reiterating a shared commitment to sovereignty. Are you really looking for regional pressure on Pakistan to clamp down on the Haqqani Network and prod the reconcilable militants into negotiations? Is that something tangible you hope to achieve?

And then finally, are we talking about the beginnings of a nonintervention compact that you hope all the region’s countries endorse at some point down the road?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, I think it’s too early for us to say what will actually emerge from this. And just to underscore the fact that this has true regional ownership, this is being negotiated between the regional partners and we will just see it afterwards. So we have advised when possible, but we, as the other kind of non-neighbors, are just outsiders in this.

We’ll have to see what comes out of this process. We all have hopes that it will kind of at least reiterate what has been said before and, if possible, continue to push and facilitate and nurture this to the next step, which will involve getting a little bit more specific. But it’s still too early to tell whether that will be achievable or not, and we’ll have to see what emerges tomorrow night and Wednesday.

MR. TONER: Great. Time for just a couple more questions. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Eli Lake. Your line is open. State your affiliation, please.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Eli Lake from Newsweek Magazine. I just have a quick question, a little bit off topic, but while the Secretary is in Istanbul, will she have an opportunity to meet with Turkish Government officials and will she do anything with regard to some of the tensions over the gas fields off of Israel and Cyprus and that escalating situation?

MR. TONER: Eli, that’s – Mark here. That’s not really the topic of this phone call, but we’re happy to talk about that issue in another forum. So – but if you don’t have a question specifically about the Istanbul conference, we’ll take another question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Barbara Slavin. Your line is open. State your affiliation.

QUESTION: Yes, I’m calling on behalf of Interpress Service. Two questions. One, following up on my colleague’s, I would presume that these will be diplomats there, not military people, so what assurance do you have that anything the Pakistani civilian government pledges will actually be carried out, for example, by the Pakistani military?

And then, do you anticipate any kind of interaction with the Iranians on the part of the U.S.?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: With regard to the first part of the question, yes, these are diplomats. Many countries are being represented at the foreign minister level. And with regard to how that plays out and Pakistan’s own internal politics, I mean, I would note the importance of the Secretary’s trip 10 days ago in that she came with an extremely robust interagency delegation and was met by an extremely robust interagency delegation on the part of the Pakistanis so that we can try to have exactly this coordination and consistency between the military, intelligence, and diplomatic channels. So the fact that she was accompanied by General Dempsey and Director Petraeus as well as White House representatives and that this was hosted by Prime Minister Gillani at his residence but included General Kayani and General Pasha as well as the foreign minister and other representatives of the civilian government, I think we are doing exactly what has to be done in terms of ensuring that there is civilian government lead on this but that all interested parties and all key stakeholders are engaged, and that continues.

In terms of the Iranian participation in particular, Iran obviously has been invited. They share quite a long border. They’re a critical neighbor. From conversations we’ve had, I don’t think that they’ll be represented at the foreign ministerial level but by someone lower level than that. We don’t expect any sort of bilateral conversation between the U.S. and Iran, but they have been a participant and, I would add, a fairly constructive participant at previous meetings that we’ve had about the region. They have participated in our international contact meetings. Going back to Rome last fall when General Petraeus presented the strategy, they were in the room. They have been at subsequent Contact Group meetings and they were at the New Silk Road meeting co-chaired by the Secretary at UNGA. So they will be there, but I would not expect any news on the bilateral front there.

QUESTION: If I may, just to follow, I think you misspoke earlier. You said there’d be a conference in Astana of the Contact Group. You said mid March, but I think you meant mid November, yes?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think I said two different things. Perhaps I misspoke, I’m sorry. Yes, there will a Contact Group meeting in mid November in Astana, and then in mid March there will be the RECCA in Dushanbe.

QUESTION: Right. Thank you.


MR. TONER: Great. And we’ll make this our last question.

OPERATOR: Our last question comes from Elise Labott. Your line is open. State your affiliation.

QUESTION: Elise Labott with CNN. Thank you very much for doing this, [Senior Administration Official]. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the reconciliation piece and the idea that obviously working with the Pakistanis they urged you to meet with the Haqqani – with members of the Haqqani group. I was wondering if you see any more types of meetings in your continued deliberations with them. Are they urging you – even though you didn’t see any tangible results, are they urging you to continue that dialogue, and do you plan on doing so?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have nothing more to add on reconciliation than what the Secretary said most recently in her testimony. And the meeting with the Haqqani Network, as you know, was a single meeting that happened over the summer at a kind of mid level basis and there was no follow-up to that and that was before the attack on the Embassy in Kabul. So there’s nothing further on that front in particular. But I would note, as you know very well, the – kind of the Secretary’s iteration thematically of fight, talk, and build, which she used not only in the region but also in her testimony last week, and committed to continuing the efforts to talk, meeting the red lines that we’ve always laid out but with the recognition that there has to be some sort of political resolution to this that’s done in coordination with our ongoing efforts militarily and on the civilian side.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up. You just said something about that was before the attack on the Embassy. I mean, obviously, you’re continuing the talk part of the fight, talk, build, and what you just said about the need to continue for political progress, but do you think that – is this a game changer, the bombing of the Embassy, and do you – have you ruled out future talks because of these attacks? Because I mean, the attack yesterday --


QUESTION: Can I just finish? Can I finish? I mean, you’re presumably going to continue to talk with the Taliban, and yesterday the Taliban claimed responsibility for attacks on U.S. – on the U.S. convoy. So I mean, I would assume that you have these tough choices with all groups. I was wondering if there’s any particular distinction of the Haqqani group.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Clearly, the attack yesterday was another one that we dreaded hearing about, given the casualties and loss of life, and certainly offer our continued condolences for those that were impacted and their families. I don’t think that we could have any more of a robust military effort at this point, given what’s been done on the Afghan side of the border over the past few weeks, given the ongoing kind of other efforts to target leadership, which have been quite successful. That will continue as aggressively and robustly as it has.

But that does not mean, as we’ve tried to be quite clear in laying out, that there will be – that it will necessarily foreclose opportunities on the talk side, recognizing that we have to keep an open mind. And as the Secretary said many times, ultimately you’re not talking with your friends; you’re talking with your enemies. And I have no specifics to add about kind of the parties to any sort of talks, when they might happen, how they might be facilitated, but the mission of it and the desire to make sure that we explore all opportunities that have an – that have the potential to bring this to a successful resolution and preserve the gains that we in the international community have made in Afghanistan over the last decade will be taken very seriously.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: And thanks everyone for joining us, especially [Senior Administration Official], but to everyone that joined us this morning. Appreciate your participation, and have a great day.

PRN: 2011/1838