Background Briefing: Senior State Department Official on Afghan Meeting in Istanbul

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
November 2, 2011

MR. TONER: Thank you very much and thanks to all of you for joining us this morning as well as waiting. As I think you were informed, the meeting just broke a short time ago. But as you know, the first – or the Istanbul conference on Afghanistan concluded earlier today. You should have all received, or will receive shortly, copies of the Deputy Secretary’s intervention as well as a statement in Toria Nuland’s name on the conference. But we’re very fortunate to be joined this morning by [Senior State Department Official], who can give us a readout of the conference, as well as the direction we’re moving forward in the weeks and months to come.

Just a reminder, before I hand it off to [Senior State Department Official], this is an on-background call, so henceforth, [Senior State Department Official] will be known as a Senior State Department Official. So, with that, I’ll hand it over to you, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Good, thank you very much, Mark. And thank you all very much for joining me. I apologize for any delay we may have caused you. Let me just set the physical stage and then the political stage for the conference that took place today in Istanbul. First, as you know, unfortunately the Secretary was unable to come, but Deputy Secretary Burns came to Istanbul to represent the United States and make the intervention. The day started out with an opening session here at the Ciragan Palace hotel with remarks by President Gul, President Karzai, Foreign Minister Davutoglu, the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Rassoul, and then took in all of the comments of the neighbors and the near-neighbors of Afghanistan. In the afternoon, there was a session where Deputy Secretary Burns made his intervention and other supporters of the conference were able to make their interventions and then we adopted the statement that you all have seen on the Istanbul Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan.

I think, as some of you know, we’ve been trying to support both Turkish and Afghan diplomacy on this conference. We see it as part of a series of meetings that have taken place over the past several weeks. You go back to originally the Secretary of State’s speech at the Asia Society on February the 18th of 2011, in which she talked about the need for the creation of a regional structure to support Afghanistan – a secure and stable Afghanistan inside of a secure and stable region. And she talked about the interests and the needs of all the neighbors and the near-neighbors, and so we’ve been working very hard over the intervening months to create or help create that regional structure, and we think that’s part of what was accomplished today in Istanbul.

Of course, more recently, we have the meeting which introduced the New Silk Road on the 22nd of September during the United Nations’ General Assembly. And going forward, if you take Istanbul today, look forward then to the larger international meeting in Bonn on the 5th of December, and then of course looking ahead to other meetings, but particularly the NATO Summit in Chicago in May of next year.

We are, as you saw from the Deputy Secretary’s statement and also Toria’s statement, we certainly welcomed the Istanbul statement today on the Istanbul Process. And if I could just give you three or four thoughts about why this was important. First thing to say is, is that the meeting today, the 2nd of November, took place one day after a very important meeting – a trilateral meeting between Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. And President Gul, the president of Turkey, had President Zardari and President Karzai here for an intensive day of conversations. And we thought that the fact that that meeting took place yesterday was able then to convey part of the right message to people who were working on the Istanbul conference today, the 2nd of November.

When I think about what we have put out in this Istanbul Process on Regional Security Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan, the communiqué, I’d give you a couple of thoughts. First of all, I think that the region affirmed and really considerably strengthened the principles that they first laid out in the 2002 Kabul Declaration on Good Neighborly Relations. And, in fact, if any of you have seen that – and I pulled up my copy today – it’s one page, it’s about 18 or 19 sentences long; it’s a set of very broad principles. And what the region did today was it really took those principles and tried to make them operational, so with all of the confidence-building measures, the commitments to Afghanistan, the commitments to a follow-up process.

Second, we thought it was also interesting that Afghanistan’s neighbors and near-neighbors, and I include here Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran – as you’ll see from the statement, have really spoken in one voice to assure Afghanistan of their support for Afghan-led reconciliation and transition to Afghan national security forces. And I think, very importantly, they endorsed the principles that need to guide reconciliation, including renouncing violence, splitting with terrorists, respect for the Afghan constitution, human/women’s rights, and they recognize the importance of a long-term international support to the Afghan national security forces.

I should say just also as a side-light that last night the neighbors and the near-neighbors negotiated this document for, I think, six or seven hours. And they worked on it themselves, they created this document, and it’s something I think worth noting that this is something created by the region, supported by the neighbors and the near-neighbors.

Third, I think, very importantly, as you can see from the document, there are a list of confidence- building measures, and they’re implementable confidence-building measures, and they give a benchmark to measure progress toward the aspirations of the agreement and moving on, as I say, to Bonn then to Chicago.

And very importantly as well, there is, at the very end of the document, a mechanism so that people can follow this up. And one of the things that the neighbors and the near-neighbors thought was important was not just to issue a statement today but then to build in some follow-ups. So as you’ll see in the document and the ending paragraphs, there’s going to be a follow-up ministerial-level meeting in Kabul in June of 2012. That meeting will be preceded by a preparatory meeting chaired by Afghanistan and that the Afghans will be circulating a paper at the end of January next year outlining the agenda. So that people will be able to come together and try to decide and talk about how they were doing on these commitments.

Next, I think importantly for the effort that we’re making to try to build in economic parts of this, economic integration, economic growth, sustainable economic growth through the region, the confidence-building measures include steps toward implementing the New Silk Road vision of integrated regional economic growth.

And as I say finally, and I would just repeat that this is conceived of as a process – Istanbul, Bonn, Chicago, beyond – and very importantly the countries have agreed, as I say, to follow up on their commitments, starting with meetings in Kabul next January and the foreign ministerial in Kabul next June.

One final word and then I’ll stop, and that is just to highlight a couple of points that Deputy Secretary Burns made today that I know were also very important to the Secretary. And that is in his statement that there’s a lot of challenges in the region and it doesn’t have to be this way; in other words, that the neighbors and near-neighbors of Afghanistan can take action for themselves and to take ownership of this.

And secondly, the conference is a step in the right direction. I wouldn’t say that it answers every question. It answers some questions, and more questions will be answered in Bonn and more along the way. But we’re pleased with what happened and as Toria said in her statement, we welcome this agreement. And because it’s done by, produced by, supported by the neighbors and the near-neighbors of Afghanistan, we think it builds in the right direction and they took an important step today.

So I apologize for being so long, and I’m glad to take a few questions.

MR. TONER: Great. And just briefly before we open up to questions, I did want to remind folks that the statement to which [Senior State Department Official] referred on the Istanbul Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan, that is available on the Turkish MFA’s website, and we’ll try to send around a link to that, if not a PDF copy of the English version.

And so just opening up to questions now. Hello, Calvin, we can take questions.

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Thank you. If you would like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone pad. That’s *1 if you would like to ask a question. Please record your name at the prompt so I may introduce your questions. One moment, sir, for the first one.

Our first question comes from (inaudible). Your line is open. Please state your affiliation.

QUESTION: Hello. Hi, it is Ilhan Tanir from Turkish daily Vatan. [Senior State Department Official], thank you very much for taking time to give us detailed account of the conference in Istanbul. My quick questions, the first is: you mentioned a follow-up mechanism and you said that these ministers will meet and is going to follow up and countries will consult each other. Will there be – if any country is recognized as (inaudible) with the rules, what kind of sanction or what kind of punishment is foreseen?

And second quick question is: the meeting was in Istanbul and there are many commentaries that Turkey is taking a driver’s seat in this process of reconciliation. Would you be able to tell us a little more about Turkey’s role? And related to that, actually, is there any specific commitment is asked Turkish authorities in terms of investment economically or militarily? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, thank you very much for your question. First of all, let me talk about Turkeys’ role, as you asked. This first – the idea for this conference first was proposed at a meeting of the International Contact Group earlier this spring in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The Turkish representative at that time suggested the possibility of bringing together again Turkeys’ neighbor – I’m sorry, Afghanistan’s neighbors and near-neighbors. And at that meeting, I think people thought this was an excellent idea, and what you had today was the outcome of that. And so people have worked extremely hard for the success of this meeting since early in the spring.

When you ask me about Turkey’s role, Turkey was the host of this meeting. It was co-chaired by Turkey and Afghanistan. Afghanistan and Turkey worked closely together with the neighbors and the near-neighbors of Afghanistan to try to bring a successful conclusion to the statement that was issued today. And we found that to be a very natural and good and important role, and I think that they played their role extremely well. As I say, this was a combination of a Turkish effort and an Afghan effort, and then of course the neighbors and the near-neighbors.

On terms of specifics, two things. One is I think as you will read the document, there is nothing that says anybody has made any particular dollar commitments. That’s not what this was about. This was, as you will see, a list of confidence-building measures in the political, economic, the cultural, the legal areas. Although I would say that there is a real commitment to increasing the role of the private sector in economic integration and there is also a vision of connecting Central Asia and South Asia together with Afghanistan at the center. One of the interesting things about this is that for many years, Afghanistan was sort of at the edge of things – the edge of Central Asia, the edge of South Asia – and you’ll notice that the Turks and the Afghans decided that this conference would be about Afghanistan at the heart of Asia. And so connecting Central Asia and South Asia together with Afghanistan, and I would say Pakistan as well, in the middle, is an important thought that’s come out of the conference.

You’ll read the document for yourself. I think it would be fair to say that it’s not a document that assumes failure and therefore is not a document that’s a list of sanctions.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Thank you. We’re ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Tejinder Singh. Your line is open. Please state your affiliation.

QUESTION: This is Tejinder from India Today Group. Thank you for doing this. The one thing that struck me was the word Taliban or Haqqani Network was absent in your opening remarks. Are you not pursuing the diplomatic channels to do any negotiations with them? And the second question is about you keep using neighbors and near-neighbors? But what we see is the three Islamic countries getting together.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, thank you very much for your questions. First, on the Taliban and the Haqqanis, I think you will find in the document a commitment by the neighbors, the near-neighbors, and those of us, who, as you will see, were supporters of this document to continue to support Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process. And that’s a very important thing. And so as Secretary Clinton has said on any number of occasions, and certainly said in her testimony to the House last week, we have done a considerable amount of work here to try to support Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process, and we will continue to do so.

In terms of the question of neighbors and near-neighbors, again, I would ask you to look at the signatories to this document. And I think you can see what it is that people are considered neighbors and near-neighbors, whether that it is to say China and India, Iran, the Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates. I think the fact that all of these countries were together – and very much including India, and the Indian foreign minister was here today – and signed onto this document is a good development. And, as I say, I would put that as very much evidence that this is a step in the right direction.

MR. TONER: Thank you. We’re ready for next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Elise Labott. Your line is open. Please state your affiliation.

QUESTION: Thank you. This is Elise Labott with CNN. Thanks, [Senior State Department Official.]


QUESTION: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more – you noted that this is the day after the trilateral meeting with Afghanistan and Pakistan and Turkey. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit how you felt – what happened in that meeting, based on your understanding, contributed to this positive message as you said? I mean, when we were in Kabul about a week ago, President Karzai was speaking very negatively in terms of Pakistan saying, “Look, you’re the ones that hold all the cards with the Taliban. I might as well talk to you.” And it seemed a little bit acrimonious, and I was just wondering what happened yesterday that led to this quote/unquote “right message” on the conference?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. Well, thanks, Elise, for the question. Let me sort of say three things. One is that we did not participate at all in the conference yesterday that was hosted by Turkey and participation from Pakistan and Afghanistan. But what we heard today from various people has been that the most important thing that happened yesterday was that after a period of not talking to one another since the Rabbani assassination that Pakistan and Afghanistan, at the most senior level, got together and spent the day, along with Turks, kind of talking, as we understand it, about all of the issues. And I don't have any more specifics than that, since we were not there.

But I think the fact that we convened this morning as this conference on the – or on Afghanistan at the heart of Asia, having had the Pakistanis and the Afghans talk to one another again was a positive thing. And the fact that Pakistan joined in this declaration, that others did as well – I think they took the fact if the two leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan could spend the day talking yesterday, could decide that there had to be a vision forward, then it was the right thing to do to follow up with the kind of declaration that was issued this afternoon.

Now, just to be really clear here, it was two separate conferences, but what I’m trying to say is that the fact that there was this contact and the conversation all day yesterday, I think, gave a message to people who are working on the conference today that there was a way forward, and we had a chance, all of us together, to try to chart that way forward. And again, we – you don’t want to – I don't want to overstate any of this. It’s a step in the right direction. It’s part of Istanbul, Bonn, Chicago, and I think that for – but for a step in the right direction, I think that’s what got taken today.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up. Do you --


QUESTION: Given what you saw today from, as you say, the fact they were talking, does that give you any more confidence that Pakistan is willing to be a constructive partner in what’s going on? I mean, there have been a lot of doubts, obviously, that have been very public about Pakistan’s commitment to making sure that Afghanistan is secure and stable.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I would say that I hope, Elsie, you might take a little time, read the document. And the fact that the Pakistanis participated and signed the document I think is a step forward.

MR. TONER: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Andy Quinn. Your line is open. Please state your affiliation.

QUESTION: Hi. It’s Andy Quinn from Reuters. I have a couple of questions. First one is, I was wondering if you could tell us what role Iran played in the meeting. You listed them as a signatory, but I’m wondering do you see them as playing a constructive role here? Do you think that they’re fully on board with the plan as agreed at Istanbul? And the second question is, if you could talk a little bit more about what practically you’re playing on doing to implement this New Silk Road vision, given the wrath of tensions and disputes in the region, border and customs issues, lack of transport infrastructure. What realistic prospect is there of getting this New Silk Road up and running in any kind of reasonably near timeframe?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Thanks for both questions. First on Iran, the – what I can report to you is that the Iranians participated in the meeting. They were here all day. The Iranian foreign minister came, and they also signed up to the document. And that’s, for me, the – that’s what we saw, and that’s what they did. So they made a choice to, A, participate, and, B, sign on to the document. And again, I took that as evidence of a good step forward.

On the New Silk Road, a lot yet to do. One of the things that we hope, Andy, is that people will do considerably work between now and Bonn so that there are kind of more specifics as we go along. Again, like my answer to Elise, if you take a look at – if you look at the document itself, and if you look at the confidence-building measures that are listed in the economic field, these are things that we think all could be done, and then, taken collectively, would add to the New Silk Road.

So let me give you a few examples. One of the things that we worked on hard this year was to get the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement signed up. Well, it’s an agreement, and yet, it’s a very important part of trying to get goods and services moving back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Perhaps you noticed today that the Pakistani cabinet said that they were now going to go ahead with most favored nation trade status with India. Well, that’s a good development in itself, but I would also say to you that it’s a positive development in terms of this vision of economic integration, Central Asia to South Asia. The Indians and the Pakistanis continue to do a lot of work among their commerce ministers. The Indians, for examples, have spent, I think, a considerable amount of money improving the border crossing on their side at Wagah and the Pakistanis the same so that people can move goods back and forth. You’ll remember when she was in Chennai, India in July, the Secretary talked about some things that could be done in facilitating business visas, for example, or following up on some of the existing projects, which I think are proof of concept of the New Silk Road, such as the TAPI pipeline or the CASA-1000 electricity project. And again, you’ll see them both mentioned in the document.

And so this is a long-term vision. I think we should be careful, Andy, about saying that the New Silk Road, or something like it, will be established in weeks, months, or even a year from now. It’s an attempt to bring all of these things together, have some new ideas, and then look forward. Because one of the issues here is: what’s the region going to look like after 2014? And there are lots of answers to that question, but I would argue to you that one of them will be this economic integration of connecting Central Asia and South Asia, which we’re calling the New Silk Road, and I hope you’ll hear even more about it in Bonn.

QUESTION: Thanks. Just one quick follow-up, if I may. I’m just wondering --


QUESTION: -- did Deputy Secretary Burns have any interaction with the Iranians – with the Iranian foreign minister at the meeting?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We did not. No. He did not or none of us did. No.


MR. TONER: Thank you. We have time for just, I think, a couple more questions. Next question?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Marc Champion. Your line is open. Please state your affiliation.

QUESTION: Hi. I’m from The Wall Street Journal. Just two quick ones. One is: Had Secretary Clinton been able to come, would the U.S. have been a signatory to this document? In other words, was it an issue of who’s there, or were you always going to just be a supporting player? And then just secondly, what is it about this document that is different so that we should take heart? I mean, it’s not like it’s the first time that any effort has been made to do a lot of the stuff that is in these confidence-building measures. It’s been a decade and a lot efforts have been made by the U.S., by the UN, by others. So what is different here?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. Well, let me – thank you for both questions. First, in terms of the Secretary, the answer is no, that we had always envisioned that this was a document of the neighbors and the near-neighbors and we would always have been on the supporters list, whether the Secretary was here or not. So that’s a really good question, and I’m glad to answer it.

On the second, what’s different is, I’d say, a couple things. One is, again, I would just ask if you had a moment, to just lay side by side the 2002 Declaration on Good-Neighborly Relations and the document that was issued today, and I would argue to you that the neighbors and the near-neighbors have become quite a bit more specific, quite a bit clearer in commitments, and have a better plan going forward. And then the related answer is is that this was really from the neighbors and the near-neighbors. In other words, this wasn’t somebody from the outside saying, “You all ought to behave this way.” This was a way for the region itself to say, “This is our vision. This is how we would like to go forward,” and I think that’s a significant thing. And again, I think it’s proof of this small point that I make that what this is it is a good next step on the road to a more stable and prosperous region. It’s a step in the right direction.

QUESTION: Thanks. And just one quick follow-up. I mean, in terms of the near-neighbors, we include China there and Russia. It’s – physically they are, but I mean, it more or less looks like everybody who’s involved except for the U.S. and the EU. Is that not the right way to look at it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So Marc, I don’t understand that question. Try me again.

QUESTION: Well, it’s simply, given that the neighbors and near-neighbors includes Russia, China, Saudi, which isn’t all that near – so is this really everybody who’s involved in this process, except, on this occasion, not the U.S., not the EU, not its institutions such as NATO?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, again, I think if you look at the supporters of the document, (inaudible) the supporters (inaudible), which is the last document – the last paragraph of the document, you’ll see a much, much longer list of supporters than the United States, the European Union, and NATO. There are a number of other countries there and quite a lot of interesting other multilateral organizations. So the neighbors and the near-neighbors (inaudible) there, made their effort through Turkey and (inaudible) by Turkey and Afghanistan at the list, and then as they – I think the supporters is quite a lot longer than you (inaudible) credit for. Again, I just urge to just take a look at it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Thank you.


MR. TONER: We have time for just, I think, one final question. Go ahead.

OPERATOR: Last question comes from James Kitfield. Your line is open. Please state your affiliation.

QUESTION: Hi. This is James Kitfield from National Journal. I was just curious if you could enlighten us at all about the discussions on the Afghan-led reconciliation talks, respecting all the red lines that Secretary Clinton has laid out in terms of renouncing terror, but also adopting the Afghan constitution. Was there – was it your sense that there really is buy-in from all the neighbors on those red lines and that there’s no real light between their various positions on that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think that’s right. In the end – just trying to look here for the paragraph – the paragraph in there talks about those things and people adopted the – those who adopted the declaration adopted it. So they signed up to this, and I think that’s it. It’s paragraph nine, and it says, “We’ll continue to support Afghan-led efforts to reconcile, reintegrate those Afghan militant elements who renounce violence, cut links with terrorist groups, and accept the Afghan constitution.” And so those are the things that the Secretary of State talked about on the 18th of February as the end goals of the negotiation, and we’re glad to see them represented in this document today.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MR. TONER: Great. I think that’s all we have time for today. I do appreciate all of you joining us and especially from [Senior State Department Official] for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk about the conference, and, as I said, on the way forward with Afghanistan in the coming weeks and months. Again, thank you all for joining us. Just a reminder that this is an on-background briefing, and [Senior State Department Official] should be referred to as a Senior State Department Official. Thanks again, and have a great day.


PRN: 2011/1858