Background Briefing Previewing Secretary Kerry's Trip to Kabul, Afghanistan
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: This is a background briefing previewing Secretary Kerry’s trip to Kabul, Afghanistan. There will be two of us speaking. I will be Senior State Department Official One. Senior State Department Official Two, who is making his premier on the backgrounding scene with us here – (cheer) – it’s a party.
So as you know, we’re heading to Kabul. Just to give you a little bit of background on how we got here, the Secretary spoke with President Karzai on October 5th. They discussed the fact that the Secretary would be in the region and they – the Secretary posed to him whether it would be productive and useful for them to meet in person.
As you know, Secretary Kerry and President Karzai have a long history dating back to actually when President Karzai first came to Washington in 2001 following the fall of the Taliban. He also – Secretary Kerry also made a trip to Afghanistan in 2008 with Biden and Hagel. There was a famous helicopter – that was in 2008 with Biden and Hagel. They had to have an emergency landing of the helicopter during that trip. You may have heard that one.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I will not.
In 2009, Secretary Kerry and Holbrooke hosted a congressional lunch for Zardari and Karzai, and later that year, of course, during the runoff, as we all know, Secretary Kerry made several trips to Afghanistan to meet with President Karzai.
On this visit, we expect there to be a range of issues, of course, discussed, but the focus will be – or a big focus of the discussions, I should say, will be on two issues. Of course, the BSA negotiations, as you know, they’ve been going on for 11 months. We’re at a pivotal period. They’re – these type of negotiations are, of course, complex, whether it’s technical issues or tough security issues. And they’ll, of course, be discussing where we are and seek to continue to make progress.
Now, negotiations were ongoing before we arrived and they will be ongoing after we depart from Kabul, so that is not the expectation here in terms of a conclusion. But obviously, both felt it would be useful to meet in person.
The other topic is, of course, the elections. As you all know, the window for registration for candidates closed this past Sunday. Twenty-seven candidates registered, and prep for these is, of course, ongoing. As you know, the U.S. will be in listening mode, I think is the right way, the accurate way to describe what our role on that will be. Prep is Afghan-led, but we expect we’ll hear an update on that as well.
Let me turn this over to Senior State Department Official Two to give you a little bit more, and then we will take some questions.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Hi, thanks, [Senior State Department Official One] and everybody. [Senior State Department Official One] covered the highlights, but just a slight elaboration on a few things.
As [Senior State Department Official One] said, Secretary Kerry and President Karzai spoke on October 5th, and the call was designed in part to explore whether a visit might be beneficial for both sides. And the tone of the call was quite positive, without getting too far into the details, and both President Karzai and Secretary Kerry agreed that a visit would be helpful, not just for the sake of a visit but to discuss some of the issues of mutual concern that [Senior State Department Official One] laid out: prep for the next election, which [Senior State Department Official] described; the BSA – and I think it’s important here to make clear this is not about Secretary Kerry coming in to close a deal. The negotiations were going on before he got here, they’ll be going on after he leaves. What this is really about is building momentum for the negotiators and helping establish the conditions for successful negotiations going forward.
And I think the third sort of objective behind the visit is that it demonstrates and reaffirms our commitment to this relationship for the Secretary at the end of a long trip to Asia on a completely unrelated set of topics, we’re now in day 10 as you all know, to sort of change course and fly to Afghanistan to talk to President Karzai.
So with that --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: All right, Anne.
QUESTION: Well, if the Secretary isn’t closing a deal, is he delivering some kind of bottom line or ultimatum here that, look, we only have a certain number of weeks left before the year deadline for negotiations expires and that it’s time to actually make a deal?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I’ll start and perhaps my colleague here will add. President Obama and President Karzai both reaffirmed back in January that their goal here was to complete the BSA in October. We believe – we continue to believe that that is both preferable and doable. But as you know, there’s been a negotiating team on the ground, so that is who we anticipate will continue these negotiations at the conclusion.
Part of the call that the Secretary had with President Karzai – during that call, I should say, they also discussed the fact that we’re down to a few issues in the BSA, and at this point it would be useful and productive for them to have a conversation at this level. And sometimes in negotiations that are complex like these, that is helpful in moving the ball forward. The ball remains, of course, in the Afghans’ court, but that’s the reason why we’re going on this trip.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There are a few issues that are outstanding. We both have priorities that we want to achieve.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There is a ball bouncing back and forth in the court. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, it is on both sides, right? It’s not the Afghans --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There are issues – it is accurate to say that there are issues on both sides that are important and that we want to discuss.
QUESTION: Is the feeling that if there’s not a deal by the end of the month, as President Obama said, October 31st, that he will decide that there won’t be a presence in Afghanistan? Is that our (inaudible)? And one of the issues is also about whether U.S. forces can support Afghanistan in case of an attack, obviously, after a withdrawal. That’s one of the issues. What are the others?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think your question was, again, about the timing.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So – and we know there were some new reports in one of our colleague’s papers that you may be referring to. The timeline and the timing and the goal has been the same. That’s – it’s not a new goal, and that is something that President Karzai and Secretary Kerry – I mean, sorry – and President Obama reaffirmed back in January. It’s something we still think is doable. We – it is only October 11th at this point, and obviously, it’s desirable.
Now, in our view – and let me just add this here – uncertainty about an incomplete BSA erodes – could erode the resolve among NATO allies, makes it more difficult to plan for the U.S., and makes it more difficult to plan for our NATO allies. So that’s one of the reasons we’re pressing and may make it difficult for us to deliver on all those services and aid that we’ve been planning. But there’s not – we’re not, obviously, in a position to read out or verify a call the President had or didn’t have, so that’s not our position to do. But the goal hasn’t changed, and that’s what we continue to press for.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Right. I guess I’d only add that this October timeline should not be a mystery to anyone. It’s not a mystery to either side in the negotiation. It’s been out there since the SPA in 2012, again reiterated in January. But it’s also not – the reason we’re focused on October is not arbitrary just because it was – is in those agreements and previously articulated. As [Senior State Department Official One] said, our NATO allies and the United States as well benefits from having more clarity about the type of framework that might be in place as we make decisions about our presence going forward.
And similarly, as the Afghan political establishment shifts into election mode, it’s going to be more difficult for them to focus on getting to a resolution of these issues, so we’d like to bring them to a close before we get to that point.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: President Karzai’s term ends in April, I believe.
QUESTION: Just following up on that, so if – what I’m not clear on is if they’re not able to come to a deal by the end of this month, the military planners in the U.S. had obviously indicated last year that they needed this done by the end of this month in order to plan for the drawdown. Does that mean that there’s no wiggle room if it’s not done by the end of the month? Could there not be a deal later on in the year or early next year, number one?
And number two question is the two sticking points that remain, we’ve been told, are on the Afghan side about sovereignty and the specific search for al-Qaida within the borders and on the U.S. side. Well, I mean, you know what the two issues are. So is there anything – can you lay out for us some of the points of negotiation that might be possible, some concessions that could be made on either side on the two remaining points?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So on the timeline, we’re obviously not going to get into a hypothetical. It’s 22 days away from the end of the month. And again, it’s not only desirable, it is doable, in our view. That’s why we’re here.
In terms of the specifics, obviously there have been a range of reports. We’re not in a position to confirm or verify those; we just don’t feel it would be productive to the negotiations. Obviously, we can say that it’s clear that Afghan leadership is focused on making sure they have an agreement that addresses the security needs of the Afghan people, and our focus – the United States focus – is on providing the protections for our troops and the framework needed for the U.S. and our allies to move forward with planning. So as we’ve said a little bit earlier, time is of the essence. The longer it goes, the harder it is to plan, and that’s, of course, one of the factors.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I fully agree with everything [Senior State Department Official One] just said. The only elaboration I would add is that, as [Senior State Department Official One] said, the Afghans’ primary goal with the BSA is to come up with an agreement that meets their security needs, and we fully believe that what’s on the table right now would do that, in part by providing a framework for a partnership with the strongest military in the world and several of our other partners.
And on our side, we have articulated clearly two missions post-2014 that we have decided are in the United States national interest, and those are: training and assisting the Afghan army, and the counterterrorism mission against al-Qaida. And a BSA would provide a framework for the conduct of those missions and some clarity for how we can proceed going forward.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Anything else?
QUESTION: Could I just ask you to take a kind of bird’s eye view? After the years of war and this negotiation has been going on for 11 months, that it’s down to 22 days before the deadline. What does this say about the working relationship that – there are still 22 days left, but we’re getting close to the –
QUESTION: Twenty, rather. I don't know what day it is anymore.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, sorry. My math is bad (inaudible).
QUESTION: I was telling you that 22 is like the 33rd --
QUESTION: October is a new month (inaudible) that has 32 days.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We have until October 34th. (Laughter.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So, one, it says a great deal about the U.S. commitment and the Secretary’s personal commitment to moving forward that at the end of what we all know has been a long trip to Asia, where he has had a long series of events and meetings and summits, he decided that making this trip, spending the time, rolling up his sleeves and doing personal diplomacy, which you all know he enjoys doing, was important.
In any negotiation with any country where there are tough issues, the sticking points almost always, if not always, come down to the end, and that’s the point we’re at now. As we said, we’re down to a few issues. That’s what we’re discussing. And --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, no, and I fully agree. The way these things often proceed is that issues on which there’s the broadest agreement and consensus get dealt with at the beginning, and the other stuff gets left to the late stages in the process. So I don’t think anybody should be surprised that once a deadline was – or I should say once a target date was established, that negotiations would proceed right up until that time.
QUESTION: What about the October 5th (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: What?
QUESTION: Where were we on October 5th? Where was this phone call – when did this phone call happen? Was it Tokyo?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: October --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: It was either Tokyo or Bali. Could you just check (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think we were in Bali. We were in Bali. Yeah. I think it was (inaudible).
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, we had to have been in Bali because it would be – we left on the 1st, we arrived in – I think it was maybe the day we got to Bali. I think we maybe left Tokyo that day.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: What day was the 5th?
QUESTION: I think it was Saturday.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, so it was that day. Yeah.
QUESTION: Just on the election, is the Secretary going to make any points to President Karzai about his own – Karzai’s own involvement in the election as far as either trying to stay on himself or trying to pick a favorite or trying to install a relative or any of the various scenarios that have been posited over the last year or so?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, I think, as [Senior State Department Official] said, this is an Afghan domestic process, and it would be unlikely at this point that the Secretary would weigh in on the contents of the --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sorry. This is – as [Senior State Department Official One] said, this is an Afghan process, and I think it’s unlikely at this point the Secretary would engage on anything related to the substance of the elections. His --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Karzai could play any role (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I mean, Karzai has said – President Karzai has said, as we all know, that he’s not running. So the focus of our conversation on the elections is about all of the components to make them successful – as successful as possible, which is, of course, voter registration and participation and security issues. And that is – would be the focus of what they’ll talk about.
All right. Anything else, Matt?
QUESTION: No, nothing (inaudible).
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Thanks.