Background Briefing on the Secretary's Trip to Afghanistan

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
En Route to Kabul, Afghanistan
July 11, 2014

MODERATOR: We have an unplugged – an unplugged version here, who’s this evening – yes, appearing for a limited time only, [Senior State Department Official] to talk about the upcoming stop. And I’ll turn it over to him and let him get us away.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Are they still doing another backgrounding call once we land?

MODERATOR: We won’t do it immediately upon landing. We’ll try to do some things while we’re there, but that’ll depend a little bit on schedule.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All right. So with the caveat that this is going to be really just sort of top line overview and we’ll get you some more information from the people who’ve actually been on the ground, because my head and body have been in China.

So as you know, and as one of you tried to get the Secretary to acknowledge earlier, we’re going to be landing in Kabul in about an hour, I guess --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- for some meetings tomorrow. And then beyond that, we’ll see. The Secretary at the least is going to be seeing President Karzai and the two presidential candidates who ended up in the final round, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. He’s also going to see officials from the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and possibly officials from the Independent Electoral Commission, although we’re not sure if that meeting is locked. And there may be other meetings as well, but those are the ones that we’re currently pursuing.

Our goals throughout this process have been a credible, transparent process that is broadly accepted by the Afghan people and that leads to a government that is broadly considered legitimate inside Afghanistan. And at this point, there are sort of two components to that outcome. One is finalizing the election, and as we’ve said many times, that’s going to require a thorough review of all reasonable allegations of fraud, which means doing significant additional audits that both candidates agree to. Second, it’s going to mean forming a government that is broadly supported by components of Afghan society once that election is finalized. And to do this, in addition to the election officials finalizing their work, it’s going to require – we strongly believe and strongly encourage the candidates to talk to each other, which is not currently happening.

We’ve also made quite clear that we reject any attempts to resolve this issue through other means, and by that we mean through violence or through any extra-constitutional means. And we’ve been quite clear about the fact that any efforts to do that would result in us ending our assistance, the U.S. ending our assistance to Afghanistan.

And then just finally, by way of background, there were 8 million votes cast on June 14th. There were provisional results announced this past week that showed Ashraf Ghani with roughly 56 percent of those votes and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah with 43 percent of those votes, a gap of about a million votes. The problem is that both candidates have acknowledged and agreed, even before those results were announced, that there was widespread fraud in this election. And our view was that until the candidates were satisfied by the degree of audits that have taken place, there should not have been an announcement of results, and we made that clear. And our view of those results at this point is that they may or may not reflect the actual outcome of the election. But we consider them wholly preliminary and certainly are going to wait until a satisfactory degree of auditing has taken place until we acknowledge any sort of final results of this election.

So with that, I can take a few questions.

QUESTION: How realistic is it that you can do effective auditing in Afghanistan, just given, one, the violence; two, the lack of really controls that were in place at the time?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I – look, I think a perfect election in these conditions is neither possible nor really the objective. What we’re going to do is push for the very best, most credible, most transparent, and most broadly accepted outcome that we can under the circumstances. There are a number of constraints to getting an outcome that would reflect a very exact vote count based on what actually transpired on June 14th, but what we do know is it can be – we can get to a much better outcome than we currently have, and one that is much more broadly accepted than the current outcome is. And I don’t want to characterize it beyond that.

QUESTION: Did you see any hand of President Hamid Karzai in the current turmoil? I think some of Abdullah Abdullah’s supporters have accused him of trying to sway the vote in the favor of Ashraf Ghani.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: At this point, we’re not going to get into blaming any individuals inside Afghanistan for what’s transpired. What we will say is what the candidates themselves have acknowledged thus far, which is a widespread belief that there is fraud on both sides of the election. And we have no reason to dispute that assessment, which is why we’re calling for the audits to take place.

QUESTION: Any idea about how long a good audit would take?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. The UN officials who have looked at this, I think, have said it can take anywhere from a week to two weeks, something along those lines. I think there’s a strong sense that – among some Afghan officials that they want to try to stick to the calendar that they are working on, which was to try to get to an inauguration by, I believe, August 2nd was the date it was scheduled. We don’t consider that an impossible goal, but we do believe that getting a credible, transparent, and broadly accepted outcome is more important than sticking to a timeline. But at this point we don’t think that that timeline is impossible.

QUESTION: Kerry said --

QUESTION: What is --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Kerry said yesterday that he had talked several times with both candidates. Has he gotten a sense of whether they’re open to this plan of accepting an audit?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So what we can say is that they have – while the candidates did not agree fully to a road forward in advance of the electoral commission’s announcement, they did agree to broad parts of what a road forward might look like. And that includes four different types of audits that were broadly agreed by the two candidates. There were some other aspects of the way forward that were not agreed, and so we did not, before the provisional results came, get to a full agreement on the path. But there is a basis on which to continue to pursue these discussions.

And the types of things that we’ll look at in terms of the audits are districts in which there’s a perfectly round number of votes reported; districts in which the number of women voters outnumbers the number of male voters, which in the Afghan context seems like an unlikely outcome. We’ll look at very, very high turnout districts – and by “we,” I really mean the election officials. These are the types of results that they think are worthy of sort of a re-examination.

And again, the candidates did not agree on every aspect, or we would’ve had, I think, a different turn of events on the day that the provisional results were announced. But there is a basis on which to continue to pursue these discussions.

QUESTION: What kind of leverage does the Secretary have, given that the U.S. is withdrawing? What does he hope for the outcome of this visit?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So the U.S. is withdrawing our military presence, is drawing down our military presence at the end of the year. But the United States has a large and critical civilian presence in Afghanistan which we would not necessarily be withdrawing under these circumstances. But moreover, the United States provides an extraordinary amount of assistance to Afghanistan – roughly, I think, $10 billion in the last fiscal year. And whoever’s going to be governing the country, Afghanistan in the near future is going to be very dependent upon foreign assistance simply to fund the operations of its government. And that’s not just U.S. assistance; there are other countries involved in that as well. But the signal sent by the United States not providing assistance to Afghanistan because political leaders cannot come to a credible, transparent, and broadly accepted conclusion would have a very significant and, we believe, very negative effect on the government’s ability to succeed going forward. So that’s one form of leverage.

Another form of leverage is -- we have strong relationships with – at this point, having spent as much time in Afghanistan as the United States has, we have strong relationships on all sides. We are essentially the lynchpin between Afghanistan and the broader international community, and we believe that those relationships and that entree that we provide to international legitimacy and to the international community provides some leverage.

But the real leverage that we have is that this is extraordinarily in the interests of Afghanistan to get this resolved. They – both sides have expressed to the Secretary that they want to get to an outcome that is credible, transparent, and accepted. And while we’re not coming to impose a solution but to sort of facilitate that, it’s in both in their interest and their expressed desire to get there. We’re not asking them to do something that they don’t want themselves.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) about using the assistance cutoff as a way to facilitate is it’s kind of U.S. intervening in the Afghans figuring out what they want to do about their country, and that working with the UN suffices. What do you say to that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’ll just say we’ve been quite clear that we are not in any way favoring any particular candidate or any particular outcome here, other than one that – and I’ll just keep repeating this – is transparent, credible, broadly accepted. We’re not here to put our thumb on the scale for any of these candidates. So there is no intervention in that way at all.

If what you mean is that we are intervening to try to expedite and bring about that sort of outcome, then I don’t think we would deny that. I think we would say that that outcome is strongly in the interests of the Afghan people. It’s certainly in the U.S. national interest. And so for those reasons, we are trying to bring it about.

QUESTION: Can I just ask how concerned is the United States about the situation descending into the same kinds of ethnic and tribal violence we’ve seen previously in Afghanistan, and how disappointing is this to the United States, that what had appeared to be a smooth and full election process has now gone the way – almost a predictable way of fraud, despite all the amount of work that you’ve been doing over the past decade on civil society-building?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, I guess I would say the reason that we are so intent on this happening quickly and the reason – a large part of the reason why we have spent so much time engaging with Afghan leaders over the past few weeks and why we are headed there now is to avoid exactly those sorts of results that you just described. And in terms of it being disappointing, I guess I would just say that we’re still in the very early stages of this process. And our view and our goal is to try to get this resolved as quickly, credibly, transparently as possible, so that we avoid exactly the sorts of negative outcomes that you’re describing. And at this point, we’re still in midstream of trying to get this worked out.

MODERATOR: All right. Thanks very much, everybody.