Background Briefing on Afghanistan

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Kabul, Afghanistan
July 11, 2014

MODERATOR: So we are still in the middle of a lot of work tonight, so this will be relatively short. And just so you know who we have here before we start referring to them in pseudonyms, we have [Senior Administration Official One] and [Senior Administration Official Number Two], now Senior Administration Officials One and Two. So with that, we’ll recap today and explain where we are and take some quick questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks very much for being here, and sorry to cause you to stay so late and for something which I think you’ll find, ultimately, fairly unsatisfying since we’re still in the midst of many conversations, so I can’t get into specifics at all. But I did want to put today’s discussions in kind of the broader context.

The thing that comes up over and over in the conversations that the Secretary has had today are what significant gains Afghanistan has had over the last 13 years. You all know them and – literacy and life expectancy and women’s rights and empowerment – and that it is critical at this moment to preserve the gains of the last 13 years with a political transition that is credible, legitimate, and addresses in a substantive manner the claims of fraud so that whoever is the victor from this transitional government takes office in the most legitimate manner possible. And so whoever ultimately doesn’t win also believes that they have participated in a credible process.

So the Secretary spent his day meeting with four groups of individuals. He met with each of the candidates – Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ghani – and their teams, but he made an effort to spend significant amount of time with each of them one-on-one. He spent a lot of time listening to what they had to say about the process, what they hoped to see from it, and why – and reaffirming why this is so important to them. He also met with UNAMA, including the SRSG, Jan Kubis, both this morning and again this evening, and his team of elections experts. And he met with President Karzai both this morning and then again this evening for dinner.

And we will continue this process tomorrow. At this point we plan on seeing probably all those individuals again, and we will see where these conversations continue to go.

As you’ve been briefed in the past, there’s two kind of broad areas that we’re exploring. And the first is the technical aspect in terms of how to address allegations of fraud in a credible manner, and how to restore the credibility of the electoral institutions and enhance the credibility of the eventual results. And the legitimacy of this voting process is obviously at stake there.

But there’s a second piece, which is the political dialogue. And it’s important as well just because this a divided nation along many lines and that it’s very important at this stage in this society to ensure that we build as inclusive and as broad-based and as unified a national government as possible. It was a close election regardless of what happens and what the audit comes back and finds, and we need to ensure that all communities and constituencies identify themselves in the government and feel represented in the government that ultimately takes over.

So it was primarily the beginnings of conversations to identify how we could make progress on both those two tracks. They were very constructive discussions. They were very substantive. Many ideas were thrown out. We’ll see. I mean “thrown out” in terms of tabled, and then you have some --

PARTICIPANT: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: -- may or may not be – and then many that were thrown out back again as not being feasible. But there were many, many ideas under consideration. And I think everyone came to it with the seriousness which it deserves. Everyone’s committed to the future of Afghanistan. We have all invested so many resources here in terms of lives and funding, and ultimately the commitment of the Afghan people. And there were millions of people that voted in the first round and then again in the second round of elections, and it’s important to them and to this process that they deserve to be counted accurately and to demonstrate that democracy works.

Just lastly, the Secretary did also talk about the very real risks of abandoning a process like this, and wanted to ensure that the message that he gave to all the candidates earlier this week and that the President also conveyed: that violence and threats of violence and any form of extra-constitutional measures of parallel governments or anything similar have no place in a political process like this, and – because that will – talk like that will cost them the trust of their people and the support of the international community.

So we’ll see what continues to evolve on this. We will brief you as soon as we have something more substantive to report, but I wanted to let you know this is – these conversations are still going very strong, and in fact we’ll probably head back right – in just a few minutes.

I don’t know, [Senior Administration Official Two], if you want to add anything else, or --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. So just a little additional context. The runoff was almost a month ago now, and – so we’ve been in the process of monitoring this adjudication of the runoff results for almost a month. And the last couple days have been a continuation of that in many ways. For one, the two tracks that [Senior Administration Official One] discussed have not changed and have been recognized for some time now.

The UN has had the basic lead in working through the technical track, the process of helping the commissions which have the lawful lead. But in terms of the international role, the UN has the lead among us to assist with that in a way that’s increasingly become welcome to the process. And that has not changed, so obviously, the first meeting today was with the UN, and we’ve been talking to them throughout the day. And they’re very intensively involved in working through the technical part of the discussions that are ongoing and that will continue tomorrow.

And then with regards to the political track, that remains an Afghan-led process, of course. And our role there, again, is to facilitate, mediate. But it has to remain and will remain an Afghan-led process.

The events that accelerated the concerns and led to the Secretary’s arrival here have, obviously, played out throughout the week starting with the announcement by IEC of the preliminary results. And I think it’s worth re-emphasizing that we continue to view the results as preliminary, not final, not authoritative, and subject to adjustment pending the rest of the process, which includes the complaints process and very possibly a more expansive, more expanded audit. And we think this is very important. There were serious allegations of fraud that were raised that have not been sufficiently investigated. So I think this trip comes with an expectation that there’s going to be, still, a thorough review of all these new allegations abroad.

And once those preliminary results released on – were released on Monday, and there was some concern with some calls of, quote, “a parallel government” and some signs of protest in Kabul, as you all well know, the President called both candidates and spoke to them. In many ways, what the Secretary started with today was reemphasizing those key messages, which were, one, to avoid steps that would undermine any sense of national unity and that really the Afghans need to come together and work towards resolution that represents the will of the Afghan people; and a little bit more strongly that the international community wouldn’t accept any extra-constitutional measures to resolve the situation, and speaking for at least the United States, that this would result in an end to assistance, and obviously that would have repercussions more broadly than just the U.S.

So those messages were obviously echoed that were conveyed earlier, and I think they remain just as pertinent. But why don’t we stop there and take your questions?

MODERATOR: Okay, great. Yeah, so again, we’ve got – they’ve got more meetings to do tonight, so I’d say three questions and then we’ve got to go.


QUESTION: Can you just explain to us what the difference is on the two sides on the UN audit? Kubis just presented this plan. Both sides say they support it wholeheartedly, and yet they seem to be disagreeing on all the details. What’s – where are the differences? Why are they not agreeing on these things? What’s holding them back?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t think either of us want to get into characterizing the concerns of the campaigns. I think there’s – two key components of the technical process. One is the scope of the audit, and there’s been a number of proposals in terms of the triggers that would do this, and I think there’s been recent stories about the variety of different triggers that UNAMA has proposed and some – the campaigns have agreed with. And then separately, there’s the issue of how the audit is actually conducted, and there’s a range of mechanisms there which can also be discussed. And so again, there’s – on both of those fronts, there’s been a number of ideas floated and that are up for consideration right now.

QUESTION: What do you mean by how the audit is conducted? Are you talking about who goes, where they go? I mean, explain that. That’s kind of vague.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: The audit process itself, who conducts the audit, how credible is that process, who makes the decisions, what sorts of observers are there, where is it done, I mean, these are all questions that the campaigns have asked. And so I’m just saying the spectrum of issues the campaigns have raised fall into these broad categories, but there’s a number of variables on all those questions, and again, that’s what’s currently on the table right now.

QUESTION: Matt Rosenberg from The New York Times. The Abdullah guys, and just sort of some of them are – they don’t seem willing to accept anything that involves a Ghani presidency, at least that’s what they say to us. And they certainly don’t seem willing to accept anything that involves – that doesn’t involve rewriting the constitution into a parliamentary system. These are arguments that go back 10 years now. How sincere do you think they are about that, and how much do you think that’s a maximum negotiating position that they’re willing to come off? Did you get any sense of that today? Can you speak to that at all?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I think the question of which personalities the two sides would find acceptable in which positions is really a question for the Afghans to judge on. I mean, for our part – one, we’re focused on the process and for good reason. I mean, the process needs to be viewed credibly not just because it’s important here within Afghanistan, but it’s going to be important internationally. And so that’s why we’re trying to advance the two tracks. One is cleaning up the tally, so to speak, to the extent possible so that the process is more credible; but two, creating a dialogue where the Afghans can have the conversation you just raised.

QUESTION: Let me reframe that, then. Their line has been consistent for well over a week or two now, is that the process with Sadat involved – the process is currently constructed as irredeemable. It will lead to a Ghani presidency, and then to be neutral on it is to be pro-Ghani. Did you get a sense they’re willing to come off that today at all, or that that’s what they see and unless something’s radically changed, they’re not going to play along?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: AlthoughI think your question actually mixes the two things that we’ve been talking about. The role of the ECC and the – Sadat and the chairman and all these other issues is all part of the conduct of the audit. And so ensuring that that’s done legitimately in a way that ultimately emerges with the result that all participants feel is credible is very important. Having the conversation about what is best to unify Afghanistan and how to make that government representational is the political dialogue, and that’s, again, where – that is not our conversation to have. That is our conversation to help facilitate in some ways if we can be helpful. But that’s ultimately between them.

QUESTION: Saying rephrase, but it’s asking a different question, really. (Laughter.) Trying to sneak another one in there, but they’re adamant that with Sadat there, they will not – the ECC is corrupt and they will not work with it. Is that what – do you think that’s a maximum position or they’re willing to come off?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: It was very clear that all parties came to the conversations today very intent to be constructive and to try to put solutions on the table. And so whether that’s possible to ultimately find, we’ll have to see. But they all played – took part in a very good faith conversation.

MODERATOR: Okay. One last one.

QUESTION: Can I ask: Do you think that you’ll actually get a breakthrough and that there will be some agreement on how the audit is going to look? Because Abdullah does seem to be – it seems that Ghani’s accepted the UN proposals. Abdullah is still wavering and has put forward different ideas. And then beyond that, is there any discussion of a national unity government?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: It’s kind of variations on the theme of the same two issues. So on the audit, again, it’s very – what’s on the table is fairly fluid. There’s a lot of ideas out there. We’ll have to see when we meet with the candidates again tomorrow.

QUESTION: Do you feel that they’re approaching --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think it’s too early to tell. A lot of the conversations today were being in listening mode, hearing what was important to the candidates and their constituents, and trying to assess what was out there. And on the government of national unity, yes, we certainly hope that there is a government that is unified. And whereas unity --

QUESTION: That’s not quite the same thing.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: -- I’m not going to define what that actually looks like.


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, that is a political dialogue and a political accommodation for Afghans to have.

QUESTION: I guess should we say it was a good sign that you guys are talking again tomorrow. Because that hadn’t been initially planned, had it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: We came here with open-ended plans, and obviously this is part of a continuum of conversations that the Secretary has been having very, very frequently over the last few weeks, speaking with both candidates and the president several times over the last 10 days, and it continues those conversations. It continues his commitment, obviously, to Afghanistan over the last number of years as both Secretary and senator. And we’ll see. He came open-ended and wants to see what’s possible and was, I think, pleased with the nature of the conversations today and the good-faith effort of – good-faith nature of them, and we’ll see how they continue tomorrow.


QUESTION: Can I – just to be clear, did the Secretary actually forward or table a specific proposal?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Nothing has been tabled thus far.

QUESTION: Nothing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: It’s – there’s just been a number of ideas proposed, and I think we’re all trying to find out more about them, what’s most pragmatic, and be constructive about it.

QUESTION: I think she’s using the European table, which is present --

QUESTION: Presents --

QUESTION: Yeah, rather than --

QUESTION: Not to kill it.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, yesterday --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: No, no, no. Right, but I responded (inaudible). (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. No, no. You responded.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I responded in my faux European (inaudible).

QUESTION: That’s the way that you have to --

MODERATOR: Yeah, it’s very European. (Laughter.) All right. Thanks, guys.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Well, what – the spin coming out of the Abdullah guys is that he felt very listened to and was cautiously happy about that. So it wasn’t all negative.


QUESTION: That he felt listened to.


QUESTION: And cautiously happy, so --


QUESTION: I don’t want to make it seem like they were horribly (inaudible). They were sort of positive.


QUESTION: Thank you.