Background Briefing on Afghanistan Elections

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official
Washington, DC
July 14, 2014

MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining us. Today we have [Senior Administration Official] to talk to us about Afghanistan elections. I’m going to turn the call over to him. He’ll make some remarks, and then we’ll take your questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks very much, and thanks for having me speak. I’m literally just off a plane in the last few hours from Kabul, and thought since I’d had such a kind of firsthand perspective of this over the last four days that may be of interest to all of you to have an opportunity just to have a quick conversation on this.

I know many of the details have already been reported, and we can try to continue to provide kind of more context for some of what’s currently out there, but I went out in the middle of last week after the IEC made their announcement last Monday in advance of the Secretary’s trip, and then joined him for the series of very, very intense, exhausting, but ultimately constructive discussions that we had over the course all day of Friday and Saturday, the 11th and 12th, which involved many, many, many hours with both candidates, with their teams. I think at least – I think there were four trips to the palace at various points to see President Karzai, and working extremely closely with the Special Representative Jan Kubis and his team there to try to put together this framework that really was able to help move Afghanistan from the brink, really, of turmoil to – towards unity and away from instability.

It was interesting – yesterday before I left, I went back and saw both Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ghani again, and they both noted how worried Afghans had been at the – in the middle of last week. I believe one indicator that they noticed – that they noted was that prices in the marketplace had gone up 15 percent in a few days because of the fear of civil war, and that many were comparing it to the period in the ’90s just in advance of the civil war. And there was real, real concern that we were really on the knife-edge.

So I credit both candidates with just remarkable displays of leadership throughout this process. They both entered into discussions in real good faith, in a spirit of compromise and willing to move their own constituencies forward and towards a path of moderation. And they both did it out of a heartfelt passion and commitment to the future of Afghanistan and making sure that all that collectively we have worked for over the last 13 years in terms of the international community and U.S. commitment of lives and very, very significant resources, but what Afghans have really fought for over the last 13 years was not lost during this transition period, which would obviously be quite historic in terms of transition from one democratically elected government to the next.

So what we achieved altogether on Saturday night was two-part, as you’ve seen. The first part, and the part that is so logistically difficult right now, is the full 100 percent review of every vote cast, a really almost unprecedented task in terms of the scope and the rigor of the audit. And this is where the UN’s engagement has been so critical. Because of the very legitimate and broad-based allegations of fraud, we needed to make sure that this was up to every – the best of international best practices. And in fact, we added several specific criteria to the checklist that ballots will be looked at even on top of what was already seen as one of the best precedents out there.

And the UN took responsibility for their recommendations on how to provide a supervisory role to ensure that there was legitimacy. And we’re in the process now of marshaling significant international resources and international observers to be there and be part of this process as it plays out over the course of the next few weeks. And both candidates recognize that restoring the legitimacy and credibility of this electoral process was critical for the ability of whoever wins this to be able to govern effectively and to be able to move forward with their own agenda. And both candidates spoke quite a bit about reform that was necessary as – that they envisioned as part of their administration.

I think many questions have been asked about the technical plan. We can give an update to the degree possible, but obviously something of this complexity is still being worked out. As the Secretary committed on Saturday night, the auditing process did begin on Sunday. The first significant part of that was that the IEC, Afghanistan’s electoral commission, met most notably with representatives of both parties, which means that both parties have engaged in this process and have embraced the terms of it. There are a lot of logistical issues to be worked out over the next few days, a lot of administrative issues, including the moving of the ballots and when the vote count will actually begin, which we expect in the next few days, and all the procedures to take place and what this means when we will have not only a significant international observer force but domestic observers, media, and most notably representatives, and quite significant teams from each candidate there at the poll count to ensure the legitimacy of this.

So while we all took a collective sigh of relief on Saturday night, the hard work is still before us, both on the technical process, given all the logistical challenges that that imposes, as well as the other part of this which has been in the press the last few days, which is the political process. And this was also the other component that the two candidates, with the Secretary, agreed about. We don’t want to get – because it’s a political process that impacts the future of Afghanistan, we don’t want to get ahead of the candidates themselves in talking about it. And I think that there will be much more made public on this over the next few days. But there is a structure of an agreement in place with details to be worked out by the candidate. But most importantly, it helps to provide unity and representation for every – for all the people of Afghanistan in the next government.

This is not necessary because it was an election marred by fraud. This is necessary because there are so many divisions within Afghanistan. There are ethnic divisions and geographic divisions and political divisions. And as we saw in this election and as we will see in elections to follow, when a country has divisions like this, the candidates, to their great credit, recognize that they would need to come together and institute a meaningful process of reform to figure out how to unify the country in a political leadership and move this process forward. So it will be broadly inclusive.

I think a lot of what has been reported in the media is inaccurate in terms of the details of this. At the end of the day, remember, this was a one-page framework which gave the bare bones parameters of a very, very difficult process that will have to be undertaken by the Afghans themselves and will take many years to fulfill. And so it’s premature to talk too much about what this may look like a few years from now, because the Afghans will decide how they alter their institutional structures to reflect the need for representation, which they both agreed was necessary.

So I thought it was actually quite interesting in the Times article that came out today, the one key part of that is that Karzai, even as a strong executive leader, governed actually in a way to ensure that all these various factions were represented in terms of having different ethnicities of his vice presidents and among his national security council and economic leadership and others. There was obviously great concern at this critical moment of transition about what may lie in the future with which – with whatever leader is – ultimately becomes president.

And so really this structure was meant to codify and provide some comfort to all the parties in Afghanistan that they will still have access and be part of the leadership of their country, and really institutionalizes it in that way.

But beyond giving that broad framework, it’s well too early to discuss exactly how that will work, or certainly kind of which positions are maybe held by which people, which is not really in that document. But that will be – there will be much more clarity on that, I think, over the next few days as the Afghans start talking about this themselves and provide more details about where they see this process going.

I’ll leave it at that and be happy to take questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you very much. And ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press * and the 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating that you’ve been placed in queue and you may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the # key. Once again, if you have questions, you may queue by pressing *1 at this time.

And please allow just a few moments as questions are queuing up.

We’ll take our first question from Jonathan Landry with McClatchy. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I’m wondering two things: First of all, there were recordings of Afghan officials allegedly giving instructions to rig the election. I’m wondering how much credibility the United States put in those recordings. And secondly, I’m wondering if both candidates have given absolute, concrete assurances and guarantees to the United States that, depending on which one wins, they will sign the BSA. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In terms of the recordings that have come out over the last few weeks implicating, allegedly, the chair of the – it’s not the chair of the IEC, but the chief executive officer of the IEC, the person that effectively runs the IEC. We haven’t – we don’t have a role in saying whether those were legitimate or not, but the fact is that he has resigned, and this certainly raises questions about the legitimacy of the process, which is one of the reasons we thought that – we’d pursued so vigorously this idea of a full, 100 percent audit. And that is the way to ensure the legitimacy of the vote.

There are some other aspects that the candidates decided on and – to help ensure that there was legitimate oversight of the IEC. There will be a new chief executive officer appointed to that position quite soon by the president, and one that both parties agree on. And it’s why even though by Afghan law it’s the IEC that technically conducts the audit, it’s being done under the auspices of and the supervision by the UN. And so the parties that were most concerned about the fraud – and frankly, there are significant allegations of bi-directional fraud from – kind of from all candidates. But given the legitimacy of the IEC, they both wanted to make sure that there was a significant role for the international body to ensure that there was proper oversight of that. So I think the issues with Amarkhil have been dealt with in the design of this audit.

In terms of the BSA, there is nothing new to report from the last few days. Both candidates had already said that they would sign it as one of their first orders of business. They both expressed a strong desire to rebuild and strengthen the relationship with the U.S., and we still expect that that will be signed soon after a president is inaugurated.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question in queue will come from Deb Riechmann with the Associated Press. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Official]. Thanks for doing this. I was wondering if you could tell us just a little bit more about the framework. I know you can’t give details, but from a – from the looks of it, it looks like the chief – there’s going to be a prime minister and then a president. Is it a parliamentary system, or how can we describe this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I think that’s exactly what I don’t want to get into, because I – we really need the candidates to define this for themselves, because it’s their future. There’s – and even the degree of your questions, you’ll see, are not specifically addressed in the framework. This will all – we envision a significant process of reforms that will have to be instituted over the next few years, and it’s for the Afghans to decide, does that mean that these are constitutional reforms; if so, what they would need to do to actually do that, how would they create this.

But I think that much that’s been out there in terms of a parliamentary system or not are just inaccurate, given that those terms are really imperfectly applicable to Afghanistan. It’s just a – it’s a very different country with a very different system and a very different context. And so to think that you could kind of impose on that the traditional sense of a parliamentary system or a prime minister and president working together – is that France, is that Russia – and it’s too early to say. And it may not – it doesn’t adequately – it doesn’t accurately reflect what the Afghans are considering. So I would just ask that you kind of wait for that.

The candidates know that they have to do this very, very soon. They both wanted time because both of them, as I said, were really pushed in more extreme positions by their constituencies, and both asked for time to explain what these – what this means to their constituencies. And they’re doing that right now, but we expect that they’ll release something quite soon.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question in queue will come from Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. When you say that both candidates have agreed on the formation of a national unity government, regardless of what form that takes, is the assumption then that they will both be members of that government and that their constituents will also be members of that government?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s – both candidates agreed over the course of the campaign, well before we got here, got involved in this over the last five days – that they had to govern in a way that would unify the country. They both acknowledged that with what they wanted to do, they could not do it if they were only seen as governing part of the country. They have both talked about ways that they could do that. I think there was real fear among all Afghans that if they – if their candidate did not win, they would – that that would perhaps just be rhetoric and they would be cut out of it in some way. What this does is seek to give them comfort that what was said very vaguely over the course of the campaign has real structure attached to it. And so it does give away that there will be a president, but that president will be working in very specific ways with the person who did not win to ensure that all their interests are represented in the top leadership of the country.

QUESTION: So that doesn’t necessarily mean a prime minister or any specific system, but that that person will have a formal role.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that’s right, yeah. Well, either that person or his designee. I mean, it need not be that person. So it is obviously – there are specific features of it that are left to the designation of the person that does not win, and how that person chooses to implement them is one of the things that’s unknown at this point.

QUESTION: But if – sorry to – don’t want to belabor this, but if the – you said this is a process that will take several years. But the election will be decided over several weeks, so doesn’t it stand to reason that there would have to be some structure in place for the time when the election is decided in order to provide that comfort that you’ve described?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And there is that. So it provides a kind of a short-term basis for what the president will do and how they get through that transition period, and then it will segue into something that has the full support and is institutionalized by the Afghan people.

QUESTION: Well, can you not tell us what that is, since that’s something that’s already been decided?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I cannot tell you what that is because it’s already been decided. (Laughter.) I’m not the one to tell you that. It’s not my system. The Afghans have to live by this. They’re the ones that need to talk about it.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question in queue will come from Dion Nissenbaum with The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks, [Senior Administration Official] for doing this. I’m just wondering if you feel from your perspective if the crisis has been, in fact, inverted and what the major pitfalls you see during the balloting process that could have this again go off the rails before it’s completed.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can tell you that there was a real – that it was such a palpable sense of relief on Saturday night and a real feeling of euphoria. I was sitting with the international press during President Karzai’s and Secretary Kerry’s joint availability, which was about one in the morning on Saturday night, and one of the AP – I think it was the AP reporter said that he went back to his bureau and the local reporter as part of the bureau hugged him and said we just avoided a crisis and we were all so worried. And there was that very – it was just such a palpable sense.

By the same token, everyone recognizes that this is not the end of the road. It’s just the beginning of another process that will be very arduous in its own right. And so there are many, many things that will be problematic in both of these tracks. I mean, as a veteran of the 2000 recount in Florida, I can assure you that there will be any number of technical issues that come up. And this is a very nascent democracy without the really mature institutions to deal with a close election. We always hope in elections that they’re not this razor close because problems like this evolve. And when it’s a democracy like this, it’s even harder. So absolutely there will be many, many bumpy – it will be a very bumpy ride on the technical side, which is why I’m very thankful of the continued leadership of Jan Kubis and his team. They’ve done a magnificent job the last few days in trying to pull this together, and we will continue to rely on them. We’ll be working with ISAF very closely on the security of the ballots.

There will be many, many moving parts of this over a period of at least another month, and so yes, things will go wrong there. And will things go wrong in a process that fundamentally alters the shape of a political process in a nascent country? Absolutely. But I have confidence – and this is what I was most struck by – I have confidence in real regard for the leadership of both these candidates because they recognize what’s at stake and they recognize the arduous nature of what’s ahead of them, and they are truly committed to trying to work through this for the sake of Afghanistan and the Afghan people. And so we hope that this process, though it will face bumps, will be able to address them.

OPERATOR: Our next question in queue will come from Ali Weinberg with ABC News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi there, thanks so much for doing this call. Two quick questions. How involved is the American side going to be in this formation going forward given that it sounds like what you’re saying this was a plan that was sort of given life to by the American side?

Number two, it seems through reports that Mr. Abdullah may have been more open to the idea of a national unity government going forward. So I know you can’t characterize what they were saying in these discussions, but I’m curious if you could tell us what was said by the American side to get both candidates equally on board with this plan going forward.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t agree that the plan was given life to by the U.S. We are a key stakeholder and Secretary Kerry was able to play a really, really unique role in facilitating this. And it was due – I thought Jan Kubis’s comments about Secretary Kerry on Saturday night at the palace were exactly right; it’s because of the special role the U.S. has in this process, given the resources that we’ve expended in blood and treasure over the course of the last 13 years, but it’s also, given his personal relationship and the fact that he played such a key role in 2009 that he visits frequently, that he has relationships with these candidates, that he was able to spend the time that he did with them and really help move them to this point.

So yes, the U.S. – this fundamentally is a decision between Afghans about the future of Afghanistan, but of course there are clear and necessary roles for key stakeholders, and the U.S. is a primary one, as is the rest of the international community that contributes still so significantly to Afghanistan, as is the multilateral – as are the multilateral institutions, but particularly the UN given their role here. So there will continue to be a lot of U.S. effort expended on this, but for the auditing process in support of the UN-led process with the Afghan institutions and for the political process in support of Afghans deciding their future.

In terms of what was said to both of them, obviously these were just – this was a grueling schedule over the course of the last few days. It started around seven in the morning, went easily until two or three in the morning. It was basically all spent – I mean, the Secretary didn’t do a single event other than spend time with both candidates over the course of many, many hours and with his brief forays to the palace and working with the UN.

But in the course of all that, he spent the first day really listening to what their concerns were, what they were worried about, what they were worried about short term in terms of the legitimacy of the elections, and longer term about the ability to hold Afghanistan together and strengthen and build on the advances over the last 13 years as opposed to seeing it disintegrate. And it was after that first very, very long day that we started to put together collectively the outlines of this framework to try to address many of these issues. And then we went back and forth with the candidates over many hours that next day – I can’t even count the number of versions of that document – as we sought to try to find common ground where both could agree.

But the fundamental thing that he said to both of them was that the future of Afghanistan is dependent on you two trying to find a way forward, and it involves a short-term way forward in terms of the legitimacy of these elections, that no one can govern if these elections are not seen as legitimate, and there’s too much work to be done to be able to govern without that credibility; and in the medium to longer term, a way to address these inherent fissures in Afghan society. And so it is up to you to sketch out these parameters on how it works, but this is what you told me and this is what I think could be an outline for how to move forward.

MODERATOR: Okay, folks. I think we have time for maybe one or two more questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Mary Ryan with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Missy Ryan. Hi, [Senior Administration Official]. Can you just elaborate or give us an idea of how the auditing process and the timeframe for the political discussions might affect decisions regarding the possible U.S. troop presence there post-2014? I know that the BSA will need to be signed by the next president, but any sort of context you can give on the security side and the U.S. troop presence issue would be great. Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. We’re really in a fairly fluid period right now. The most significant date related to what you just described is that everyone had been trying to move mountains to try to get this whole process done for inauguration on August 2nd. And given the scale and scope of this audit and the kind of unprecedented nature of it, we recognized that we couldn’t cram that credibly into the next few weeks. And it – we shouldn’t try to, because what was most important is that the process ultimately resolve with a leader with legitimacy.

By the same token, we didn’t want it to slide potentially forever, and so President Karzai agreed, at the UN’s request and with the support of both candidates, which they both said in their statements at UNAMA Saturday night, that he would delay for a few weeks. We don’t expect it to be more than that few weeks, but we’re also – don’t want to put artificial deadlines on it. And if it only slips by a few weeks, then I don’t expect that there will be much impact on the issues that you laid out.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We have time for one final question. That will come from Jay Solomon with The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing this. I’m curious, during this process, did you get any sense on how the Iranians were engaged or pressuring or kind of talking with Karzai and the two candidates? Because they do also have a lot of influence with these candidates and also are wary of a meltdown in Afghanistan. So I’m just curious if you got any sense of how they were playing it.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, nothing at all specifically about the Iranians. But I would say that what we – that there was broad international concern about the direction Afghanistan seemed to be headed in over the course of the last week. And it was with the help of the international community, I think, that we made this progress, because our concerns about the legitimacy of the election and whoever ultimately was – becomes president and his ability to govern effectively, as well as the concerns about the long-term unity of Afghanistan, were echoed in many other channels. And so whether it’s the direct region and – or the – with the framework nations and the Europeans and the Turkish and many others, many weighed in with similar messages. And I think the unanimity of those messages, the consistency of those messages, also helped to reinforce to the Afghans that they needed to find this way forward on both the technical and political sides.


MODERATOR: Okay. I think that marks the end of our call. Thanks very much to our Senior Administration Official and thank you all for joining us today.