Background Briefing on Afghanistan

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
New York City
September 24, 2014

MODERATOR: All right, so welcome, everyone. Thanks for coming. We have some time here – not too much time – but a bit of time to talk about Afghanistan. And this is a background briefing, so no names or titles, please, attributable to a Senior State Department Official. But just in the interest of clarity, we have with us here [Senior State Department Official]. And so [Senior State Department Official] is going to tell us a bit about Afghanistan, what’s been happening, and then we will get into some questions. So I’ll turn it over to you, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great, thanks very much, [Moderator]. I think many of you know, and I’ve spoken with some of you around the room over the past few weeks and certainly over the past few years, but I’ve just returned from several weeks in Kabul where we spent quite a bit of time with the candidates in helping to facilitate the resolution of this elections impasse and the agreement that was just signed several days ago – the vast majority of which was done by Afghans through the joint commission and through intensive dialogue between both campaigns over the course of the last month or two, but which we helped to facilitate in just these past few weeks. And we were very, very happy with the end result.

As you all know, Afghanistan has a set of very complex challenges at this point and difficult transitions that are underway – the security transition, the political transition, the economic transition. And this resolution, we all believe – I think there is a high degree of consensus on this, from Afghans themselves and certainly from the rest of the international community – that this resolution really provides the best opportunity for a long-term, stable future for Afghanistan in terms of having a unifying government, a representative government, turning the page with a new administration focused and committed on a reform agenda in a very representative manner. It gives it the best chance for this peaceful transfer of power, and obviously a very important transition in Afghanistan’s history.

We give great credit to both leaders for their vision and their commitment to act in good faith to get to this point, and we are in no way anything but clear-eyed about the many challenges that still remain ahead of us, and there will be many as a government like this continues to work through many of the things that were in this four-page document. This was, at the end of the day, just a four-page elaboration of a seven-bullet point, one-page framework from several months ago, so there will be much that they need to work through.

But everything that we have seen from the candidates themselves and their teams demonstrates their common vision on how this government will work, an effort in very good faith to ensure that it works, to bring their teams and campaigns along with them, and to ultimately honor the millions of Afghans that voted in the face of security threats and sought the reform agenda that both these leaders, Dr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah, are committed to enacting and to really ensure that this government is an effective and a functional one that delivers for the Afghan people, that helps them build on the many, many gains that have been made over the last 13 years, in social service delivery, in women’s rights, in the growth of the economy, and that there’s more to do to ensure that these gains are solidified, but that this government gives it the opportunity to do so.

And everything that we’ve seen over the course of the past just few days since it has been signed are very good omens for how this will actually work – the fact that the candidates are meeting to discuss transition planning, the fact that the inauguration is now well-planned for Monday, the fact that it looks like we will have a BSA and hopefully a NATO SOFA very soon thereafter, and the fact that they’re really starting to develop their thinking for how to collectively and in a unified manner address the many challenges that Afghanistan has. So on the economic issues, looking ahead to the London Ministerial later this year in November, on the security and political issues, the whole range of things that will have to be undertaken to ensure that this government is as effective and functional from day one as possible.

But we greatly welcome this agreement, we welcome the leadership and commend the leadership of these two leaders, and we look forward to working very closely, along with the rest of the international community, to continue to support this administration – this new administration and facilitate its work and continue to be a partner – a very critical partner as we’ve been in the past.

So let me --

MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks very much. So we’ll take a few questions. If I don’t recognize you I may ask you for your name now, but Michael Gordon.

QUESTION: Very quickly, both candidates had indicated they supported the BSA. You mentioned that you think it will be signed soon. Is it signed and sealed and all the issues completely resolved, and when do you anticipate it will be actually be formally enunciated and signed, and when will that step be taken?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: During the course of these conversations the last few weeks, both candidates – now President-elect Ghani and Dr. Abdullah recommitted themselves multiple times to the fact that this was a key part of each of their agendas, that they both look forward to having it signed as soon as practical after the new administration starts, that no one has talked about kind of reopening the issues or anything else within the BSA. And so given that there’s great consistency in terms of their commitment to do it and that it’s been fully negotiated and has closed, we expect that it will be fully signed in a matter of days after the new administration starts.


QUESTION: Margaret Warner from PBS News. Hi, [Senior State Department Official]. I know you’ve said they both seem committed to the same reform agenda, working together and so forth, but they are different men, as we all know. Where would you see potential differences in how they – challenges, ways they see things perhaps a little differently?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not sure that’s as much of a concern – as with any new administration, I think – just beginning the prioritization process. There are so many things that need to be done. There are so many issues that have to be addressed. And they both have been fully committed to this, the whole range of this reform agenda – on fiscal issues, on education issues, on security issues. I mean, these are – on peace and justice, on regional dynamics. I mean, there’s so much to be done. And obviously, any administration would have to seek to prioritize what it can actually do first.

And Dr. Ghani has spoken about his first 100-day plan and how to start this prioritization process. And I think that’s what they’ll have to start discussing and agreeing on and what the kind of division of labor is between them. And this goes to one of the key parts of this agreement, which is the role of the new CEO, the Council of Ministers, which he will chair, and what kind of distinct roles that will play from the Cabinet. And it does seem to be a very complementary process where the cabinet and others chaired by the President will lay out broad policy issues, strategic issues, and that the CEO will help to actually implement them and operationalize them. So I think that there’s a real synchronization that they’ll have in terms of what those priorities will be.

Clearly, as also noted in the agreement, one of the key priorities will be on electoral reform and to address the issues that surfaced in this election and 2009, and to try to get to the heart of the fraudulent issues and ensure that some of the institutions can be reformed, which, if it’s to be done in time for the parliamentary elections next year, will have to start very soon. So there are a few key issues that have been noted that will have to be early endeavors, but I think we’ll have to wait to see how the government is formed, who’s in which ministries, and how they lay out this prioritization.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll come here, and then we’ll go to you next.

QUESTION: I’m Terry Atlas from Bloomberg. Just to be clear, who would sign the BSA? Is that clear at this point? Would one or both of them sign it? And I want – and again, to be clear, no – neither one of them indicated they want to reopen any issue or change any factor, add an annex to it or make any changes whatsoever?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There’s been no indication that there’s been – there’s any effort to change it. Everyone considers the BSA closed in terms of the negotiation.

In terms of who actually signs it, that’s one of the issues that would – will have to be worked out. The President, under this agreement, retains all the presidential authorities as head of state, head of government. It would be his choice to sign it. I think it depends who the partner would be from the U.S. and at what point he may actually be able to see either the President or the Secretary or someone else. If it can’t be signed by a senior – by one of our principals, then the President-elect would have the option of delegating the authority to sign it and it could be done with Ambassador Cunningham or any one of our designees. So, I mean, there’s a variety of ways that it could happen. We’d – we’ll have to see how the next week kind of transpires, but we have no concerns about it being signed.

QUESTION: Might he come to Washington to do it?

QUESTION: Just one quick clarification: When you say a few days after the administration starts, you mean after the inauguration on Monday?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: After the inauguration, yes.

QUESTION: But might he come to Washington to do it, (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s his – it’s certainly his choice. That would involve scheduling issues and a range of other things, and I think he has indicated he wants to stay in Afghanistan for at least the first little while. And he’s suggested that he wants to do some trips domestically early in his administration. So we’ll have to see. I think that the most likely option just solely due to logistics would be that they designate people to sign it soon after the inauguration.


MODERATOR: We’ll come to you in a second, right after --

QUESTION: Kirsten Lassen (ph), Danish Broadcasting. This agreement, does it change the role of the Vice Presidents? If Ashraf Ghani is taken ill or dies, who will become the president – Dostum as according to the Constitution, or somebody else? And secondly, the vote has been held back. We haven’t seen the result of the elections. Can you comment on that, please?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This agreement does not alter in any way the Afghan Constitution. It’s very much in sync with the constitution, and so issues such as those in terms of who would take over for the Presidency in a time of crisis remain per the Afghan constitution. This is a delegated presidential authority to the CEO, first to create this and one of the very first acts of the new government, and then to elaborate on its powers in a way that both of them agreed. And so there will be a very, very robust, significant, influential role for the CEO, as is seen throughout this document, whether in the consultations on senior government officials, whether in the way that this weekly council of ministers meeting is run; certainly in noting that ultimately the goal is a Loya Jirga and constitutional reform, which could change this role into a permanent Prime Minister position. And so there will be the chance to alter the Constitution if Afghans think that that’s the right way forward, and perhaps they could get at that when they have this Jirga. But for now, it’s the delegated powers and the designated powers as noted in this document for the new CEO.

In terms of the election results, this was an issue that the two candidates decided together to ask the IEC to make the announcement as they did. It was done not in any manner to hide the results, but just given the kind of the very sensitive nature of the political environment at this time and the risk of strife, that they wanted to ensure that the focus was really on this government of national unity, the political under – agreement that undergirded it and that it not be detracted from by whatever results would be announced. And as it happens – perhaps if there had been more time available between the time of the political agreement being announced and the time of the elections – the IEC announcement – that wouldn’t have been an issue. But in fact, that they converged on the same day and happened within a few hours, I think the candidates both felt that it was in Afghanistan’s best interests to have the focus be on the political agreement, and then a few hours later, when the IEC made its announcement, that it be a more general one.

There’s absolutely the intent that these results will be released by the IEC fairly soon. I think once a new government starts and it demonstrates that it can lead and provide the stability that Afghans are seeking, that there will be far more room for this. So we fully expect those results to come out, and frankly, much of them have been out through leaked channels and a range of other things for a while. So – but I think the fact that it has been such a calm period since Sunday, that the threats of violence have significantly receded, that there’s been broad Afghan endorsement of this government of national unity and providing stability and a very positive way forward for Afghanistan, is kind of proof of the Afghan decision that this is best suited to what Afghanistan’s needs were right now.

MODERATOR: Okay, Matt and then Jo.

QUESTION: Well, a couple things. One – it’ll be brief, though. One, this is – seems to me to set a just absolutely horrible precedent, and is not democratic at all. It doesn’t matter.


QUESTION: The withholding of the election results. I don’t get it. I don’t see how anyone can claim that this is democracy when the electorate is kept in the dark about how the – what the ballots were. So I – I mean, is it because the difference in results was so great that having a national unity government should not have been a requirement, that Abdullah Abdullah lost and lost badly? And do you think there would’ve been questions about why does he get such a powerful position after losing? Is that – was that a concern?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. The decision that both candidates made jointly, to go to the IEC with this as their recommendation, was made before the results – before there was an indication of what the actual results were actually going to be. This was something that had been talked about for quite a period of time. So it preceded any results --

QUESTION: And you guys were okay with that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We don’t have a role in that. This is an Afghan decision. So if both candidates were to make the decision and go to their own Afghan electoral body and make this request, that’s their role.

QUESTION: Okay, but the U.S. Government routinely speaks out about elections being free and fair and transparent and open, and now you’re saying it’s not your business?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I’m saying that this was an Afghan decision on how to handle Afghan results.

QUESTION: You – so – can I ask – this is the other question: Do you believe that this was a free, fair, transparent, and open process?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We had a very – I think we put out a very comprehensive and good statement on this as soon as the electoral results were out --

QUESTION: All right. Last one --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- which noted that on this issue – that we stand by the audit, that it was unprecedented in scale and scope, that it sought to meet best international standards. But given what happened in this election, given the institutionalized fraud by – conducted by the IEC, and the fact that no audit, I don’t believe, could ever at all the potential allegations of fraud – that there were real questions which both candidates recognize and in fact was the reason why they committed to electoral reform as one of the key parts of this political agreement.

So the fact that – to draw so much attention and – or at least to draw so much from the results of this audit I think is misplaced, because I think the more important aspect here is the fact that with all the various options, all of which were fairly unpalatable in terms of what could’ve been the result of this process, that they chose to enter into this political agreement and into a government of national unity is the important part, and that these results will come out on a scale that – on a counter that works for Afghans. This is their decision.

QUESTION: All right. And then just let – do you have anything that you want to say – would like to say about what Karzai said the other day, or is he just gone and good riddance, don’t let the door hit you in the [expletive] on the way out kind of deal? (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: We may have to edit the transcript. (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re all looking forward to a new administration and starting with this kind of common commitment to a reform agenda that both candidates have espoused and which are very dedicated to. And I would say that President Karzai has actually played a very appreciated role during this elections process. He has continued to encourage the candidates to come to some resolution. He’s made very clear that he has no interest in staying as president, that he sees a transition from one elected government to another as an important part of Afghanistan’s future, that he is leaving the palace when this – when his term – once the inauguration occurs. And he has stood by all those commitments, so we appreciate his role in helping to bring this to resolution and to closure, and to seeing what he does in the next phase of his life, but we’re also greatly looking forward to working with the new administration here.


QUESTION: I just --

QUESTION: Wait. Is it confirmed that the inauguration is Monday?



QUESTION: I just want to go back to the issue about how these two gentlemen are going to work together. The results are going to come out at some point, as you said. But Dr. Abdullah Abdullah didn’t attend the speech given by Dr. Ghani the other day. And I just wonder – I know you sort of say that this is – that the focus is forward, this is a good chance, a good opportunity to turn the page.


QUESTION: In reality, are you not worried that the divisions which are still there are going to flare out again into the open, and you could sort of see a renewed period of turbulence for Afghanistan? And just a scheduling, perhaps, issue: Who is it from the Administration who’s likely to attend the inauguration on Monday?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We actually don’t have a decision yet on who from the Administration is going to attend. We’re working through that right now, but we should likely have more on that soon.

In terms of the relationship between the two, I mean, again, just to put it in broader context, I mean, this is – this has been a very adversarial, acrimonious elections process for going on almost a year, with particularly heightened tensions over the course of the last few months. And so to pivot fairly immediately from that adversarial relationship to one of collaboration is obviously going to take time. And I think you see this in any number of coalition type governments around the world. It’s difficult to do.

What I take greatest optimism from is that – is in the personality and character and relationship between these two leaders, and this is where I think it has to start. They’re both – they’ve both worked together before when Dr. Ghani was Finance Minister and Dr. Abdullah Foreign Minister early in the Karzai administration. They have a good working relationship. With all – with everything else said between their campaigns over the course of the last few months, they’ve always been very careful to reserve space around their views of the other, that they’re not accusing the other personally of fraud, that they’re not accusing the other personally of undermining this effort. If anything, that it is the two of them that are – that really do have this very common conceptual vision of what needs to be done on behalf of the Afghan people and to honor the voters that did turn out to vote.

And so it will take time, and it will take time between the teams in particular. I think the example will have to be set by the two leaders themselves. But if they can demonstrate that and if they can demonstrate that unity of purpose, I think that there is a way fairly soon for the teams to start to kind of begin the process of knitting the country back together. And that’s what we – that’s what we’re all hoping to see, but it will take time.

And I am in no way seeking to underestimate the difficulties that remain ahead. I mean, there will be real challenges, and we’ve – many of them are laid out in this document itself, that it is just a first step and that they will have to come up with an agreed mechanism on things like the appointment of senior officials, and that they will have to figure out how this new Council of Ministers operates vis-a-vis the Cabinet. And there will be lots of growing pains and some very difficult challenges to overcome, but that they are committed to it.

And as we started in this process fairly late in the day on helping to bring the agreement to closure, the first test for us was: Is there a common purpose here? Is there a middle ground that can be reached. And it became fairly evident very soon that there was, that they were talking about the same sorts of goals and benefits for the Afghan people and ways to achieve them; and the issues and not being able to come to resolution were much more how to articulate those, and that’s where we could help with bringing that document to closure. But it was only possible because they shared that common vision.

MODERATOR: Okay. Do you have time for one more?


MODERATOR: Okay. Okay. We’ll say two --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- since Lesley also put her hand up. Ladies first, Lesley, and then we’ll come to you.

QUESTION: Thank you. One of the challenges is the fact that Afghanistan is basically bankrupt. And has there been any kind of discussion or thoughts from your side of (inaudible) as the next months unfold and kind of shoring it up? What about a donor conference? Anything that you can --


QUESTION: -- because it’s one of the big --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, absolutely. The fiscal crisis is very, very significant, and one that will require the rest of the international donor community to coordinate very soon directly and work directly with the Afghans to resolve. It’s – and again, I think the fact that they were able to enter into this government of national unity gave enormous confidence to the donor community that their money was – will continue to be money well spent because it will be – because it’s not only necessary but will be best utilized by the Afghan Government as opposed to the various other alternatives that were out there if the government of national unity hadn’t worked.

We all recognize that it’s one of the primary issues which we’ll have to engage on with the Afghans. There’s a broad number of them, but obviously, the fiscal crisis is among the very first. It ties into the reform agenda, which Dr. Ghani as a former Finance Minister has laid out on a range of economic issues. It follows up on the Tokyo commitments and the Tokyo conference from 2012. And so we’ve already – I mean, we’ll have to just wait to see how the government is formed over the next week or two, but the bank fund meetings will be in Washington the first week or two of October. I would expect that that would be an early opportunity to meet with Afghan representatives and start looking at potential options there.

And then we’ve got the London ministerial at the end of November, which is exactly the follow-on to the Tokyo conference in terms of: Can donor nations recommit? What are the metrics used to evaluate it? How is the government doing in terms of threshold issues like anti-corruption, and what can they count on as continued partnership from the international community? So I think there’s a range of forthcoming opportunities to engage on exactly this, but we’ll also have to take our cues from what the new government does in its first few days.

QUESTION: Yes, so they haven’t actually raised it with you yet on --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They’ve suggested – both candidates have suggested that this would be an early issue that they would have to raise immediately and that they needed very robust dialogue with the U.S. and with the rest of the international donor community. But beyond that, no specifics.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

MODERATOR: Okay, last one.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Andreas Ross with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. I wanted to ask about peace talks with the Taliban. That seems to be one issue that the two candidates are divided on to a certain extent. To what extent has that played a role in your discussions with them (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, it actually played very little role. It was hardly discussed in our discussions on this agreement and it’s not reflected anywhere in this agreement.

But I don’t think it’s actually accurate to say that there’s that broad a disagreement between them. They both recognize that for long-term stability for Afghanistan and particularly for – on security-related issues, that there needs to be undertaken a very serious effort at a reconciliation process with the Taliban. Our redlines in terms of supporting that have not changed. But Dr. Ghani has certainly thought very seriously, and I know that he’s got some ideas that he would like to pursue in a new administration.

And I think Dr. Abdullah said – I actually haven’t seen the transcript yet, but I heard he said in an interview just in the last two or three days he also echoed the necessity to find a resolution through kind of a negotiated settlement at some point. And I’ll have to find out exactly what he said, but it was not discordant at all with where Dr. Ghani is, and I think they both recognize that this is an important test for a new administration and it’s certainly critical to ensuring Afghanistan’s longer-term peace and stability. So beyond those broad parameters, there’s been no specific talk about what that would --

QUESTION: Is it one of the priorities that you mentioned?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would assume that it would have to be a priority, but that’s – I would leave it to them to define that. We have nothing further specifically on that.

MODERATOR: Okay, thanks very much, everyone. A reminder, background, Senior State Department Official. Thank you, [Senior State Department Official], for spending time with us. Appreciate it.


MODERATOR: I have a couple of housekeeping notes about things happening the remainder of the day, so we’ll let you go and I can give you a little bit of an update about what we’ve got going on later today.