Background Briefing on the U.S.-Afghanistan Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
September 30, 2014

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, and welcome to everyone who has joined the call. We have a few minutes here today with two senior Administration officials. This call will be on background, so no names or titles, please. But for your information, we have [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two] with us here. But again, henceforth senior Administration – Senior State Department Officials One and Two.

And with that, I will turn the floor over to Senior Administration Official One – Senior State Department Official One, sorry, for some introductory comments, and then we’ll get to questions. Please.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks very much. I’m happy to be here. I am literally just an hour or so off a plane from Kabul, and it has been a just extremely momentous and significant last 48 hours there and the culmination of months and truly years of hard work. The democratic transition of power reflected in yesterday’s inauguration, historic inauguration, combined with these two agreements which were just signed today.

Both the Bilateral Security Agreement and the NATO SOFA provide security to Afghans and are in the long-term best interests of Afghanistan, enabling the country and its citizens to continue to build on the gains made in the past 13 years. Both the inauguration yesterday and the signing of the statements today represented the commitment to unity and representativeness that both candidates committed to and demonstrated in many ways. I think the inauguration was marked by significant speeches by both President Ghani and CEO Abdullah, laying out, in President Ghani’s case, a broad and ambitious reform agenda.

And the fact that today’s agreements – the signing of today’s agreements were witnessed by both President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah, as well as most if not all of the cabinet, leaders of society, former President Mujaddedi, and others all demonstrating their commitment to deliver on their – both of their campaign pledges to sign these documents as one of their first orders of business. And the fact that this is truly what’s in the best interests of Afghans is very significant and is very welcome in the manifestation of the unity that they’ve pledged and the agreement that they signed a week ago committing themselves to a government of national unity.

So in terms of the specifics about the BSA, as I think many of you know, it provides our military servicemembers the necessary legal framework to carry out the two critical missions post-2014: targeting the remnants of al-Qaida; and training, advising, and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces. And it also reflects the implementation of the Strategic Partnership Agreement our two governments signed over two years ago in May 2012.

And then in addition to the BSA, Afghan and NATO officials signed the NATO Status of Forces Agreements giving forces from allied and partner countries the legal protections necessary to carry out the NATO Resolute Support Mission when ISAF comes to an end later this year.

So we look forward to working closely with this new government to cement an enduring partnership that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability, unity, and ultimately prosperity, and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating al-Qaida and its extremist affiliates.

So let me just stop there and turn it over to questions, whether on BSA or on broader issues.

MODERATOR: All right. Operator, if you could remind folks once more how they can get in the queue to pose a question.

OPERATOR: Perfect, thank you. Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. And our first question --

MODERATOR: Okay, I think we’re ready to take the first – the first question. Go ahead.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our first question then will come from the line of Karen DeYoung from The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions. One is about in the actual text of the BSA there was a draft that was circulated almost a year ago, and I’m wondering if there are any specific changes, specifically in the number of facilities which were listed as nine separate locations in the draft, and on the question of immunities for both U.S. forces and DOD non-Afghan contractors.

And then secondly, the counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida are described as being in partnership with Afghan forces. Does that have any bearing at all on the continued drone campaign in Pakistan, and if so, what is that bearing?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The – let me just briefly say in terms of the actual agreement, there were versions of it out previously circulated. We are happy – although we’re not going to be putting it out proactively, we’re happy to give reporters the text of the actual BSA that was signed, so that you can write off the actual document and ensure that there’s no kind of confusion about the varying other things that were out in the public domain at different points.

In terms of joint operations, I’m sure you know that we can’t speak to kind of operational issues on any of those things. But on the specifics of the questions in terms of what it provides on train, advise, assist, or the CT dimension of it, let me turn it over to the other senior State Department representative, as [Senior State Department Official Two] has been the one who’s been helping to negotiate and finalizing this over the last year.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So I don’t know what version of the agreement you saw. If you’re referring to the one that’s been posted for some time on the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, that one was very close to final. I think there was just one sentence that was changed since that time. But on the specific provisions that you’re referencing regarding the immunities and the locations, that has not changed since that time. In fact, I mean, there’s been – for many months, there’s been no change to the text of the agreement. The provisions related to counterterrorism operations relate only to operations within Afghanistan.

MODERATOR: Okay. Operator, I think we’re ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Declan Walsh from The New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi there, and I just wanted to ask about what would be – what – can you give us an indication of what the non – sorry, it’s not ISAF, but the – what the counterterrorism element will be number-wise. Do we have any idea what that might be? And secondly, do we know what the future of air cover and air support will be under this agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The – regarding the numbers that are allocated to the two different missions, the vast majority of the 9,800 number for the U.S. will be associated with the NATO train, advise, and assist mission. I don’t have a specific breakdown to give you, but the vast majority of that 9,800 is part of the train, advise, and assist mission.

The second question was?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Air cover. Are you talking about air support for the ANSF? Is that your question?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The issue of what enablers the U.S. will or will not be providing for the Afghan forces, to include air support, are still a matter of discussion within the Administration.

MODERATOR: All right. Operator, we’re ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Phil Stewart with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi, Phil Stewart here. Quick question on enablers: How many enablers will be part of this follow-on mission? And can you tell us if they’re above the 9,800 or part of it? And I guess on Bagram, how do you see the prisoner situation going forward in the next couple months?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Again, regarding the enablers, if you’re talking about enablers that relate to operations by NATO and U.S. forces, that is within the 9,800 to the extent that the U.S. is providing enablers, but that’s – there are also NATO partners who engaged in those kinds of activities. The issue of enablers for Afghan operations is still a matter of discussion within the Administration, but if there were to be such support, my expectation is it would come from within the 9,800.

And regarding --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: -- Bagram, what I can say on that is that we are moving rapidly towards closure of the remaining facility that we have there. The U.S. no longer and for quite some time has not been responsible for or engaged in detaining Afghans. And under the BSA, there is an explicit provision that the United States will not be undertaking any detention operations.

MODERATOR: All right. Operator, ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Gopal Ratnam from Foreign Policy. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. So my question is actually a follow-up on the previous couple of ones. So when you say that the issue of enablers is still under – a matter of discussion, when will that decision be made? And I have one more question after that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I don’t have an answer for that question.

QUESTION: So this is an open-ended discussion with no sort of a sense of timing on when you might reach agreement or not on whether or not the U.S. would provide that support?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: There’s no deadline at the moment for that discussion. This discussion will reach a conclusion, but I don’t know at what point it will reach a conclusion.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And obviously there’s been an ongoing discussion over the course of the last even few years as the BSA has been negotiated and finalized. And now that we actually have it set, I mean, we’ll be having a different set of discussions, probably fairly soon. But there’s no timeline for that right now.

MODERATOR: All right. Next question, Operator?

OPERATOR: Thank you. And once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. We have a question from the line of Major Garrett with CBS News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Can you hear me? Thanks for doing the call.


QUESTION: Okay. A couple of questions. Here at the White House, for months we heard that delays in signing the BSA could threaten the operational drawdown. Has there been any effect because this is happening, obviously, later than would have been preferred, first of all?

Second of all, could you in any way give us a sense of how precarious this was and how much involvement was required to keep Abdullah and Ghani together and get to this point? Because my sense is if we weren’t focusing on a lot of other issues, this would be a bigger splash than it’s currently been.

Last question: The current reconstruction aid to Afghanistan is about five to eight billion a year. Do we anticipate that continuing in the years ahead?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Let me try taking a stab at some of those. In terms of the ISAF abilities – I mean, I think you’d have to ask ISAF whether it’s had any operational impact. From where we stand, it seems like they were able to adjust accordingly. It would’ve been ideal to have had this signed, which we initially envisioned, at the end of last year. And it would’ve been better for, I think, perhaps Afghanistan’s long-term security so that this question was taken out of contention at the time. But from the circumstances and given that President Karzai wasn’t going to sign it, ISAF seemingly was able to adjust, and I hope that it didn’t have any detrimental impacts. I don’t believe it did.

In terms of the relationship between Abdullah and Ghani, I have been out there for much of the last month working on these issues. But this was an Afghan request from both sides and after the Afghans themselves did the vast amount of the work in terms of coming up with the joint agreement themselves. I was – I accompanied Secretary Kerry on his first trip in July and his second trip in August, and after that August visit, there was a joint commission that was formed between the two parties. And they really hammered out most of the parameters of this agreement themselves – I’d say 90 percent of them.

And it was only when they got to the last kind of 10 percent that they asked for kind of the additional assistance to help them get through those issues, and frequently it was about kind of terminology and the way that specific things were articulated. And we were able, I think just as kind of objective outside parties that were trusted by both – and both asked us to come out and do this – to really help determine that there was a common conceptual vision on all these issues in terms of how a unity government would be formed, what their respective roles would be, the fact that the powers of the presidency were very much intact and per the Afghan constitution, but also a very significant role for the CEO. And they both ran on platforms of broad reform and unity and representation from around the country. And because of that, they were able to kind of come to this common agreement.

So it was with our assistance in the final push, but it was very much at – because they recognized that the best thing for Afghanistan and Afghans’ long-term stability and sustainability was for a unity government to be formed. So I think they both have a common commitment to this. It’ll be hard to transition from an adversarial campaign, which has gone on for close to a year, but in particular the last three months, four months, that it’s been very much in contention since the second round. But they recognize that this is what best delivers on their common commitments, and they’ve – and they’re very motivated to make this work now that they’re both in it.

So there’s a history between these two men of having worked together before in the early days of the Karzai administration. I know that they can continue to work together. Their teams will start forming better relationships and bridging any remaining differences that they – there’s an enormous amount to be done in Afghanistan, given all these ongoing transitions: the security transition, the political transition, the economic transition. And so there’s more than enough work to keep them and their teams busy in the coming months. So now that we have this common commitment, we’ll look to them to see how they move forward with it.

In terms of reconstruction assistance, I don’t think those numbers are right. I think that our civilian assistance over the last few years has been in the $1.5-to-2 billion range. In fiscal years ’13, ’14, ’15 it will continue to shrink, as we always knew it would, on the trajectory as we draw down troops, but we still have a long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s economic sustainability per our – per the Tokyo Conference, and those commitments will be re-examined and refreshed at the London ministerial in November. So now that the election is finally behind us, I think that we’ve got a – we and the international community will start having very serious conversations with the new Afghan Government on how – what their plan is for economic sustainability and how the international community can continue to support it.

MODERATOR: Okay. Operator, next question, please?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of David Lerman from Bloomberg. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. Can you tell us anything about how much we’ll still be able to do counterterrorism operations? I heard you say the vast majority of the 9,800 troops are really for the NATO advise and assist mission. Does that mean we really have no one left on the ground to do counterterrorism? Can you quantify that at all? I mean, you’ve already got Republicans out there saying we – now we’ve got to revise this withdrawal plan because we’re just not going to leave enough guys.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I can’t quantify it, but I can say that with a smaller footprint and fewer people, you do less than with a larger footprint and more people. It’s – there isn’t a precise quantification you can give to how much operational activity you can do with X number of people. But it’s – the numbers that have been decided upon for our presence in 2015 and 2016 are what they are.

MODERATOR: All right. Operator, next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line from Luke Johnson from Radio Free Europe. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I had a question about Article 26 in the agreement, saying that it’ll remain in force until the end of 2024 and beyond. My question is why is that date so far ahead of what President Obama has announced in terms of troop levels for 2015 and 2016, when he says that U.S. forces will all but leave. And then, I guess, did the 2024 and beyond – it seems like in perpetuity, and did the kind of status of forces agreement in Iraq that ended after 2012, I guess, or 2011 – did that kind of have any bearing in this kind of “and beyond” addition?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: It had no bearing on it. It is a very oddly-worded formulation. What it means is that the agreement remains in effect indefinitely unless terminated. That’s very normal for an international agreement to say that it remains in effect indefinitely until terminated. So it’s not – as a SOFA agreement, it is not unusual in that respect. The 2024 wording was simply a reference to a provision of the Strategic Partnership Agreement and certain commitments related to seeking funding under the Strategic Partnership Agreement that are referenced elsewhere in here. But frankly, it wasn’t really necessary to formulate it in that way. It just means that it remains in effect indefinitely.

Now, it’s important to remember that this is not just a status of forces agreement. There are two basic elements to the agreement. It’s a defensive and security cooperation agreement that also has status of forces agreement elements to it. And so it lays out a range of security and defense cooperation activities that are – that do not depend upon any specified number of U.S. personnel in the country.

MODERATOR: All right. We have time for two more questions, so Operator, if you could call the next one, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Paolo Mastrolilli with La Stampa. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for doing the call. I would like to know a few things, if possible. What is the implication of this agreement toward the other allies that have been in Afghanistan and what are you expecting from them at this point?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: There’s a separate NATO-Afghanistan Status of Forces Agreement that was signed also today. That is the agreement that provides for – provides the legal framework for allies and partners to be present in Afghanistan. For U.S. personnel, the BSA agreement trumps the NATO Status of Forces Agreement, even though we’re part of NATO.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: But both documents were signed back to back by the newly appointed National Security Advisor in Afghanistan, Hanif Atmar. And then the BSA was signed by our resident ambassador Jim Cunningham and the NATO Status of Forces Agreement by the NATO senior civilian rep in Afghanistan. And then there were kind of the range of speeches afterwards by President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah.

MODERATOR: All right. Operator, next question please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Declan Walsh of The New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: There’s been so much acrimony between American and Afghan officials over the last year, obviously largely centered around the relationship with President Karzai. But watching the ceremony today, there was a very sort of palpable sense of relief and I think Ambassador Cunningham hugged Mr. Atmar after – briefly after the agreement was signed. Could you give us the sense of what was the sense within – on the American side after that agreement and what’s your – after the agreement was signed and what’s your sense of – can you describe the changed tenor and tone of the relationship with them, with the new administration led by President Ghani?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’d say I think it’s important just to kind of try to step back for a few minutes and put this all in context, exactly kind of as your question prompted, because I’ve now been working on this account for five years or more. Since (inaudible) be in the Administration I’ve testified many times before Congress. There’s obviously been such an inordinate amount of U.S. blood and treasure spent here, let alone all the international partners, and most importantly, what Afghans have sacrificed and committed themselves to.

And so for years, there have been – look at all the questions on whether President Karzai would actually step aside at the end of his term: Would there be a democratic transition of power? Would elections ultimately be legitimate? How would the parties, once we knew what the second-round results were, ultimately resolve this, and were there any options that wouldn’t lead the country into descent, into further turmoil? If there ever was a resolution to this administration, would they honor commitments to sign these documents? If they didn’t sign these documents, what would it mean for the future of Afghan security?

And pretty remarkably, over the course of the last 48 hours we have a very positive resolution to all those questions. It doesn’t mean that any of us aren’t being clear-eyed about the challenges that remain, and there will be difficulties in terms of implementing or running this new government of national unity and how it will actually translate its common reform agenda to benefit the Afghan people. But given where we’ve been over years and certainly the last few months, this is a very positive moment for Afghanistan and one that Afghans should be very, very proud of.

And so was there a sense of relief after all this? I’m sure that there was. But I think the biggest sense of relief that I felt very many times over the course of the last few months being in Afghanistan was by Afghans that they wanted an end of the uncertainty, that they wanted their votes and what they cast their ballots for to be recognized, and they wanted to ensure that what had been gained over the course of the last 13 years, which is very, very significant on social service indicators and health and education, on the role of women, on the free press, on all these – these things would be honored and built upon rather than diminished. And so I think there’s an enormous sigh of relief in Afghanistan and one that I’m proud that we were able to help contribute to but was done overwhelmingly by Afghans.

And so we will see what comes in the coming months, and the international community is there to support this government of national unity. But I have confidence that the Afghan people will continue to do and this government will continue to deliver on what the Afghan people have sought.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And just to add to that, I would say the acrimony was often overstated, because while President Karzai made statements that are well known, at the same time the great majority of Afghan Government officials were supportive of signing the BSA and of the relationship with the United States, the great majority of the Afghan public was supportive of signing the agreement and of the relationship with the United States, and this was also reflected in the decision of the Loya Jirga last November that urged President Karzai to sign the agreement. So I think there is a – while some of his sentiments were not unique to him, I think there’s a breadth and depth of commitment to the relationship with the United States in Afghanistan that is sometimes overlooked.

MODERATOR: All right. I’d like to thank everyone on the call for joining us today, and a reminder this call has been on background attributable to senior State Department officials. And we thank you for your participation. And Operator, we’re out here. Thanks again, and good afternoon to everyone.