Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Trip to Kabul, Afghanistan

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
En Route to Kabul, Afghanistan
August 6, 2014

MODERATOR: This is a backgrounder to preview the Secretary’s trip to Kabul. Of course, it will be embargoed till we land there. We have with us [Senior State Department Official]. So we’ll do a quick overview and take some questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks. Yes, I started as of August 1st officially and I spent my very first day in Kabul. I was out there for the past week. I actually just flew back on Monday to D.C. and I’m headed back again, obviously, now. So I have a fairly good sense of what’s evolving on the ground day by day.

This trip is really an opportunity for the Secretary, basically, as I mentioned to some of you before, just to check in on the ongoing electoral audit, to meet with both candidates, to check the status of the political framework that they both agreed to, to thank the UN and ISAF for their contributions to this democratic transfer of power, and really to just encourage the strengthening of both pieces of this agreement that was reached during his last visit.

He’ll – given the fairly brief amount of time, he’s going to devote virtually all of his energies to continued meetings with both presidential candidates – Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Dr. Ashraf Ghani – spend some time with the UN, including the UNAMA SRSG Jan Kubis. He’ll pay a courtesy call on President Karzai. But really, it’s to follow up on his July visit, his subsequent phone calls to the candidates, and his ongoing engagement and really to encourage both candidates to accelerate the audit process. We really want to see it moving faster, which it’s just getting on the cusp of being able to do right now in terms of going through the – all 23,000 of the ballot boxes, which are all now in Kabul, and which the – and the audit process which both candidates are now participating in.

So it had an episodic first few weeks. After Eid, it has now restarted, and the past few days have gone significantly better. We’ve gotten over 600 ballot boxes counted or examined each day. Both candidate – agents from both candidates continue to be engaged in the process. The international observer cadre is at pretty full tempo finally and is on the floor. We fixed many of the kind of atmospheric issues. There were heating issues and a whole range of things at these hangars at the IEC. Those have been resolved. So it took a long time to get here, but over the last few days, it has gone much better.

The Secretary will also encourage both candidates to continue their dialogue on the details of the political framework that they agreed to with the Secretary on his last visit, and to try to make public their common understandings of it, the common principles derived from it. Again, the candidates have met several times on their own and are making, seemingly, progress on their understandings of this political framework, but he’s here to check in with them and to continue to strengthen that process.

We’re hopeful that the Secretary can obtain a commitment by both candidates to a timeline for completing the audit and agreeing on the details of a national unity government envisioned in this political framework. We commend the candidates on the discussions they’ve held, the progress made so far, but continuing that progress and establishing this timeline will really be a focus of these talks.

The Secretary’s confident that both candidates will continue to work together in the spirit of collegiality and statesmanship that they’ve exhibited thus far to ensure national unity and to build on the progress the Afghan people themselves have achieved. And he’ll emphasize that the NATO summit is an important opportunity for the new Afghan administration to present itself to the international community.

I can give a little bit more on the details of both the audit process and the political framework. Let me just run through a few quick points and then turn it into more of a conversation. With regard to the audit process, I’ll try to highlight some of what’s been achieved to date. Both candidates, as you know from the last visit, committed themselves to accept these results. That’s a genuine commitment as long as they understand the audit is being conducted under the best international standards. This continues to be an issue that they’re working through and why we have international elections experts there, that it’s being conducted technically de jure by the IEC, but under the very close supervision of the UN.

The UNDP elect is providing Afghan IEC and the candidates too with a kind of expertise to ensure that this is as credible as possible. So there’s both these UNDP electoral advisors there on the floor of the hangars as well as the many international observers that are just there ensuring the process is a legitimate one. But the UNDP electoral advisors help to make actual recommendations when there’s a dispute, and that ultimately will go up into the invalidation procedure.

The invalidation criteria have not yet been applied. The audit is basically a two-step process: the examination of all the audits right now, and after this kind of episodic progress the first few weeks, and then the box is done the last few days. I think we’re at about 2,400 boxes out of 23,000, so just over 10 percent. But then the second stage is that all the recommendations are made – that are made during this process will go – will be carried out through this invalidation procedure where the UN basically makes its recommendations to the IEC and the IEC then takes action on it, and that we don’t expect to start for a few more days.

But we do have hopes that if this can actually be accelerated, as it’s starting right now, that it would be possible to meet our goal of a new president inaugurated – not only our goal, the Afghan goal, more importantly – for a new president to be inaugurated and a government of national unity to be in place before the NATO summit.

On the political framework, I think it’s important to remember that these are two very mutually reinforcing agreements. Progress on one leads to progress on the other. The candidates have basically agreed with us and recognize that neither one of us, regardless of the results of the audit at the end of the day, as legitimate and credible an audit as possible, which this truly is given this kind of unprecedented scope and rigor – but that regardless of those results, neither would be able to govern effectively without the cooperation and partnership of the other. The political framework speaks far more to the political realities of Afghanistan than it does to how – the allegations of fraud in these elections and how to resolve them.

So the political framework – there have been many questions about it – is just – this is a one-page document. It is not a detailed description of cooperation. It is a skeletal framework and a set of principles that are intended to frame discussion between the two candidates and set out what the principle objectives of that should be. So we are looking to the candidates to make progress on that, and that’s what’s hopefully occurring now, and we’ll see further progress in the days and weeks ahead.

In terms of the key parts of that document, it begins and ends with a discussion of the reform agenda for the new government. It’s a cooperative agreement and it will be a presidential system in accordance with the Afghan constitution. There is nothing – there is no mention anywhere in there of a parliamentary system, but a presidential one where the president will appoint a CEO, and then eventually after a loya jirga is convened within the next few years and acting through the Afghan constitutional system, ultimately an executive prime minister which would report to the president.

So – but the bigger picture is that much of this has to be worked out and it has to be worked out between the candidates and amongst Afghans, and that’s what the Secretary is going to check in on the progress of, and that’s hopefully where we’ll have continued future progress on a fairly accelerated basis in the weeks ahead.


QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Just two quick things to follow up on: You said that you think it’s still possible to meet the hoped-for goal of getting a new president inaugurated before the NATO summit, but, I mean, the original plan had that happening a week ago. At what point do – does the NATO summit not become the real deadline and the – at what point is the NATO summit not the deadline but the – sort of the larger architecture of a BSA and withdrawal of forces by the end of the year and so forth? I mean, basically, how much longer can you afford to put this off before the political calendar starts to intersect with all of the other things that you want to get done by the end of the year?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: When the candidates requested a postponement of the inauguration and the UN similarly requested it to President Karzai, we always said that our goal was to have this audit process complete and a new president inaugurated and with a government of national unity before the NATO summit. That’s important for Afghanistan’s political stability, it’s important for a new president to be able to go to NATO and ask for these commitments, including continued ANSF sustainment costs. It’s obviously important for partners.

So I think it’s in all of our interests for that to happen. That is still the goal and we are all doing everything possible to ensure that it can stay the goal. I don’t think any of us want to set a specific deadline or look to kind of contingency planning at this point. The key is to try to continue to make this happen, and it can happen. At this point, it’s taken a number of weeks to build the resources and the capacity to enable us to get to hundreds of boxes a day and make this – and make that sort of deadline. At this point, now that we finally got that infrastructure in place, it’s really an issue of political will. And both candidates have to engage in it in good faith. They have to move through the process fairly quickly. They have to keep their eyes on the prize in terms of focusing on the ballot boxes that – of most alleged fraud as opposed to taking an inordinate amount of time on kind of one and two ballots here and there.

But if they can do that, and it seems like we’re starting that over the last few days, then it’s possible, and I think the IEC announced yesterday that they still hope to complete the process – or perhaps even today they announced that their goal was still to complete the audit within the next 20 days. So we’ll see. They’re working in two eight-hour shifts a day, 125 tables at a time. We’ve got hundreds of international election observers there. I think there will be at least 70 UNDP electoral advisors there within the next few days. It is possible. It’ll be hard. No one’s denying that it will really require a lot of rigor to be able to continue this, but it’s possible, and that’s what we’re all focused on right now.

QUESTION: As I understand your concept of this process, you would like the auditing procedures and the political discussions to be – each be carried out concurrently. But as I understand it, Ashraf Ghani is reluctant to engage in detailed political discussions unless he knows the outcome of the vote, and perhaps that’s Abdullah Abdullah’s position as well.

Is that the case? And how do you intend to persuade them to engage in political talks even before the outcome of the election is known?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That was the case at one point. At this point, over the course of at least the last week, in our conversations with both candidates, they both recognize that there have to be simultaneous and concurrent discussions on both the political framework and the technical piece of this. So they recognize that success in one breeds success in the other, and that it’s not in anyone’s interest for the political framework to only be discussed when there may be a clearer sense of who’s winning and who’s losing.

It’s – they – both candidates ensure that they can work most cooperatively together if it’s done still at the beginning of this process in the relative abstract before we know that, where they can make commitments based on what’s best for the Afghan people and how to structure this government that really functions and delivers for the Afghan people. So there’s a lot of work to be done on this because a lot of – the devil’s in the details on many, many of these issues. And so it will take a while to work through the specifics of what the things in this political framework look like – the role and functions of the CEO, a range of the other issues that are referenced. And so the earlier that process starts, the better, and we’re starting to see some collaborative work.

Hopefully, the campaigns will – not only will the two candidates be speaking with each other, but members of their teams in the coming days working through many of these issues. And the more that we can start to flesh this out and build confidence that there’s a political structure in place that will work for Afghanistan regardless of what happens with the audit, the more likely we are to get a result of an audit faster and better as well. So again, I think they’re very mutually reinforcing, and both candidates recognize that very specifically right now.

QUESTION: Would you like to see both candidates sign this one-page agreement, and would you like to issue this one-page agreement while Secretary Kerry’s in Kabul? And are the candidates willing to sign this agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’ve – virtually all the elements of this agreement is already public. Certainly, if it’s something that they signed up to, it should be in the public domain. We thought – we took the position that it wasn’t for us to release. This is a agreement between Afghan political leaders about the future of Afghanistan, so they should determine how it best gets put out.

I think what’s most important right now is not whether it’s signed or not, but really whether both sides demonstrate that they are – continue to be committed to it, that they’re not walking back from the commitments in it, that they endorse the principles in it, that they agree on the principles in it. And where there are many areas to be hammered out in the coming days, that they are committed to doing that in good faith with each other. So that’s what I think is the most important thing coming out of here, not whether the exact document is signed or not. We’ve got to move beyond that into showing that it will be implemented and in a way that’s effective for Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Thanks. You said that you want this to be a done deal before NATO, but have you thought of if it’s not done before a NATO meeting, what are the contingency plans for that? Would Karzai then go? The U.S. and NATO want two agreements to be signed during that meeting. Does that complicate anything when it comes to troops staying beyond that or planning of those for the future?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, at this point, we have almost a month before NATO. I mean, this can be done and it should be done. I mean, if any Afghan next president is worried about the long-term stability and security of Afghanistan, wants to ensure that there’s significant international resources to continue to help fund and train ANSF and provide that stability, let alone then moving on to London – the London conference later this year and their recommitments to the Tokyo commitments on civilian assistance.

It will be – they will have a far greater chance of success if they can demonstrate that they are the credible leadership of Afghanistan and are working together in a government of national unity to ensure that there will be long-term stability for Afghanistan. So it’s in – it’s far more in their interest to ensure that this is complete by then. It’s in their power to be able to be complete by then. And we need to continue to help to accelerate it so that it can be complete by then. At this point, that’s really where our focus is.

QUESTION: Have the two candidates recommitted to signing these deals, or hasn’t that been discussed?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, I couldn’t tell you what the latest state of play is on whether he signed it or not and whether – we’ve heard various things about whether signing it would be – does that make it any more legally binding or not, and each – would they sign it in Dari and what the proper translation is, or Pashto or English.

I’m not as focused on the signing. I’m focused on ensuring that they – both candidates continue to stand by their commitments to it, that they are not walking those back in any way, and that they are further committed to implementing this and making strides on ensuring that this can be operationalized in a way that delivers benefits for the Afghan people and provides long-term stability for Afghanistan. If they can do that, if they own what they have agreed to, and thus far they both continue to say that they are – that they fully support it and endorse it and have not sought to distance themselves from it in any way, and if they can continue to do that in specific and discrete ways, including demonstrating how this will be implemented and how they will work through their issues, that to me is the goal, and not whether or not it’s signed or whether or not it’s released.

QUESTION: Yeah, that (inaudible). I wasn’t talking about – sorry, I wasn’t talking about the political agreement. I was talking about the NATO, the BSA, and those agreements. Are they still committed to that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sorry, I misunderstood. Yes, absolutely, both candidates have continued to say that they would both sign the BSA within their first days as president, and they both would like to be able to have the opportunity as president or through government – national government unity to make the case to NATO. And we just haven’t talked about what it would be like if we don’t have a resolution to – or we don’t have a new president inaugurated at this point – at that point.

QUESTION: Okay. So I wasn’t on the trip when this deal was first brokered, so forgive if I’m going over a round of questions that have already been asked and answered. But in reading about it and in listening to you talk now, what gives you any confidence at all that either of these candidates is going to accept the result of what the audit says? I mean, they didn’t accept the result – or at least one of them didn’t accept the result of the first election.

And secondly, what do you call this process? Because it doesn’t sound like democracy to me. Why should either of them agree to a national unity government before the end of the results – before the results are known? Elections are supposed to have consequences, and if the runoff – the preliminary results from the runoff showed Ashraf Ghani winning by a substantial majority, why in God’s name should he allow Abdullah Abdullah any – that’s not democracy. What is this? This is some – it sounds like some artificial power-sharing deal that’s been imposed – that’s trying to be imposed on the Afghans from the outside.

Now maybe that’s the best you can do, but explain to me why it’s not.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the issue of the audit, I mean, both candidates said that they would accept the results of the audit if it was a legitimate and credible one.

QUESTION: But it’s already after the election.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Both of them have said that they would be committed to – that they want to see the most credible election result possible.

QUESTION: Right, them winning. And if it’s not them winning, it’s not credible. Why do you think (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The only thing that you can do is seek to have as robust and transparent and credible an audit process as feasible, and this is what’s being done. I mean, you do it under the furthest of international best practices, supervised by the UN, going through 23,000 ballot boxes over a period of weeks. And hopefully, it produces a result that they both find legitimate and credible because that’s what’s important for the future of Afghanistan.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) I understand, but that’s not necessarily an audit. That’s (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: An audit process isn’t the future of democracy?

QUESTION: (Inaudible) not going to accept it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we got to give them the chance to do so.

QUESTION: Explain to me why this is. Explain to me why is this (inaudible)? You’re taking their word for it, (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What more are we supposed to use? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, then explain to me how --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This isn’t invented by outsiders. This is an Afghan solution to an Afghan issue. And as I said, this has – the political framework has very little to do with allegations of widespread fraud and everything to do with the political realities of Afghanistan. Look --

QUESTION: It’s just that there’s no democracy and there never will be one and (inaudible). I mean, the Afghans’ solution to an Afghan problem – I mean, this country has never had democracy ever. How are they (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Look, they both recognize, as I think many other countries with deep fissures politically, regionally, ethnically – that if either of them want to govern in a way that can actually produce benefits – and both of them ran on reform agendas. There’s talk of reform throughout that political framework. Ashraf Ghani obviously had his centerpiece on his six-point plan. Abdullah has talked about a variety of reforms. And they recognize that it would be virtually impossible to implement those types of reforms if they can’t do it in a way that is broadly inclusive and representational of Afghanistan, of Afghans.

And so why shouldn’t they decide in the abstract now before either one of them knows who actually was elected president that they will make some efforts to govern together to ensure that they can actually do these things? I don’t think that that’s antidemocratic. I think that’s actually them --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)


QUESTION: It’s (inaudible).

MODERATOR: All right, let’s do one question (inaudible).

QUESTION: I understand you’re (inaudible) that both men – it’s just like (inaudible) --


QUESTION: Everybody wins in an election and one person’s (inaudible), it’s like giving (inaudible) to every kid no matter how bad they are or whatever, if they can’t – or how (inaudible) --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It seems that you got to watch for my kids.

QUESTION: Doesn’t play properly, doesn’t (inaudible).

QUESTION: Yeah. Very simply, until when – I mean, what will you do if the candidates don’t meet the deadline of the NATO summit? I mean, until when are you prepared to wait and to sign the BSA?

QUESTION: The NATO summit is September 4th, 5th?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, yeah. Again, I mean, at this point, all we’re – the NATO summit is September 4th, 5th. At this point, we believe that this can be completed in time for this process to unfold as we had hoped. The Secretary is going to be talking with them about that specific timeline. We’ll see if we can get further commitments to it, and for now, that’s our only goal, is to try to make that.

QUESTION: Can I ask a specific (inaudible)? The CEO – where is the CEO when he’s not forced to (inaudible)?


QUESTION: (Inaudible) fall into a (inaudible) that’s not related, (inaudible) parliamentary system?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, you can have a prime minister that’s not – that doesn’t have a parliamentary system. So yes, the CEO --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The CEO will be nominated by the loser. It could be that – it could be the person that doesn’t win himself or his designee. It has to be agreed to by the president because they will report to the president. This is still a presidential system where the president won, and will have control of the CEO. And that idea is that those functions will morph into those of an executive prime minister. I mean, it’s – the Afghans will have to deal with it through the Afghan constitutional system.

QUESTION: What would you like to have – could you clarify what you would like to have in place by the NATO summit is the selection of the Afghan president, the selection of the chief executive officer, and the power-sharing arrangement between the two sides consummated – all of that by the NATO summit?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We haven’t been specific about what a government of national unity looks like, is that – just the appointment of the CEO – the executive CEO is a broader – we would like to see the president inaugurated and arriving at NATO as part of a government of national unity, and we’ll see how that’s defined. I think there’s room there for how much can actually be done over the course of the next month, but we do think that if all parties commit to this auditing process and we can move it forward with the resources we now have, that it would be possible to have a winner and have an inauguration by the end of the month.

QUESTION: They already (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, but that’s – this is what I was saying, that yes, they committed to the auditing process, but at this point it’s more an issue of political will in getting it done than of resources. So now that we’ve got both parties as part of the audit and we’ve got the resources, that they’ve got to make the decision to help accelerate it. That means focusing in on the areas that could actually – that are most subject to the allegations of fraud, not getting held up for hours and hours on a single ballot box, and having to process work as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

MODERATOR: I think we have time for the last one. Go ahead. Last question, please.

QUESTION: Just to be clear, you’d like to see the inauguration taking place by the end of this month?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We would like to see the inauguration ideally by the end of the month before the NATO summit, which is a few days into September.

MODERATOR: All right. Thanks, everyone.