Background Briefing: Senior Administration Officials On High-Level Afghanistan Dialogue

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Camp David
March 23, 2015


MODERATOR: (In progress) an opportunity to talk about some of the deliverables and pieces they’re discussing that you may not be focused on that Secretary Carter and Secretary Kerry will talk about in their remarks, just so you have an understanding of it before the avail. They’ll obviously do an avail. We’re going to keep this short because we have to get back to the meetings, but that’s why we’re here.

So many of you know [Senior Administration Official One], and [Senior Administration Official One] is just going to go through them and then we’ll take a few questions, and then we’ll all proceed forward to the press avail (inaudible).

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Sure, okay. Thanks, [Moderator], very much for bringing it together. We want – I want to do this quickly because over the course of several days there are going to be deliverables announced. I think you’ll get them all as a package tomorrow, but given that there are a group of them that are being announced in various ways today, we thought it was worthwhile just to lay them out for you and see if you’ve got questions. I’ll be blunt with you upfront: Some of these I’m better able to answer detailed questions on than others, but at least I can point you in the direction of who to talk to.

So there are really five things that are going to be announced today. The first two I would really describe as part and parcel of what we’ve talked about before as kind of the restarting of the bilateral relationship following the elections last year, the inauguration of the government of national unity, the signing of the BSA – sorry, the ratification of the BSA, et cetera.

So the first of those is that we are going to restart the Bilateral Commission. The Bilateral Commission is a diplomatic coordination mechanism at the foreign ministerial level that’s called for in the Strategic Partnership Agreement. It was intended to meet twice a year but it has not met since May 2013, and we are going to announce that it will resume meeting this year and Secretary Kerry will travel to Kabul for its first resumed meeting sometime later this year.

And then the second in a similar spirit is the Security Consultative Forum, and let me turn to [Senior Administration Official Two], who I guess can be identified the same way, who can say – speak more to that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. So the Security Consultative Forum is similar – it’s sort of a sub-element of the Bilateral Commission. It’s our bilateral defense – it’s our key bilateral defense forum that we engage with – in with the Afghans. I think the last time we did it was April of 2012 when Secretary Panetta was here. And as a sign of sort of getting the relationship on track and normalizing that relationship, we’re going to restart this forum. It’s a forum similar to what we do with various partners around the world. So we’re pretty excited about the opportunity to just have a ministerial level secretary of defense to minister of the interior/minister of defense meeting at their level to talk about some of the key issues in our defense relationship.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: And I guess what I would say just about these two fora together is that, exactly as [Senior Administration Official Two] said, these are the kinds of things we do with close partners around the world. We’re really pleased to be back in a place with the Government of Afghanistan where we can start this kind of very regular senior-level coordination. And speaking for myself just on the basis of today’s meetings, these meetings have been extremely substantive; they’ve been extremely collegial and extremely forthright. And so creating regular opportunities for the ministerial-level engagement to continue what we started here I think is something that we’re all very pleased about.

So those are the first two of the deliverables that are going to be announced today. The next one, also we’re going to turn to [Senior Administration Official Two] to talk about the – where we are in terms of support for the current size of the ANSF.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. So the Secretary intends to announce the – our intent – our department’s intent to seek from Congress in Fiscal Year ’17 funding that will sustain the ANSF at the 352,000 level. We’re going to do that at least through – through 2017, and then use – it connects back to the SCF because we’ll use that forum as a way to revisit that force level over time in consultation with the Afghans and figure out sort of the long-term plan for that force.

We’ve done analysis in consultation with the Afghans, and it’s clear that the 352,000 surge force that was – that has been in place since at least 2012 is the appropriate level to maintain for now. And then we’re going to work our way to sort of a more sustainable structure over time.

QUESTION: And what’s the price tag on that for the U.S.?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, right now we don’t know. I mean, for FY16 it was a 3.8 billion; for FY15 it was a 4.1 billion price tag. So it’s getting more efficient and we’d like to see it get more and more efficient over time. That’s a key element of our workout forward is to find the efficiencies in that size force and make sure that it’s sort of effectively used against an insurgency. But – so we don’t know what that funding level will be, but it’s something that we look at very thoroughly.

QUESTION: And aren’t some --

QUESTION: Given that the Afghan military – they never reached that number --

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- and they’re far below it now, (inaudible) to try and monitor that and get to it? Why are we spending the full amount on a figure – and just a whole lot of questions about that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, so I mean, there are sort of fits and starts in terms of the cycle of the fill for – the fill rate for the ANSF. I – I mean – acknowledge that they’re below that level now by about – I mean, I think they’re at about 330.

QUESTION: They’ve never achieved (inaudible).

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Fair point. But – so one of the key elements that we’re working on now in terms of systems and processes is making sure that our recruitment targets and the Afghan recruitment targets are set against the kind of attrition rate that they’re dealing with. And so that attrition rate is something that we monitor very closely, we recognize as something that we’ve got to get to a reasonable place. And a key part of that attrition story is going to be the recruitment story as well. And I know General Campbell and President Ghani and others have been working hard on that over the last several months.

QUESTION: Could you say that --

QUESTION: Can we stay on --

MODERATOR: Let’s get through the five, if that’s okay, and then we’ll do questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: And if I could also just quickly add to what [Senior Administration Official Two] said, two additional points. One is that the Afghans are increasing their monthly or quarterly basic training passing capacity. So that’s one way to address this. And then the other thing I would add is that it’s not – this is not a cash disbursement to the Afghans. So it’s not – if they don’t meet the targets then we’re not spending the same amount of money, right. So the – it’s – the budget’s there, but if the salaries aren’t paid they don’t (inaudible).

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: That’s right.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. The fourth of the five deliverables for today is going to be an agreement that’s being signed right now between Secretary of the Treasury Lew and Minister Hakimi, Minister of Finance Hakimi, on technical assistance for the ministry of finance. This is a – you can see this as both part and parcel of and also a result of the generally positive theme that we’ve seen in the fiscal and financial reforms that President Ghani has put in place. So this starts almost on day one with the reopening of the Kabul Bank investigation. It continues through his extremely quick work on the FATF, the Financial Action Task Force issues that were identified last summer and were corrected by him in his first weeks in office; and continues through to his work with – the current work on getting a staff monitoring program from the IMF.

So this is just – again, it’s a demonstration of but it’s also a facilitation of an improved partnership – U.S.-Afghanistan, international community-Afghanistan – on some of – really most – some of the most critical issues in terms of financial management, budget support, and these kinds of things. It is also one of the areas where I have the least expertise, so please don’t ask questions, but --

QUESTION: Is there a money total on that?

MODERATOR: Let’s just – do we have one more and then --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: It’s technical assistance to the ministry. It’s actually people.

QUESTION: Okay.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. And then the last – and this is I think in some respects the biggest thing that’s going to be announced today, is what we’re calling the New Development Partnership. The New Development Partnership is up to $800 million of existing or requested U.S. funding, which is a joint effort to support Afghan Government initiatives to find solutions to Afghanistan’s development channels. It’s going to disburse funding over the next several years based on the Afghan Government’s achievement of agreed-upon development and policy reform milestones.

And so to be clear, this is money that we either have budgeted or have requested already; it’s not new money. But we are taking it and directing it to be incentive-based to drive support for the reform agenda that President Ghani himself has already laid out. Now, many of you know there are, of course, already incentive programs with the United States and other international community incentive programs for the Government of Afghanistan. There are a few things I would identify about this one. First of all, it’s really big. Second of all, the – what we intend in consultation with the Government of Afghanistan is that the milestones here are not going to be short-term, check the box, do this thing, make this reform. We’re talking about more substantial reforms or development outcomes that will be required in order to release tranches of this funding.

And then the last thing that I would say about this, why it’s important and why it’s different from what’s done before, and this is I think really fascinating, is that this is an initiative of the Government of Afghanistan. So this is a government that has come to us and said, “We would like you to link a large portion of our coming assistance to specific incentives.” So they are asking for our help essentially to incentivize their reform program. And I think that’s a really big deal; it’s a really interesting thing for us and exciting I think in terms of, again, demonstrating the very unique and new way that President Ghani is approaching the challenges Afghanistan is facing.

I think I didn’t say, and I’m going to say now, that this money will go – as it is released, it’ll go through the ARTF. So we have very strong oversight and accountability mechanisms in place in order to be able to move the money through to the Afghans.

MODERATOR: Okay. Questions?

QUESTION: How does that program compare to ones in the past as far as incentive goes? I mean, the 800 million obviously is a big number. Is this leaps and bounds above anything you’ve done as far as those go?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I mean, our previous incentive funding has been more on the order of, like, a hundred million. So this is big.

QUESTION: Considering that funding for the Afghan Security Forces through FY17 suggests that you would need trainers on the ground through the end of FY17 to go along with that money, what along those lines has been discussed between Secretary Carter and the Afghan Government during this visit so far?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, on that, I think that we’ve always thought about continuing our funding for the ANSF over time, even when we’re consolidating to a Kabul-based presence. I mean, that Kabul-based presence will continue a military footprint that does ministerial-level advising, that does security assistance. And so I don’t think it actually necessarily implies anything about that presence.

QUESTION: On the first point, (inaudible) 2013, is that when (inaudible) signed it at the meeting? That would have been when it was signed.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: No, we have met since – there’s been more than one meeting.

QUESTION: The fora --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: The – and the Bilateral Commission.

QUESTION: Yeah, (inaudible) afterwards.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’ll get back to you, but I’m pretty sure it was once after it was signed.

QUESTION: Can you clarify one point about the ANSF? You will – well, the Administration will seek this funding from Congress to maintain at this level starting next year, or what’s the timeframe for that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So we’re going to continue to seek funding for the level that we’re at now at least through FY17. So our ’16 request is in at this level; our ’17 request will sustain that level.

QUESTION: Okay.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: We don’t know how much the money will be, but we expect it to be about – around the same amount as we have for our ’16 request.

QUESTION: You estimated 330,000 ANSF?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, I don’t have the perfect number, but I know that the actual force level right now – which, by the way, is sort of at the end of the winter season – is lower than the 352. I don’t know exactly --

QUESTION: And why only through 2017? Why not further out or why not indefinitely?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I mean, it’s at least through ’17. I think that if you look at some of our NATO partners and their contributions to the ANSF, their contributions are right now through ’17. This aligns us with them, and then we can move forward together to figure out as part of the international community in partnership with the Afghans what the appropriate funding level for the overall force should be over time.

QUESTION: Anything on the troops level? Any changes from the U.S. perspective?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So nothing about that today. There will be a discussion between the presidents tomorrow about the drawdown schedule and other aspects of the security partnership, so I would just encourage you to hear what comes out of the White House tomorrow.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: What has been Secretary Carter’s role in the discussions today? What has he participated in, or anything that he signed?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Secretary Carter led the security session that started off the day at Camp David. He led the session, he sort of convened the forum, but I would say that one of the things that we were very encouraged by was the forum actually started out with President Ghani and CEO Abdullah and his key security advisors giving Secretary Carter and other principals a briefing about their vision of the security situation in Afghanistan and what the Afghans are going to do for that security situation now that they really wholly own that fight.

The rest of the discussion was about how we as the United States can continue to enable the Afghans in that fight. And Secretary Carter discussed things like the 352k force size, the SCF as our bilateral forum, the various enablers that we are looking to field for the Afghans over time so they reduce their dependency on us and become an increasingly independent force. So it was actually a really encouraging discussion.

QUESTION: Did U.S. troop levels come up in their discussions even though there won’t be a deliverable today on that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I would say that we didn’t hear anything new from President Ghani or any of the other – our other Afghan counterparts in this discussion. I mean, we all know the – his interest in having a conversation, but I think that the real details will happen --

QUESTION: But he did --

QUESTION: It probably came up --

QUESTION: There was a session today on reconciliation. What – was there any talk about the peace process?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: There was a session on regional issues, and there was some talk in that context about the continuing U.S. support for an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process. There was a --

QUESTION: And what (inaudible)?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m not going to get into the details about that, but yes, there was some discussion between Secretary Kerry and President Ghani on (inaudible).

QUESTION: I’m sorry, could you clarify --

MODERATOR: (Inaudible) few more minutes left --

QUESTION: But he interrupted [Senior Administration Official Two]’s answer on that. I wanted to make sure. So in other words, President Ghani during discussion today did repeat what he had said before; he just didn’t say anything new. Is that what you’re saying?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s fair. We didn’t hear anything new from him.

QUESTION: Okay. But there were discussions about it. That’s all.

QUESTION: On the 800 million, give us an example. What kinds of initiatives can that fund? You’re talking about economic reforms? What are we talking about?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So I think it’s important to keep in mind there’re kind of two halves to this equation, right. On the one hand, there are what kind of reforms or development objectives can be set in order to release tranches of the money. And I’m reluctant to give you too many examples of that, because that’s something we need to negotiate with the Government of Afghanistan. But essentially, we’re talking about either systemic reforms or successful achievement of set development objectives.

And then on the other hand, there’s what does the money go to. And what the money goes to is supporting Government of Afghanistan priorities through the ARTF. So this is one of their preferred mechanisms for receiving support. So in both of these – on both of these sides, there’s a lot of room for us to now and in the future be working with the Government of Afghanistan to identify what are the right targets and then what are the –

QUESTION: So almost anything. It can go for almost anything.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: It can go for almost anything. But the idea that you’ve got this incentivized pot of money is the – and that when the money is then released, it goes through the ARTF – that’s where the – that’s where it matters.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) how much is currently in the ARTF? Do you know? From all the different donors.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: From all the donors? I’d have to get you that.

QUESTION: Yeah, but do you have a ballpark figure?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m reluctant, but we’ll get it to you.

QUESTION: All right. Thanks.

QUESTION: Did the Afghan Government ask for military equipment, particularly (inaudible) in the security session?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I’m not aware of any new requests in terms of equipment. I mean, I think that our strategy has been through 2014 to build the force. Now it’s about making that force as efficient and as capable as possible. So the train, advise, assist mission is really focused on that piece of the mission. The building the force piece is largely complete.

QUESTION: Has Pakistan been brought up --

MODERATOR: We’re going to have to wrap this up, so this is going to have to be the last one, but --

QUESTION: Okay. Pakistan came up in the sessions about peace process and whether or not the Afghan Government was satisfied with what Pakistan has been trying to do in bringing the Taliban into negotiations (inaudible)?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m not going to comment on anything that has been said about another country.

MODERATOR: Okay. Last --

QUESTION: This is embargoed until --

MODERATOR: This is embargoed – let’s do it – thank you for reminding me of this. Let’s do an embargo until the start of the avail. Does that work for you guys?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: Start of the avail. This is what they’ll be announcing in the avail in terms of the specifics, and we just wanted you all to have an understanding.

QUESTION: But was Pakistan discussed during the talks today?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m not going to get into the details of the regional session.

MODERATOR: Okay, thanks, everyone. Just as a reminder for those who came later, this is for attribution to Senior Administration Officials, okay? Okay, thanks, everyone.