Background Briefing on High-Level Event on Afghanistan
MODERATOR: Everyone, thanks for joining us. We have with us today [Senior State Department Official], who is here to talk about the just-concluded High-Level Event on Afghanistan which comprised the U.S., China, and Afghanistan. [Senior State Department Official] can give more details on that, as well as all things Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Just a reminder this is an on-backgrounder interview – or an on-background event. So what that, I’ll hand it over to you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great, thank you. I’ll just say a few words about the event and then happy to take any questions you have. This event was co-chaired by the United States, China, and Afghanistan jointly, and it brought together a group of foreign ministers and other senior officials from Afghanistan’s neighbors, the broader region, the key donors to Afghanistan, as well as the members – the permanent members of the Security Council. And the event, I think, really clearly demonstrated both in the collection of people who were there, the number of foreign ministers who participated, and in the statements that were made the strength of – the continuing strength of international support for and interest in Afghanistan amid all the other foreign policy priorities that have emerged around the world over the last 14 years since initial commitments to Afghanistan were made.
It also illustrated that there is a continuing consensus in the international community that a stable and peaceful and increasingly prosperous Afghanistan is in all of our collective interests and that we shouldn’t lose focus on these objectives. And there were a number of statements made by the participants about their own countries’ continuing interest in Afghanistan, continuing financial and political commitment to Afghanistan, and also the fact that we need to keep this on the – very prominently on the international agenda.
The event also demonstrated the keen interest that both the United States and China share in working together in support of Afghanistan. As the Secretary said at the event, Secretary Kerry said, there’s really no problem around the world that can’t be better addressed by the U.S. and China working together to solve it. And we have over a number of years nurtured a dialogue with China about Afghanistan and also developed some – rather unusual for our two countries – actual cooperative programs in support of development in Afghanistan. And that’s something that we will continue to pursue and we believe the Chinese are interested in continuing to pursue as well.
And finally, I want to note one of the themes that both that Secretary Kerry underscored, but also that I think virtually every participant in the meeting underscored as well, and that is the strong support that we all have for the Afghan Government in its effort to seek to establish a peace process. There were quite a few participants who made the explicit point that this is the – that a peace process will be the surest way to end the violence in Afghanistan and achieve lasting stability. And we have consistently called on all militant groups in Afghanistan to enter into direct talks with the Afghan Government, and that was a theme that was reinforced by all of the speakers at today’s event.
So I think I’ll leave it there, and happy to take any questions that you have.
MODERATOR: Go ahead, Arshad.
QUESTION: When do you expect the President to make a decision on what kind of force level to keep in Afghanistan past the end of this year, and specifically on whether to keep Jalalabad and Kandahar open and operating for activities beyond just counterterrorism?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, as you know, the President decided earlier this year to extend the presence of about 9,800 troops through the end of this year. As yet there is no change to that decision, and you’ll have to ask the White House.
QUESTION: Do you know when a decision might come on that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s something you’ll have to ask the White House.
MODERATOR: Great. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. You have said sort of in several ways that many of the participants called for support for Afghanistan to continue. It sounds like there is sort of a thread of concern that it might be ebbing or that people might be distracted by other foreign policy priorities. And I’m wondering if that’s the case, if there’s some concern about engagement and support, financial support, for efforts in Afghanistan now.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Actually, I would say to the contrary; I think there had been in recent years an assumption that there would be so-called donor fatigue about Afghanistan because of the length of international engagement there. And in fact, the international support, both financial and political and in terms of security, continues to be, I think, much more robust than many would have thought that it would be at this stage in 2015. I think there is a generally held view among the key supporters of Afghanistan that we shouldn’t lose focus, that we should work to make sure that the significant investment that we’ve all made in Afghanistan is converted into sustainable gains, and that there’s still opportunity in Afghanistan and we have to continue to preserve the space for opportunity for Afghanistan to achieve a durable stability.
QUESTION: Can I ask, were there any – apart from just saying go Afghanistan reconciliation, was there any kind of tangible – pledge of tangible support for the reconciliation process from anyone who was there?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: For the reconciliation process?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There were --
QUESTION: Or for Afghanistan itself. Or – it just seems to me --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, there was --
QUESTION: I mean, I’m not – it just seems to me this was kind of a let’s pat ourselves on the back kind of meeting about how we all support Afghanistan and support the reconciliation process, but nothing new was announced in terms of --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right.
QUESTION: Is that correct, or no?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I would it’s not a patting ourselves on the back. I would say it’s a mutual reinforcement of where we all are in terms of the level of attention that we’re paying to Afghanistan and how we still see our interests individually and collectively in Afghanistan. And I think it’s also – I mean, just to go back to my answer to the previous question, I think the fact that this group of people came together and for the purpose of mutually reinforcing commitment to Afghanistan is a way of signaling to the broader international community where Afghanistan stands in terms of international priorities – again, at a time when some might have thought that interest in Afghanistan would be waning more than it is.
And I think it was a sort of mutual encouragement to continue to take the steps that we can all take to try to work towards the goals that have been set out. So I don’t think it was a sort of self-congratulation as it was a kind of agenda setting for all of us looking forward. What are the actions that we individually and collectively as countries that have interests in Afghanistan need to take to help the Afghans move forward? And in that sense of looking at this as a kind of confirming what the agenda is for moving ahead, it was made clear by all of the participants that reconciliation, establishing a peace process, is very much at the forefront of the agenda.
I don’t think we or others were looking for some specific commitments of support, but the fact that you had around this table the Chinese foreign minister, the Pakistani national security advisor, the Turkish deputy prime minister, the Iranian foreign minister all talking about – and others, but just to give a few examples – all talking about the importance that they accord to supporting peace and reconciliation is significant.
QUESTION: Right. But the agenda that you talked about, the steps going forward, they’re the same as they were yesterday or last week. There isn’t any change of focus coming out of this meeting, or is there?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There isn’t a change of focus, but I would say there was a reinforcement and underscoring of what the focus is and of the intentions of countries that have the capability to affect events in Afghanistan to work towards those goals. In terms of tangible pledges, this was not the opportunity for that, but there will be opportunities coming up. There are two important donor conferences that are going to be held next year. Those were referenced at the event.
At the NATO Warsaw Summit, on the margins of that there will be pledging for continued support for the Afghan Security Forces – financial support. And then the European Union recently agreed to host a donors’ conference for development assistance that will be later in 2016 in Brussels.
MODERATOR: All right. Pam, go ahead.
QUESTION: How high is the level of U.S. concern about external security threats to Afghanistan? And in particular, I’m referring to a UN report that came out this week. It talked about – excuse me – a growing number of Islamic State-related recruiters and sympathizers taking root in Afghanistan in about three-quarters of the provinces, and it said that there were militants from Iraq and Syria with the Islamic State – at least 70 – who had taken root in Afghanistan and started a branch there. How big of a concern is this to U.S. officials that this could be a setback to some of the progress that you’ve made there?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can’t comment on the UN support specifically – the UN report, rather, because I haven’t read the report, though I did see some press reporting of it. But in terms of the – in terms of our views on this issue, we are concerned that there is an effort on the part of ISIL to establish a presence in Afghanistan. That is something that we are watching very closely. That is something that we are factoring into our own planning in various ways and factoring into the ways in which we engage with the Afghan Government and support their efforts to improve their own security capabilities.
I would say it is not apparent as yet that this – that the presence, such as it exists today, has significantly affected the dynamics on the battlefield. But it is a newly emerging threat; it is, I think, unpredictable as yet how it might evolve. And so it’s something that we are taking seriously.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? So lots of groups have tried to establish a presence in Afghanistan without success. Is ISIL the type of group that you believe could establish a significant presence in Afghanistan? Is that country vulnerable in that way? I mean, would they – do you think they would be susceptible in general to large establishments of this group in Afghanistan? Or is it the type of group that would be rejected for one reason or another?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s a difficult question to answer. At the moment there are a variety of views among a variety of experts about the extent to which there are, if you will, barriers to entry for ISIL to gain a real foothold in Afghanistan or the extent to which they may be able to do so. And I think it – it’s something we’re going to see – have to see how these efforts evolve. There – as I said, I think I would say I personally regard this as unpredictable at the moment, because it’s not yet clear how those that are associating themselves with ISIL are doing so opportunistically or how – or to what extent they are truly adopting the ISIL ideology. And it’s not apparent yet how those who are trying – who are behind the efforts to gain a foothold in Afghanistan are adapting their approaches to try to fit the Afghan environment.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Any other questions?
MODERATOR: Thank you, yeah.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thanks so much for doing this.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure.