Background Briefing on Afghanistan

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Official
Washington, DC
April 4, 2016


MODERATOR: So just to introduce and get this ball rolling, obviously, we’re joined by [Senior State Department Official]. And obviously, all of this is on background, so [Senior State Department Official] will be henceforth known as a senior Administration – or a senior State Department official.

Thanks to all of you for joining us today. We – just talking back and forth about how to conduct this briefing, because obviously a portion of it or a large portion of it will be embargoed, since we’re talking about the Secretary’s trip and the Secretary’s participation, rather, and his travel to Kabul to co-chair the bilateral commission, obviously with Foreign Minister Rabbani, on April 9th. But all references to his participation and his travel will be embargoed until he’s wheels down on Friday.

That said, if there’s a way to somehow frame or do a portion of it on background now that doesn’t talk specifically about that trip and his participation, we can do that. I don’t know, what is most convenient for you guys?

QUESTION: I think we should just embargo (inaudible).

MODERATOR: Embargo the whole thing? Fine by me.

QUESTION: I defer to everyone, but I’m not going to write about it until we get – I’m not putting (inaudible).

MODERATOR: Perfect. That’s perfect. Then let’s just do that, then.

QUESTION: Let’s just embargo the whole thing.

MODERATOR: That’s – it’s easier for everybody. That’s helpful. Thanks, guys.

QUESTION: Until Friday, right?

QUESTION: Until wheels down.

MODERATOR: Until wheels down --

QUESTION: Until wheels down.

QUESTION: Wheels down, as soon as we land, we’re okay?

QUESTION: Plenty of time for a transcript.

MODERATOR: I know, right? Exactly. Sorry. (Laughter.)

STAFF: Yeah, we’ll definitely take a transcript.

MODERATOR: All right, great. Well, then, without further ado, I will hand it over to our senior Administration – or senior State Department official here.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Why don’t I open it up to your comments.

QUESTION: Can I ask two quick things?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: One, if the Administration were to make a decision not to decrease the number of U.S. troops from 9,800 at the end of the year, when would it have to make that judgment?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the President’s policy is clear that there will be a transition from 9,800 to 5,500, and 5,500 will be the level by the beginning of next year.

QUESTION: So there’s no possibility – I mean, as you know, there have been multiple decisions under which more troops have been kept for longer than had previously been stated and announced at the President’s policy. Are you saying there’s no possibility that you might choose not to make that drawdown?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I’m saying the President’s policy is very clear, yeah, that it’s 9,800 through this fighting season and 5,500 by the beginning of next year.

QUESTION: And do you have a sense of – because it takes time to move numbers of troops out – when you have to start beginning that drawdown to achieve it by the end of the year?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, that’s a question you’d really have to ask General Nicholson and my DOD colleagues in terms of the actual logistics of the move. But I would just say that we accomplished a very large retrograde operation several years ago to bring out combat forces by the end of 2014, so I don’t think that the logistical challenges of moving out the numbers of troops that we’re talking about are huge.

QUESTION: One other one, if you – we could talk about the peace negotiations or lack thereof, I guess. What do you think are the chances that talks will get going again after the failure to happen earlier last month? Why should the Taliban be more willing to talk now when it’s had more successes and when the United States has been on a downward trajectory in terms of its force numbers? And how much does having China there help, or having China involved help?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. So first of all, the Quadrilateral process, which we – and the first thing to remember is that there were talks last summer at Murree between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, and this was highly significant. This was the first time that the Taliban had sat down with the Government of Afghanistan. So – and again, you will recall that that was disrupted with the revelation of the death of Mullah Omar.

So I think that – well, we rebuilt the quad process starting in the Heart of Asia Summit in December. The four countries came together – that is Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and China – to create the diplomatic framework and the conditions for negotiations. And we’ve met a number of times since then. Now, of course, this was without the Taliban, but we wanted to lay out terms of reference and a roadmap for peace and do everything possible to facilitate an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process and to test the proposition that the Taliban were prepared to come to the table.

The quad called for twice for the Taliban to come to the table, and the Taliban have not come to the table. We believe that it is still important to pursue a reconciliation process, that that is important for the ultimate settlement of the conflict within Afghanistan but also for regional stability.

You would have to ask the Taliban themselves why they would or would not come to the table, but there are a couple points that I would make. The first is that there – can only achieve international legitimacy by a negotiated process. In other words, the international community is not going to accept the Taliban unless and until they are prepared to negotiate with the legitimate Afghan Government. We do not believe that the Taliban are winning on the battlefield. They may well believe that themselves. We believe they have been resilient, but we also believe that the Afghan National Security Forces have been fighting very intensively since 2014, for more than a year had a half now, under their own leadership.

So we think there are – and then the other thing I would just suggest to you is that there are challenges within the Taliban movement. As I mentioned, there was the death of Mullah Omar, who was a very important figure and had led the Taliban throughout its existence, and I think that there are still challenges that they may face.

Finally, with regard to China, China’s role has been extremely constructive in the Quadrilateral process. They have been supportive of the broad principle of, on the one hand, encouraging the Taliban to come to the table to discuss what they would perceive as their grievances, but also in terms of using leverage and influence of all the parties to bring the Taliban to the table.

QUESTION: Could you talk a little bit about the successes and – like, a little bit more about their – the Taliban’s strength right now, what you’re really dealing with in terms of why there’s been so many questions about whether the U.S. should draw down, and also about the kind of resurgence of al-Qaida to some extent, if there is any? And ISIS – there’s a lot of talk about whether ISIS is trying to recruit and set up --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I would say for all of these things that there continue to be challenges to stability, and the important point is we recognize that we do not want to go back to the situation that existed in Afghanistan prior to 2001 in which there are ungoverned spaces that can be filled by a variety of different groups. And so to that end, that’s the reason for the President’s decision to first keep the 9,800 through this coming fighting season and then to have a residual presence of 5,500 that will – that is not on a specific timeline but that will be the level that will remain from the beginning of January of next year. And of course, it will be up to whatever incoming administration follows on to decide about any level – any changes to those missions.

These are decisions that have been welcomed by the Afghan Government and have been welcomed by our regional partners.

QUESTION: Yeah. No, I mean, in terms of – I was just putting that in context of why we’re talking about even whether they should be staying. But could you talk a little bit about – you said that you don’t think that they’re winning, but like, how strong does the insurgency continue to be? And about ISIS, is there – as you’re fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria and now Libya, whatever --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- if they’re kind of popping up in Afghanistan, that’s --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, look, I mean, 2015 was a challenging year for the Afghan Government and for the Afghan national defense and security forces. They faced challenges, obviously, in Kunduz, where the Taliban held Kunduz for a little more than a week, and they faced challenges in Helmand. But it’s important to note that, first of all, the Afghan Security Forces did recover Kunduz. And I think lessons have been learned from that exercise not just on the military side, where you’d really have to talk to my military colleagues to get the details of that, but on the civilian side, where President Ghani has put a much greater emphasis on subnational governments – in other words, provincial-level governments. And he has in place all of – the vast majority of the governors and lower-level officials with greater connectivity to Kabul, in recognition of some of the weaknesses that may have existed beforehand.

And he mentioned Daesh. There is concern – it would obviously not be prudent if weren’t vigilant about the emergence of Daesh in Afghanistan. But at the same time, our assessment is that this represents primarily a division within the Taliban. In other words, that there have been certain commanders, Taliban commanders, who have shifted allegiance from allegiance to Mullah Mansour, the head of the Taliban, to Daesh. So we think it’s primarily driven by internal considerations, and obviously the Government of Afghanistan and we are seized with it, and responding militarily as well as in terms of a broader coalition.

QUESTION: Many of the countries in Europe have complained that many of the refugees that have come have been not only from Syria but many have come from Afghanistan. Do you know if the Secretary is planning to separately raise this issue while he’s there and talk about efforts or one – some way to stem the tide before the big migration period sets in?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, so, first of all, since you mentioned Europe, I probably should have mentioned when I said it there are a couple things coming up in the international community that are worth highlighting. We’ll have the Warsaw summit, the NATO Summit, coming up in July which will address, as it always does and the NATO summits always do, questions related to Afghan forces and the sustainment of Afghan forces going forward. And then we have in October the Brussels development conference hosted by the EU, which will address questions related to Afghanistan’s development.

Obviously, we have taken note of our European friends’ concern about the Afghan refugees. Now, it’s not very clear to us exactly the – and I think perhaps to Europeans as well, how many of these Afghans are actually coming from Afghanistan as opposed to coming from other countries where they may have been. So there are some questions just about the actual – the source issue. But in any case, we have been supportive and will continue to be supportive of the European diplomacy with the Afghan Government, and for addressing some of the causes of migration.

QUESTION: Will he be talking about foreign fighters returning to Afghanistan too?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Foreign fighters returning from?

QUESTION: Daesh-controlled territory. Aren’t there a fair number who went down to Syria or Iraq?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That – I have to say that has not emerged as an issue that we’re particularly tracking. I mean, we are tracking, of course, connections between Daesh in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Our sense is that, as I mentioned before, that Daesh in Afghanistan is primarily a phenomenon within the Taliban. So I have not seen anything to indicate there is this flow of foreign fighters, but obviously it would be something that we would need to be vigilant about.

QUESTION: I still don’t understand why – and forgive me if it’s an obtuse question, but when the United States had more forces in Afghanistan and was directly engaged in combat, though I realize there’s still the counterterrorism mission, it wasn’t possible to begin a sustained dialogue with the Taliban. And I just don’t – and I realize you said, well, you can ask the Taliban. But your understanding of why you think they are more likely to talk now than before. I mean, our – my colleagues in Afghanistan have quoted Taliban officials as saying, “We’re gearing up for the fighting season, we’re not really interested in talking,” and I realize you get lots of different views from lots of different people. But what makes you think that there is much hope for reconciliation talks now?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Well, two things. First of all, I did mention that there’s this question of international legitimacy.

QUESTION: Right.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And I think that that is important, perhaps – and we don’t know because unless and until an actual negotiating process begins, it’s very difficult to know what the Taliban actually seeks. So there’s an information gap here. But the other thing that I would point out – and I mean, that’s from the perspective of the international community, that the legitimacy can only accrue through some kind of negotiated outcome to the conflict. But the other thing that’s worth bearing in mind here is it’s important to look at the numbers. When we had, in 2010, 2011, 2012, we had 150,000 U.S. troops and somewhat more – and with our allies, a greater contribution, the Afghan forces at that point were nascent, and because of the train and advise and assist mission, had been built up to a level of 352,000.

So the Afghans actually are – and they are a potent fighting force and they have fought courageously. They have challenges still in terms of certain support functions; we’re working on those. We’re working with the Afghans on, for instance, airpower and other enablers. And that’s why we have to continue the train, advise and assist mission.

But they are now facing an army – the Taliban are facing an army that is larger than the army they faced when they were fighting against the coalition.

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: Could you – what about politically? I mean, how big – I mean, obviously, the death of Mullah Omar was big, but in terms of their kind of political cohesiveness, the divisions between the old guard – like, when he died, there was a lot of talk about divisions between the kind of senior leadership, the older guys, and the kind of rank and file fighters.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Where does that stand and how does that --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well --

QUESTION: -- do you think affect what we’re talking about in terms of why they might --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. First of all, let’s be clear that it’s not – this is not very transparent stuff, and it’s hard to know definitively what is going on within the Taliban movement. But there have been a variety of indications since last summer of certain factions splitting away. There has been fighting between certain elements of the Taliban, between certain commanders. And so --

QUESTION: And that led some of them to join Daesh?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And there has also been some commanders breaking away and joining Daesh. So what this suggests to us is that there may in fact be an opportunity for coming to the table and talking to the Afghan Government, and we want to encourage that. At the end of the day, what we are trying to do and what I think the international community – at least as represented by the Quad with endorsement of the International Contact Group and other bodies – is trying to do is create the conditions so that there is a venue and there is a modality for talks if the Taliban exercise the opportunity.

QUESTION: So just if I hear you, what you’re saying, do you think the fact that these – some of these commanders have split, you see, like, the kind of more center political leadership thinking that it’s slipping away and that maybe they better make a deal now before it all crumbles? Is that how you’re seeing it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, this --

QUESTION: Or that the – or that these rogue people are going to go off the reservation and they just can’t keep control of it? Is that --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I – look, I can’t sit here and speak for what the Taliban are thinking. We’re --

QUESTION: I’m just asking you to try and --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re creating the opportunities. What we can control is the ability to create the space for an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process, and we believe that that is the way forward and that is the best way to resolve not just the last 15 years, but in some ways 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: What about the flip side of that question, if there are indications of division within the Taliban that some segments are moving away, maybe affiliating with Daesh? Does that in essence complicate your job with unity and reconciliation in the fact – in the – since that when you speak of talks with the Taliban you’re no longer talking about a group, you’re talking about a group in which some portions of it or some members of it may not recognize or respect the central leadership anymore?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, again, these are questions about the internal dynamics of the Taliban which are very hard for us to sort out. I would say that there is still – we think that the bulk of the Taliban continue and the fighters continue to swear allegiance to Mullah Mansour, and so we are setting the conditions so that if they make the decision, they can come to the table.

Now – and we have no preconditions for getting into discussions with the Taliban, but I would make clear that we are not talking about having any kind of discussions with – obviously, with Daesh in Afghanistan or anywhere else.

QUESTION: Not yet.

QUESTION: I realize you can’t get into the heads of the Taliban, but you said earlier that at least some members of the Taliban may believe that they are doing well on the battlefield. Is there anything going on that would give them reason to be heartened?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Anything for – to be heartened about?

QUESTION: Like, why would they be confident – why would anyone be confident – given the bleak prospects that you describe, why would any of them be confident that they’re doing well on the battlefield, as you said earlier?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I’m not sure how I can answer why the Taliban would be optimistic about – that – you would have to ask them.

QUESTION: But we don’t --

QUESTION: Why – what are some of their vulnerabilities?

QUESTION: -- understand the strategy. Here’s the basic --

QUESTION: What are some of the Afghan ANF’s vulnerabilities, as you see it, that perhaps provide an opening for the Taliban during the fighting season?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I’m not here to talk about any Afghan National Security Forces’ vulnerabilities. I mean, they have faced some challenges over the last year, but our belief is that the ANSF has demonstrated a willingness to fight and, indeed, has fought pretty courageously and has been able to retake Kunduz and has been able to continue to hold Helmand despite being under some real challenges from the Taliban. And the Taliban, I think, gave last year – took their best shot at the Afghan National Security Forces and Afghanistan and – has helped. And the Government of Afghanistan continues to control not only Kabul but all the major cities and the linking Ring Road. So --

MODERATOR: A couple more questions, please.

QUESTION: I think we’re not asking --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Well, I didn’t ask anything. But I think no one’s asking about why the Taliban, from the Taliban’s point of view, wants to talk. It’s what – why is your strategy focused on this, and what’s different from the last seven years when we’ve always heard about these wonderful panacea of peace talks that were going to happen and solve everything, and nothing ever happens. And then we hear new reasons why they’re going to happen and then it doesn’t happen. Then more new reasons and then less troops and less control.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think that reconciliation is – has been one of the President’s pillars that he’s identified – I believe he did at the Bagram speech in May of 2012 – one of the five lines of effort for Afghanistan. There was – there have been, it is fair to say, ups and downs in the pursuit of a reconciliation process, and I don’t think anyone would deny that. But the fact is that the Taliban did sit down last summer for the first time with the Government of Afghanistan in Murree. And you will recall that prior to that time the Taliban had rejected the concept of ever sitting down with the Government of Afghanistan. So we took that as a sign that perhaps there was some change in thinking and perhaps some change in the regional dimension as well. And so we have pursued this.

I think anyone who works on reconciliation always has their optimism tempered by caution given the history of it, so none of us are talking about panaceas, but we are talking about the fundamental strategic importance of having a peace settlement as a process that we are driving towards.

QUESTION: Is the political office of the – the status of the Taliban’s political office still a hindrance?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the – that is something that I am sure that the Taliban would want to raise were a formal process to begin, but that would have to wait for the beginning of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process. That would be one of the questions that we addressed.

QUESTION: Thank you.