Remarks at Istanbul Conference for Afghanistan

William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary
Istanbul, Turkey
November 2, 2011

Thank you, Foreign Minister Davotoglu, for welcoming us even as your country recovers from tragedy. On behalf of President Obama and the American people, I want to offer my sympathies to the Turkish people.

Secretary Clinton regrets that she could not be here today. She is a strong supporter of this conference. I also want to thank President Karzai and Foreign Minister Rassoul for their efforts. Afghanistan has begun an ambitious transition to take responsibility for its security, pursue reconciliation, and plan for its economic future. Foreign Minister Rassoul: as you meet the challenges ahead, the nations here today are committing to stand with you. The United States continues to sacrifice a great deal for Afghanistan’s future. Just last week, nine brave Americans were killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul. We are heavily invested in regional security and deeper cooperation in the heart of Asia. And we are committed to see you succeed.

The challenges that bring all of us here today are no secret. And it’s not just Afghanistan. Instability, extremism, and violence that spill across borders. Too much trafficking, too little trade, and too many people living in poverty. And yet, all too often, instead of working to solve problems together, countries act in ways that make their neighbors’ problems worse.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You can and must find a better way forward, just as other regions have. Forty years ago, Southeast Asia was also the site of entrenched poverty, deep divisions, and ongoing conflict. But its countries resolved their differences, opened their markets and created regional institutions to preserve peace and security together. There are still great challenges. But for the most part, the people of Southeast Asia now live in peace and security in one of the fastest-growing regions in the world. No one should doubt that this is possible in your region as well—but only if the countries here today make a decision to secure your mutual interests by working together.

This conference is a step in the right direction. It is the first to include the near-neighbors in this particular grouping—one designed to complement, not replace, existing organizations. And the agreement reached here is one America fully supports. This is the most important update of the Principles of Good Neighborly Relations since 2002; it is the first clear, region-wide statement of support for Afghanistan in this time of transition and reconciliation; and it marks the first time—in one room, with one voice—that the countries of the region pledge to cooperate to build a more stable, prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan embedded in a stable, prosperous, and peaceful region. The great diligence with which your countries approached reaching agreement on the Istanbul process is a mark of the importance of the idea.

I am especially encouraged to note that every country here has committed to stand behind an Afghan-led process of reconciliation. While outsiders cannot impose a solution, we should facilitate contact and provide support. Together, we have to be clear about what negotiations must produce. Insurgents must renounce violence, abandon al-Qaida, and accept Afghanistan’s constitution—including the hard-won rights of women and minorities. Those who want to contribute to Afghanistan’s future should be encouraged to accept these terms as the necessary outcomes of any negotiation. And let me add that reconciliation must be a society-wide process, with civil society and Afghan women involved at every point.

For this shared political agenda to succeed, Afghans of all backgrounds must be able to envision a more prosperous future. People need something to say yes to. Across the region, lasting stability and security will depend on greater economic opportunities in people’s lives. And that depends on greater economic cooperation among the countries in this room.

I am encouraged to see that the Istanbul Process includes so many ideas about regional economic growth and integration. Many of the ideas our countries discussed under the co-chairmanship of Foreign Minister Rassoul, Foreign Minister Westerwelle, and Secretary Clinton at the New Silk Road meeting in New York this September are already becoming regional commitments through the Istanbul Process.

We are clear-eyed about the time it will take to realize this New Silk Road vision, and the roadblocks that lie ahead. But even incremental steps toward this vision can help Afghanistan stabilize its economy in a period of transition. The run-up to 2014 is a critical window to help Afghans lay the foundation for sustainable economic growth. Every country here can contribute. Coalition partners can commit to reinvest their “transition dividend” into continued support for Afghanistan. Neighbors can allow Afghan goods to move more easily across your borders. The Afghan government can work to create an environment that attracts and protects investment. And every country in the region can renew its efforts to take on corruption.

Today we have heard the right words from many participants. But if they are just words, then we will be no safer and no better off. Some countries have made these commitments before. We are hoping that, after agreeing to concrete and measurable steps forward and a process for continued dialogue, countries will stick to their word.

Next month, the international community will meet in Bonn. Let’s commit today to have new results to show by then. The work ahead will be difficult. But there is no sustainable alternative to cooperation, no substitute for shared resolve and absolutely no reason you cannot succeed together. And if you do, you will deliver a better future for Afghanistan and for yourselves. Thank you.