Afghanistan Media Roundtable

William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary of State
Kabul, Afghanistan
May 12, 2013

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you very much and good morning. I’m very glad to be back in Kabul.

I was especially pleased yesterday to co-chair the second session of the U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Commission, which is an important mechanism for translating the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed by our two countries last year into practical actions.

I was also grateful for the opportunity to meet yesterday with President Karzai, with whom I had a very constructive discussion. I emphasized to President Karzai, and I want to reemphasize here that the United States remains strongly committed to an enduring partnership with Afghanistan. We continue to demonstrate that commitment in many ways, from the crucial security and economic pledges made in Chicago and Tokyo to the steady progress we are making in negotiations on a Bilateral Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement.

I appreciate very much the exceptional efforts of Foreign Minister Rassoul and Deputy Foreign Minister Ludin, and all their colleagues on the Afghan side of the Bilateral Commission.

We heard reports from the co-chairs of the four working groups which have been formed and which will continue to meet and make practical progress throughout the coming year. We can be proud of the accomplishments we’ve made together since the first meeting of the Bilateral Commission last year, including: the transfer on March 25th of the Detention Facility to Afghan sovereign control; the Independent Election Commission’s announcement of a comprehensive elections timeline; the January 11th Joint Statement by Presidents Obama and Karzai in support of the possible opening of an office in Doha for the purpose of direct contacts between the High Peace Council and authorized representatives of the Taliban; and implementation of the U.S. commitment to increasingly place funding for major electrical infrastructure projects on the Afghan government budget, in keeping with the larger commitment to channel 50 percent of development assistance through the Afghan government.

All of these steps reflect our enduring support for a truly collaborative partnership with a sovereign Afghanistan. There is much more that we can do in the months ahead, including further work on advancing preparations for the 2014 elections; intensifying our mutual efforts on Afghan reconstruction; following through on transparency and accountability initiatives; further strengthening our security relationship; and promoting regional economic integration.

We are at an important and positive moment in our bilateral partnership. Afghans can be proud of all that they have overcome over the past decade and how far they have come, thanks to the resilient spirit of the Afghan people and the strong support of their international partners and friends. The United States is proud to be one of those friends, and we are determined to continue to do all we can to help in the months and years ahead.

So thank you very much. Now I’d be glad to take your questions.

QUESTION: [Through Interpreter]. From Tolo TV. We welcome you to Afghanistan and he has two questions.

The first question is about 2014 elections. Is the United States going to support a specific candidate or political party in the upcoming elections? The second part of the question is if widespread fraud takes place in the elections, what’s the United States’ position going to be if the Afghan government does not take practical actions to deal with the fraud?

The second question is about Durand Line. The Afghan Security Forces and the Pakistanis exchange fire on the Durand Line and President Karzai recently announced that he does not officially recognize the Durand Line. What is the United States position in this regard? Does the United States officially recognize the border line between the two countries or not?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: On the first question, with regard to the very important Afghan presidential elections in 2014, the United States position is very clear. We do not support individual candidates. We support the kind of free, fair, credible, inclusive and democratic elections process that the Afghan people themselves seek and deserve.

We support an electoral process that can become an important unifying moment for the country. We understand fully the importance of a credible elections process to ensuring the success of the inter-connected transitions that Afghanistan and your international friends face together over the course of the coming year. The success of the political transition, of which the elections are an important part, is crucial to the success of the security and economic transitions.

We will continue to emphasize, along with Afghanistan’s other international partners, the importance of transparency and accountability in elections because we fully recognize the risk that fraud and corruption can pose to the credibility of that elections process.

On the second part of your question on Afghanistan and Pakistan, I would say the following: The American position with regard to those long-term international legal questions is well known and it hasn’t changed. What I would emphasize today is the importance of focusing on the shared interest, the interest that Pakistan and Afghanistan share, in regional stability and security.

At a moment of important transitions in Afghanistan and at a moment in which the Pakistanis have just finished their own national elections, it seems very important to try to avoid any escalation of frictions.

Just to reemphasize, the United States has an enduring commitment to Afghanistan’s security, its stability, its sovereignty, and it’s very much as a reflection of that that we will continue to do everything we can to urge both Pakistan and Afghanistan to avoid actions which might escalate tensions and try to find ways to build that more stable regional atmosphere which is so much in the interests of both countries, as well as your friends like the United States.

QUESTION: [Through Interpreter]. You talked a little bit about Pakistan´s recent elections, and the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr. Nawaz Sharif. He was a very active member of the National Muslim League Party. He is announced to be a winner in the Pakistani elections. And he previously announced that if he won the elections he will remove his country from the coalition that is fighting against terror and terrorism in the region and in the world. What do you think? They have been able to achieve a lot during the past 12 years. Do you think that if he does this he or his country will be able to preserve the achievements they have had in fighting against terror?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you for the question. Let me say the following: First, I don’t want to prejudge the question of what the new civilian government in Pakistan is going to look like. Pakistan and the people of Pakistan have just achieved an important democratic milestone, the first time in history that an elected civilian government has finished its full term and then made a peaceful transfer of authority through elections to a new civilian government with what is reportedly very high rates of participation by Pakistani citizens in the election. That’s first.

Second, I would say it is deeply in Pakistan’s self-interest to fight against violent extremism and terrorism. The same groups that can threaten Pakistan’s neighbors can also threaten the future of Pakistan and its security, its stability and its democracy.

So we look forward to working with the new Pakistani government to try to deepen cooperation against violent extremism and terrorism, to deepen cooperation in trying to promote stability, security and prosperity in Afghanistan. That remains a very important priority for the United States. It’s reflected in our enduring commitment to Afghanistan and to the Afghan people and it was exactly the purpose of Secretary Kerry’s recent efforts in Brussels with representatives of both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

QUESTION: [Through Interpreter]. My question is about the security challenge in Afghanistan. Besides all the efforts and all the hard work security is deteriorating in Afghanistan every day. The government established a High Peace Council two years ago. They have been working very hard to encourage the Taliban to reconcile with the government but they have not been able to succeed so far. And one of the Taliban’s demands is they would like to have direct negotiation with the U.S. government. We all see that the United States’ role is very weak and getting weaker, even though an office has been established in Qatar, but no discussion or negotiation has taken place before.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: First I would emphasize that the United States’ role and United States’ support for Afghanistan and its future remains strong, not weak. We understand what’s at stake for Afghans and our commitment is going to be an enduring one.

With regard to the question of the peace process and reconciliation, our position is a very straight-forward one. We support an Afghan-led process.

The purpose of the opening of the office in Doha, as our two Presidents made clear in January, is to facilitate contacts between the High Peace Council and authorized representatives of the Taliban. We’ll continue to do everything we can to support that process in the interest of Afghanistan.

QUESTION: [Through Interpreter]. I will repeat the question again as my colleague asked a question about Durand Line. Can you specify your position on Durand Line? Because previously your Special Representative of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Grossman, and your former Ambassador stated that yes, the U.S. government officially recognizes Durand Line.

The second question is: corruption is a big problem in Afghanistan and the people suffer a lot. And of course corruption exists at any level in the government. The United States and the international community are taking about accountability. But while the CIA provides a lot of money to presidential palace, the people are just asking questions that since the United States is talking about accountability, what does it mean to pump dollars to presidential palace?

The second question is about United States --

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Actually the fourth question. [Laughter].

QUESTION: The United States, the President recently announced that the United States wants nine military bases in Afghanistan and the United States denied this, that the United States is not seeking military bases in Afghanistan. The two governments, they are working to finalize the military agreement as soon as possible. What are the demands of the Afghan government and what does the United States want? What are the shared interests? Can you specifically talk about the things the two governments want from each other?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: They’re all good questions. Let me try to respond to each of them briefly.

First, our position on the first question you raised hasn’t changed since it was expressed by Ambassador Grossman when he was here.

Second, on the question of accountability and corruption, corruption as Afghans understand better than any foreigner ever will is a significant challenge here. It’s an anchor on hopes for economic development. It’s an anchor sometimes on hopes for faster progress on good governance. It’s deeply in the self-interest of Afghans to take on that challenge.

The Afghan authorities have made clear publicly their intent to deal with this issue. They repeated that in Tokyo at the important conference that took place there, and Afghanistan’s international partners will do everything we can to support that. Because, as I said, it’s hard to see how over the long term you make progress in the various transitions we’ve been talking about without progress in dealing with the problem of corruption.

Finally, on the question of the Bilateral Security Agreement and our enduring security commitment to Afghanistan and to its future, I would say the following:

First, I can’t comment in detail on an ongoing negotiation over the Bilateral Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement. President Obama has made very clear on a number of occasions that the United States does not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan. The Bilateral Security Agreement in our view would send an important long-term signal of America’s commitment to a sovereign Afghanistan and its security over the long term. That’s very much the spirit in which we’re approaching these negotiations.

Our interest is focused over the long term on two particular aims which we share with Afghanistan. The first is to train and assist Afghan National Security Forces, and the second is to work together against the remnants of al-Qaida.

Toward those ends, part of the process of negotiating the Bilateral Security Agreement is to explore arrangements for access and use potentially by American personnel beyond 2104 to Afghan facilities in order to make progress on those two very important objectives that I mentioned before. So I just want to be clear about that.

We attach considerable importance to our long-term commitment to Afghanistan. We think the Bilateral Security Agreement could contribute to that and that’s very much how we’re approaching it right now.

Thank you very much.