The Rehearsal of Concept Drill in Kabul, Upcoming visit of President Karzai, and U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue Follow-up

Richard Holbrooke
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 
Washington, DC
April 19, 2010

MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Department of State. Actually, Richard and I, along with a former colleague and friend of ours, Marc Grossman, were just down the hall doing a 30-minute new program called Conversations with America, where we’re going to try to do interviews that are web-based, go out, in this case with Marc Grossman as the chairman of the World Affairs Councils, to his membership but also to people around the world. So I thought that with Richard right around the corner, we might bring him down here just to pay – have one of his periodic visits to talk to you all about where we are in terms of the broad strategy that we have for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Over the weekend, I think, Richard talked to Foreign Minister Rassoul in New York on Saturday, and this morning talked with Director General Popal, who oversees local governance on behalf of the Afghan Government. We thought – Richard, you also had your own travel, as did Jack and Raj last week, to Kabul. We thought it would be a great point to start and say where we think we are as we lead into the visit by President Karzai to Washington next month.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Thanks, P.J. I know you saw Jack Lew and Rajiv Shah on Friday while I was in New York, so I’ll just skip over the Review of Concept Drill which took us all to Kabul on the weekend before last and – but I’ll be happy to answer your questions – and thought instead I would focus a little bit on the future.

But we’ve been laying out, as we did with the president on Friday and internally, the calendar for the remainder of the year. And I want to just draw your attention, for your own planning purposes and so you can wreck your vacation plans, where we are for the rest of this year. And I’ll just give you the benchmark dates.

President Karzai will be here May 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and leave on the 14th. He will bring with him a large number of his senior cabinet officials, two of whom P.J. just mentioned, both of whom I’ve met with in the last three or four days. He will be here, of course, as you know, at the invitation of President Obama. We are going to make this a major trip in the strengthening of our relations between us and the Government of Afghanistan.

Then will come the peace jirga, not to be confused with the loya jirga, which has a different role in Afghan culture and society. This is a consultative jirga, as President Karzai and his cabinet have explained it to us, and it is now scheduled for May 20th. It was originally scheduled for prior to the trip to Washington. President Karzai decided to postpone it till after the trip for reasons which involve both the capacity to prepare for two major events back-to-back and also the value of preceding it with detailed talks with our government led by the President. So that’s May 20th and it’ll run for approximately three days, more or less, but I don’t know the exact number.

Then the next fixable event on the agenda is the Kabul conference, which is now scheduled for July 20th, about 13 weeks from now. That will be a conference hosted by the Government of Afghanistan. It will involve a domestic portion and an international portion, and the international portion Secretary Clinton plans to attend. And other internationals will be coming as well. That is an important conference, obviously. Details will be extrapolated from the previous two, but it will be an affirmation of international support for the government, and it is the follow-on to the London conference some of you attended on January 28th.

QUESTION: But wait. So that was supposed to be the foreign ministers meeting that had originally been thought of being held around the end of May?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: That’s right. That’s exactly right. And it originally was scheduled for late May and it just – we can’t have three conferences in May. Two is more than enough. So it was put off after discussions between President Karzai, his own government, and the international community, including the United Nations and the UN. And that’s exactly correct.

Also, the end of May runs right in on Memorial Day weekend and there was a scheduling nightmare for all of us as well. But the primary reason was it was just a circuit overload and we want each conference to be prepared and logically build on the events of the previous one.

Then, sometime between July – then the next fixable event is in late September, the third week in September, the National Assembly elections. The date is, I think, the third week in September. I don’t remember the exact date, but you can get it from our office if it matters to you.

In between – probably in between those two events but possibly after the elections, there will be another trilateral meeting of the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The last one was held on May 6th and 7th of last year, as you all recall, with President Karzai and President Zardari. We announced at that time we would hold another meeting. We did not announce the dates. But it is a clearly important part of our efforts.

So if you look at the year as a whole, you will – or you look at the last year as a whole, you will see that we had two trilateral meetings in the first few months of last year. Then we stopped holding those because of the Afghan elections, then we did bilaterals first with the Pakistanis, the Strategic Dialogue last month, and now upcoming with the Afghans. Then they go through their processes, they hold a conference, and then we go back to the trilateral.

I mention all this because if you treat each of that as a one-off, you may miss the fact that there is a real choreography involved here.

In regard to the situation in Afghanistan itself, you all can reach your own conclusions about it, but in terms of our relationships between us and the Government of Afghanistan, we feel they’re in good shape. There was a period where the waters got roiled a little bit, but that period is over.

And with that, I will be happy to take your questions. Charlie.

QUESTION: Excuse me, I think that the numbers show that in terms of civilian casualties for the first three months of this year, they’re about double to the first three months of last year. Can you address the question of what – how that affects your job on the civilian side and what effect there’s been so far and what do you think the effect will be going forward?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: First the statistics, Charlie. I saw the article in USA Today and a few others. I haven’t had a chance to do a personal drilldown on the details of those statistics: how much of that’s caused by the Taliban, how much of it is caused by the effects of the military operations.

But I would say two things. Number one, nobody has done more to try to change the rules of engagement than General McChrystal. He feels deeply and passionately about this. I really say that as a friend of his, not as a professional colleague. I know how deeply it matters to him. And he’s doing everything he can to prevent it and to deal with its consequences when it occurs. After all, war is hell and civilian casualties are a part of all recent wars.

And the second thing I would say is that civilian casualties increase as overall operations increase in intensity, and therefore it’s not surprising this would happen.

QUESTION: Well, but how does it affect the civilian efforts you’re doing – the agriculture programs, the security issues associated with having civilians in the field?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: It doesn’t affect the agriculture programs at all. It does – it could affect, it could affect, the attitude towards the forces if it’s not contained over time. And everyone understands that, no one more than General McChrystal, and that’s why he’s made it such a high priority.

At the same time, let’s never forget the fact that the Taliban are deeply unpopular and people are well aware of the fact that they do everything they can to provoke this happening.


QUESTION: Ambassador, what gives you the confidence to say that you think the stormy period involving President Karzai and the U.S. is behind you? What insights did you get, maybe when you met him, that might lead you to that conclusion?



AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: My insight is my insight. That’s my insight.

QUESTION: Maybe you can share it?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, I’d be happy to. (Laughter.) Who do you write for again?

QUESTION: I write for a metropolitan daily.

QUESTION: A small provincial paper.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, it’s my hometown paper so I’ve got to treat him well.

Mark, I don’t want to relive all these stories that have been well-relived by you. I just want to be – not you personally, but everyone in this room, and you personally. (Laughter.) I want to be very, very clear: I base what I said on my personal observations and interactions with President Karzai. Now, I’ve met with President Karzai, I think, five times in the first four months of this year – in London, in Munich twice, and Kabul three times – so it’s six times, I think, I met with him. And the last meeting we had was the longest, most sustained, and most focused, and that was a week ago today. It was over two hours long and it was a very serious, substantive meeting in which neither he nor we even mentioned these issues.

But prior to that, the day before that, President Karzai did something remarkable, of which there is – there was press coverage and there was visual evidence, and yet it wasn’t reported in the American press. And I really don’t understand that. During the Review of Concept Drill that General Petraeus and I held at the airport, his ministers came in great numbers and participated, which in itself was a remarkable statement of interaction. We’d never had a meeting like that before, and all the Afghan ministers said that. And we were so struck by it that David and I decided we would hold another such meeting in Afghanistan in October and during it we would bring the ministers – we would invite the ministers again and they would play an even larger role.

But at 4:30 in the afternoon a week ago yesterday, President Karzai came to the meeting. And there were cameras. There are great photographs which were not printed anywhere in the U.S. that I’m aware of. But he came. He was briefed by David and me on what was happening. We sat on either side of him, and then he spoke for about 10 or 15 minutes about how appreciative he was of the international efforts, civilian and military, and how appreciative he was of this effort.

And to those of us in the room, that was a very important symbolic statement that we had to move forward and focus on the future, and that’s what we’re doing. So – and I don’t even count that among the meetings I’ve had with President Karzai since January, since we first met this year in January in London.

So we’re focused on the future.

QUESTION: Well, so what was it then that caused this little aberration, this blip?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I leave that to you to judge. I’m not going to --

QUESTION: You don’t have any insight into that?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I will just leave it to you to judge. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about President Karzai’s visit and what’s on the agenda there? What sort of things are you looking to achieve, especially with –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Here is our notional schedule which we’re still scrubbing down, so these details may change a bit. Tentatively, he will arrive on May 10th, Monday, I guess 21 days from today. That schedule that evening will be open. We don’t know what time he’ll arrive.

The next day, the 11th, Tuesday the 11th, we are working with him on him coming to the eighth floor of the State Department and with his cabinet members to be joined by American counterparts so that if the minister of defense is there, the American Secretary of Defense will be there, agriculture, law enforcement would be FBI Director Mueller, and so on, all this subject to their availability; and then having an open even for the press for about an hour, chaired by Secretary Clinton and co-chaired by President Karzai and his government.

Then we would notionally break down into breakout groups on a whole range of topics from rule of law to communications to agriculture, et cetera. And then in the afternoon on the 11th, we would hope that there would be a intense bilateral between the Secretary of State and President Karzai.

On the 12th is White House day. I will leave the President to announce the invitation. I will leave all details of the White House planning to the White House to discuss with you as it develops.

On the 13th would be public diplomacy day on Capitol Hill and think-tanks, whatever. We’ll leave that to the President Karzai to decide.

On the 14th, some private time and departure.

That is notional, and you should just say this is a tentative plan that we have discussed with President Karzai and we’re fleshing out now.

I know that’s more detail than you normally get well in advance, but the point I want to give you is that we are taking this trip very seriously. So I wanted to give you a sense, but if you use any of that, just say this is in the planning stage, and the details don’t matter as much as the fact that it’s going to be a very, very intense whole-of-government effort involving many members of the U.S. Government, including Jack Lew, Rajiv Shah, Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and, of course, senior members of Congress.

QUESTION: And for July 20th, the Kabul conference, what support will Secretary Clinton try to –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: It’s a little early.

We’re really so focused on this and we’re talking about different things, but it’s in the very vague stage. It’s – I – we have some ideas but they’re just not at the point where they’re ready for prime time.

QUESTION: If I could go back to your earlier – just – to what degree, if at all, is the issue of corruption – is this going to be sort of a midterm report on Karzai’s anti-corruption effort?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: That’s always an issue. You all know it’s an issue for the most obvious of reasons. We all agree that it needs to be dealt with in a aggressive manner for the sake of our mutual goals. But – and the high office of oversight is being upgraded by President Karzai as we speak. He’s working on it, he’s issuing it, and we look forward to discussing it within the context of our overall relationships.

QUESTION: Can you give us your assessment of the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and will Gillani now be at this trilateral meeting, or will it still be Zardari?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: To be determined, on the latter question. And that is – and I want to stress something. That’s for Pakistan to decide, not for us. It – and remember last year, we had two meetings. One was at the foreign minister level – Qureshi-Spanta at the time; now the foreign minister is Rassoul. And we had one at the head-of-government level. That was President Zardari and President Karzai. So that’s way down the road.

And what was the other half --

QUESTION: The assessment of how – I mean, the big goal last year was to get them working together more closely. How – to what extent have – because the –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: We’ve made enormous strides there, but still not where you’d want it to be. I think everybody agrees that there’s been improvement in that particular area but that’s improvement from a very low base.


QUESTION: Can I ask just two quick operational questions from today? There was an attack on the Kabul airport earlier today and it looks like it was someone who’s – either was dressed up as an ANA soldier, or who was actually an ANA soldier, and –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I’m unaware of this. I apologize. I’ve been in meetings at the White House all day, so --

QUESTION: There was also an attack in Peshawar, too.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: That, I am aware of.

QUESTION: Do you know any more about that or have any reaction to –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: No. P.J., actually, do we know anything about an attack on the airport?


AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I’m really sorry. Thank you for telling us. Historically, we’re always dependent on the press for information on these things because you move so fast and your colleagues take so many more risks in reporting, but this one’s news to me.

The one in Peshawar, what can I say? It’s – the details are still filtering in. The attack in Peshawar that really was significant for us was the attack on the consulate. And we’ve really studied that, and that’s a fascinating story. I don’t know if this was briefed to you already by P.J. or someone else, but the reason there was so little damage and casualties is that after our then-consul in Peshawar, Lynne Tracy, drove through and survived an ambush attempt in 2008 – and she’s a real hero of the Foreign Service. In fact, Secretary Clinton gave her the highest award we could give her in the Department before she went on to her next assignment.

After the attack on Lynne Tracy, there was a tremendous upgrading of the facilities in Peshawar, and that upgrading, that tightening of security, is what prevented more serious damage. So called soft targets are always going to be vulnerable, I regret to say.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) just one more. There are some people, Peter Galbraith among them, who see the Administration’s big focus on Pakistan as actually an acknowledgement that Pakistan is in many ways more important than Afghanistan and that there’s more chances – a higher chance of success. Would you say that Pakistan and Afghanistan are now equally important? Or would you say –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: No, I’ve addressed that issue repeatedly over the last five years as a private citizen and in the government. And the very fact that the President-elect and Hillary asked me to undertake this job during the transition, and created a new office focused on just these two countries as a kind of a detatched twin from the South-Central Asia Bureau – which we work very closely with, of course; my senior deputy is also a deputy in that bureau so that we’re always linked – the fact that we’ve done all that would suggest the answer.

And the answer, to me, is very simple, that you can’t succeed in one unless you succeed in both. But they’re so different in every sense, including our relationship with them. And the management of the interrelationship is why we created the trilateral framework and why we want to resume it this summer. It’s the – and since many other countries are also involved in what happens in Afghanistan, including its other neighbors – China, three of the “stans” have common borders, and the country to its east – to its west, which we don’t have relations with but nonetheless has a long, open border with Afghanistan – it’s a – plus the interests of other countries that don’t have contiguous borders but have legitimate security interests all the way from the Gulf to India to Russia and including the United States, makes – this is what makes Afghanistan so extraordinarily important and complex. And – but my job is really to focus on these two countries.

However, we have a huge outreach program led by my other deputy, Dan Feldman, and we’re going all over the world. We have now almost 40 countries who have appointed counterparts to me. There were none a year ago – almost 40. We have regular meetings. The last one was in Abu Dhabi in January. We’re going to have one in Madrid in beginning of June after these conferences I mentioned. I should have mentioned that on our calendar. We’ll be in Madrid in the first week in June.

We have regular meetings in Washington every two weeks of all the representatives of the embassies who have this huge outreach program. And at the core of it are the two countries who are responsible for managing relations with. And – but each one we deal with individually, but taking into account their interaction. And just to repeat something I’ve said before, the situation we inherited at the beginning of last year was that each of the two countries desks – Afghanistan desk and Pakistan desk – reported to a different deputy assistant secretary, and then up through the normal chain-of-command. So there was no integration at the operational level.

And now, we’re making a tremendous effort. The people who work in Afghanistan work on Pakistan in our office – the same people. That’s not – that may seem small to all of you and it’s not a headline story, but it makes a difference.

Okay. Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

PRN: 2010/474